JEWELL - For the second year in a row, the Heart of Iowa Conference championship went down to the wire in girls’ cross country.
North Polk and Gilbert — the fourth and sixth-ranked teams in Class 3A — entered the meet as the heavy favorites to win the girls’ race. Last season, the Comets won the conference title for the first time since 2010 by outlasting a Gilbert team then rated No. 2 in 3A, 36 points to 45.
It was even closer on Monday on a windy afternoon at the Jewell Golf and Country Club.
Gilbert had three of the top four individual runners. But North Polk produced the champion and five top-10 runners to the Tigers’ four and that proved to be difference by the slimmest of margins.
North Polk ended up with 28 points to just edge out Gilbert’s score of 31 and repeat as champions.
“Unlike last year, we weren’t going to sneak up on Gilbert in this race,” North Polk head cross country coach Steve Leach said. “Our girls now have a huge target on their backs, and they have edged out two quality programs, Ballard and Gilbert, in less than a week’s time.”
Amelia Lesher put a big feather in her cap by winning an individual conference championship for the first time to set the tone for North Polk.
“It’s so exciting,” Lesher said. “It just shows all the hard work pays off. It’s crazy.”
Lesher decided to pace herself early on in order to finish strong. The move paid off as she completed the 5-kilometer course in 20 minutes even to beat Gilbert’s Maggie Pollard by 24 seconds for first.
“I went in and I really didn’t push super hard on the first half,” Lesher said. “I kind of just went out easy out the first half, and then the last two-and-a-half I just really tried to push it and keep ahead of the main pack.”
The weather also played into Lesher’s favor.
“I definitely do a lot better when it’s cooler out,” Lesher said. “I always look forward to the end of the season because I know I won’t be as tired at the end — hopefully.”
Sophie Blanchard was the second Comet to cross the finish line. She ran the course in 20:50 to place fifth.
Emily Patterson was close behind Blanchard in sixth place. Her time was 21:08.
Kennedy Wendel and Abi Zimmer rounded out the scoring by finishing seventh and ninth respectively. Wendel ran a 21:23 and Zimmer a 21:45.
“We were pretty solid up front,” Leach said, “but it was truly the fight to the finish by Kennedy Wendel and Abi Zimmer that secured the narrow victory.”
All five Comet runners earned all-HOIC honors. Both Lesher and Blanchard made all-conference for the fourth time in as many tries.
Sophie Schaffer and Jessica Weis also ran varsity for the North Polk girls. Schaffer took 16th in 22:21 and Weis 18th with a time of 22:27.
The North Polk boys placed fifth — coming in behind three ranked teams and a strong Nevada squad that is just starting to get healthy.
The Comet boys scored 126 points to finish 22 points in back of Roland-Story — the No. 7 team in Class 2A. Gilbert — the No. 3 3A team — easily won the boys’ title with 23 points, Nevada took second with 65 and a South Hamilton squad rated No. 5 in 2A placed third with a score of 69.
Jacob Wilcox placed 16th as an all-HOIC runner for North Polk.
Wilcox tried to keep up with top runners Tyler Rees of Gilbert and Malachi Hornbuckle of Nevada and he ended up falling off at the end. Wilcox still produced a quality 5-kilometer time of 18:18.
“I’ll give Jacob credit for his effort early in the race at trying to run with the eventual first and second place finishers, but that may not be the best strategy for him to employ when we get to the state-qualifying meet next week,” Leach said. “I am happy he was able to hang on and earn all-conference honors for the second consecutive year.”
Leach said Will McCormick ran his best race of the season to give North Polk a second top-20 time in the boys’ race. McCormick came in 18th with a time of 18:23.
“I think I ran an alright race,” McCormick said. “The wind was real tough, so it was more of a place race than anything because all the times were all going to be off.”
Flint Vernon came in 26th at 18:58, Sam Carstensen 40th in 19:22 and Gabe Drake 55th with a time of 19:51 as the other runners to score for the Comet boys. Matt Crabb and Seth Subra also ran varsity, placing 58th and 59th with respective times of 19:52 and 19:58.
Rees — the No. 5 runner in 3A — was the individual HOIC champion in the boys’ race with a time of 16:52. Hornbuckle — ranked third in 3A — was second with a 17:08 showing.
Final team scores
Girls: 1. North Polk 28 points, 2. Gilbert 31, 3. PCM 109, 4. Roland-Story 117, 5. Nevada 119, 6. Greene County 151, 7. South Hamilton 172, 8. Saydel 238.
Boys: 1. Gilbert 23, 2. Nevada 65, 3. South Hamilton 69, 4. Roland-Story 104, 5. North Polk 126, 6. Saydel 163, 7. PCM 195, 8. Greene County 244.
Individual results (5-kilometer) - North Polk
Girls: 1. Amelia Lesher, 20:00; 5. Sophie Blanchard, 20:50; 6. Emily Patterson, 21:08; 7. Kennedy Wendel, 21:23; 9. Abi Zimmer, 21:45; 16. Sophie Schaffer, 22:21; 18. Jessica Weis, 22:27.
Boys: 16. Jacob Wilcox, 18:18; 18. Will McCormick, 18:23; 26. Flint Vernon, 18:58; 40. Sam Carstensen, 19:22; 55. Gabe Drake, 19:51; 58. Matt Crabb, 19:52; 59. Seth Subra, 19:58.