A focused group of veterans kept things running smoothly for both of the North Polk cross country program in 2017.
The North Polk girls returned to state for the 11th consecutive year and placed eighth in Class 3A for the second season in a row. The Comet boys struggled early with some inexperience, but senior Jacob Wilcox had a banner final run, making it back to state for the second year in a row.
For the girls, it was business as usual.
With seniors Amelia Lesher and Sophie Blanchard setting the pace, North Polk managed to win six meets, take second at two and earn a pair of third-place finishes. The Comet girls repeated as Heart of Iowa Conference champions and returned to state with a third-place finish at a tough 3A qualifying meet in Pella.
“Our seniors and juniors had a businesslike approach,” North Polk head cross country coach Steve Leach said. “They set a great example of hard work for their younger teammates.”
North Polk was ranked as high as fourth in 3A during the season. The Comets finished ranked seventh.
In addition to a talented veteran core, Leach also credited great depth for keeping the girls’ team hungry to do well all season.
“We also had our top JV runners — Izzie Bergstrom, Abby Hill and Grace De Valois — pushing the varsity competitors all season long,” Leach said. “No one could get too comfortable with her position on the team.”
The Comet girls took second at the Gilbert Invitational to open the season. They came in third at Pella, won at Johnston and placed second at the Mike Carr Invitational.
Then North Polk got really hot. The Comets won five straight meets, taking the title at Roland-Story, Nevada, North Polk and Saydel, then capping it off with another victory at the HOIC meet in Jewell — edging Gilbert 28 points to 31 — to earn their lofty No. 4 ranking.
At the qualifying meet in Pella, the Comets came in behind No. 6 Pella and No. 9 Dallas Center-Grimes. At state, North Polk scored 201 points to edge last year’s 212-point showing at Fort Dodge, taking eighth again in 3A.
Leach said the key to the girls’ continuing to run at a high level was getting younger runners to run with the battle-tested group of Lesher, Blanchard, Emily Patterson and Kennedy Wendel.
“(We had to) convince some of the younger runners that they could compete with Amelia, Sophie Blanchard, Emily and Kennedy, and that it would help the team immeasurably if they would just do so,” Leach said. “I think some of the girls really learned how to battle for position at the end of races.”
The Comet coach also credited the revival of Patterson and Wendel with helping the team’s ability to consistently win meets. Both had to come back from health issues.
Lesher turned in a tremendous senior season as the lead runner for North Polk. She won eight races during the season — including the HOIC and qualifying meets — and just missed earning a place on the medal stand at state after coming in 16th.
Lesher ran a 5-kilometer time of 19 minutes, 27.2 seconds at state to set a new record for the fastest time ever run by a Comet girl.
Blanchard and Patterson were also individual state qualifiers for North Polk.
Blanchard was a four-time individual state qualifier. She took fifth at the HOIC meet, 10th at the qualifying meet and 53rd at state, where she ran a season-best time of 20:13.9.
Patterson bounced back from injuries suffered her junior year to finish sixth at the HOIC meet, 11th at the qualifying meet and 45th at state. She ran her fastest time of 20:03.6 at state.
Wendel came in seventh at the HOIC meet, took 27th at the qualifying meet, then ended up 78th in 3A at state. Her fastest time was 20:46.7 at state.
Sophomore Sophie Schaffer ran JV for most of the season after running varsity last year. But she stepped up big, filling in for Addie Cooper at both conference and state, taking 16th at the HOIC meet, then coming in 105th at state with a season-best time of 21:14.6.
Freshman Abi Zimmer and sophomore Jessica Weis were the other Comet runners to compete at state.
Zimmer placed ninth at conference, 25th at the qualifying meet and 118th at state. Her top time on the season was 21:35 at Pella.
Weis came in 18th at the HOIC meet, 32nd at the qualifying meet and 122nd at state. She peaked with a 21:38 showing at Saydel.
Cooper ended up 21st at the qualifying meet, where she ran her fastest time of the season at 21:34.3.
Losing Lesher, Blanchard and two top JV runners in De Valois and 2016 state participant Maria Gorham leaves Leach with some big holes to fill next season. But with five other state participants, plus Cooper, returning to set the pace, the Comet girls expect to be right back in the HOIC title and state qualifying hunt in 2018.
“This year’s freshman will have to be much better next year as sophomores because we will lose several key runners to graduation,” Leach said. “There is the potential for several returning runners to improve dramatically. We will gain some very good runners from the middle school program. I am optimistic that we will field a strong team again next season.”
The North Polk boys team needed some time to find its identity. Wilcox, senior Will McCormick and junior Flint Vernon brought quality experience, but the Comet boys needed other runners to step up and it wasn’t smooth sailing at first.
“They did not come into the season in good shape,” Leach said. “Some of our athletes weren’t very invested in what the coaching staff was trying to accomplish through them, so they did not always take the advice we gave them.”
The Comet boys placed eighth at Gilbert, seventh at Pella, third at Johnston, seventh at Ballard, ninth at Roland-Story and fifth at Nevada. They also took fifth at both their home meet and the conference meet.
But North Polk ended the regular season on a big high note by winning the Saydel Invitational.
“They definitely grew as a result of their victory at Saydel,” Leach said. “They had to beat Des Moines Lincoln, who had just beaten them at our home meet. They just never learned how to sustain it for more than one meet.”
The Comet boys went on to take seventh, going against a tough field at the qualifying meet to end the season.
Wilcox was fantastic in his final year.
At the HOIC meet Wilcox came in 16th with a 5-kilometer time of 18:18. At the qualifying meet, he raised his performance to a whole new level, running a career-best time of 17:02.7 to turn in a phenomenal third-place showing and qualify for state after placing 15th in 17:05.9 on the same course last season.
At state Wilcox upped his game even more. He broke 17 minutes for the first time, clocking in at 16:50.6 to place 28th and easily outdo his 58th-place time of 17:22.3 during last year’s state meet. His time was the fourth-fastest ever for a member of the Comet boys under Leach.
McCormick placed 18th at the HOIC meet and 37th at the qualifying meet. His best time was 18 minutes flat at Saydel.
Vernon finished 26th at the conference meet and 27th at the qualifying meet. He peaked with an 18:11 showing at Nevada.
Sophomores Gabe Drake, Michael Williams and Matt Crabb, and juniors Sam Carstensen and Seth Subra were North Polk’s other varsity runners at the end of the season. Junior Noah Church also ran varsity multiple times for the Comets.
Drake took 55th at conference and 60th at the qualifying meet and his best time was 19:04 at Nevada. Williams peaked with a time of 19:09 at Pella and finished 72nd at the qualifying meet and Crabb placed 58th at conference and turned in his best time of 19:36 at Nevada.
Carstensen finished 40th at conference, 62nd at the qualifying meet and his best time was 18:37 at Saydel. Subra peaked with a 19:09 showing at Johnston and ended up 59th at the HOIC meet and 74th at the qualifying meet.
Church ran his fastest time of 19:24 at Nevada.
Next season, the North Polk boys will need several runners to step up to replace Wilcox and McCormick. Whether or not that happens depends on how well the offseason goes.
“We are going to have to prepare better next summer if we want to be more competitive when the season starts,” Leach said.