Cross-Country: Experience to guide Wingers' season
Last season was a milestone year for the Red Wing boys' cross-country team. The team won the Big Nine Conference for the second consecutive year, took home the Section 1AA title and had the best finish at the state meet (seventh) since 1987. Considering the Wingers took 11th place at the state meet in 2016, improved last year and the core remains intact this year, the arrow is pointing up.
How far the team can go starts with coaching, and the Wingers are set in that area. Returning this year and fresh off being named the 2017 Minnesota Class AA Boys' Cross-Country Head Coach of the Year by the Minnesota Cross Country Coaches Association, Red Wing head coach Jesse Nelson seeks to build off of past successes and push the team towards a higher state finish.
"I was fortunate to have a great group of kids last year that ran well at the end of the year," Nelson said. "The kids worked so hard and they made me look smart."
Leading the way for the Wingers this year will be Tom Nemanich, who took first place at the Big Nine and Section 1AA meets — the first Winger to win the boys section meet since 2010. But he also seeks to improve upon his 65th-place showing at the state meet last year.
Beyond Nemanich, there is a tight-knit group that will be right behind him. Tucker Wallin will be looked at to turn his strong finish last year into a big season. He was the Wingers' top finisher at state, coming in 38th. Rounding out the group will be Weston Wyatt, Jonah Leise, Bryan Zucker and Skyler Bennyhoff.
"I don't think our one to seven mix will be the same all year, those guys are going to be so tightly packed," Nelson said. "They are going to interchange so much and that's what the strength of this team is, they are all so close."
Much like the boys' team, the girls have a strong foundation to work with this year, even though it didn't translate to a team trip to state last year.
Leading the group is senior Ariana Mollgaard, the team's lone representative at the state meet one year ago. She took 139th place at state after being the final qualifier from the Section 1AA meet in which she finished 12th. Mollgaard also took 11th at the Big Nine meet, followed by fellow All-Big Nine and returning runners, Grace Dube and Sammi Chandler.
Other girls that Nelson expects strong contributions from include Grace Johnson, Tori Leitner, Jasmyn Armstrong and Carolyn Hanson.
With a strong core returning, the key to this season's success will rely on the team's health according to Nelson.
"We have a lot of varsity experience back so now it will just be keeping everyone healthy, which we know we need to improve on based on how things went last fall and in track as well," he said. "I think our girls' team has the potential to do great things again in both the conference and section and possibly the state."
Red Wing's first meet of the year is Monday, Aug. 27 at Coffee Mill Golf Course in Wabasha. The team's home invite won't be until Sept. 28.
"We're looking forward to our first meet and just the journey that we are going to take," Nelson said. "These kids have been running all summer together, working hard and they're ready."