The North Polk girls’ cross country team churned out yet another state qualifier and the Comet boys went through a rebuilding phase in 2018.
The season was marred by constant weather problems that presented difficult challenges for both teams. Rainouts cancelled several meets, including the Heart of Iowa Conference meet.
“Because of the unpredictable nature of the weather, it was hard to establish a rhythm,” North Polk head cross country coach Steven Leach said. “I think we had stretches of ten, twelve, and fourteen days in between some of our races.”
But despite the adversity, the North Polk girls continued to take care of business. The Comets won the Gilbert and West Central Valley meets, took second at a highly-competitive Saydel Invitational behind top-five power Ballard and then claimed victory at the Class 3A state qualifying meet in Fairfield.
The victory at Fairfield was North Polk’s first qualifying meet victory as a 3A team. It also sent the Comets to state for the 12th year in a row.
North Polk ended up placing 10th in 3A after finishing eighth each of the past two seasons.
“At the Gilbert meet, we beat Dallas Center-Grimes, the eventual (3A) state runner-up,” Leach said. “We are getting closer to becoming a top-five team in 3A competition. I have to keep reminding myself that this is only our third year competing at this level.”
Leach credited strong senior leadership with helping the Comet girls continue to strive as a program.
“When the seniors were freshmen, the distance of the girls’ race changed in the state of Iowa from four kilometers to five kilometers,” Leach said. “Emily Patterson and Kennedy Wendel came in right away and embraced the challenge of the new distance. As seniors, they continued to encourage their teammates to train hard for the 5k distance and not be intimidated by it.”
Wendel was one of the top runners all season for North Polk.
Wendel peaked with a 5-kilometer time of 20 minutes, four seconds at Saydel, when she placed third. Wendel came in 14th at the qualifying meet in 20:33.90 and 68th at state in 20:57.8.
Patterson was the top returning runner for the Comets after placing 45th at state a year ago, but she was hampered by a knee injury all of her senior season. Patterson fought her way into being a top-seven runner for the team by the end of the season, running a season-best time of 21:02 at the qualifying meet and finishing 112th at state in 21:43.0.
The sister tandem of Lucy and Sophie Schaffer, and freshman Aleah McBee helped North Polk replace the loss of top runners Amelia Lesher and Sophie Blanchard off last year’s team.
Lucy turned in an amazing freshman season.
Lucy set a new North Polk freshman 5k record with a time of 19:46 at West Central Valley. She took 12th at the qualifying meet in 20:31.90 and 67th at state in 20:56.6.
Sophie ran her fastest time of 20:15 at West Central Valley, where she came in fourth. Sophie placed 10th at the qualifying meet in 20:25.70 and 73rd at state in 21:09.8.
McBee came on late and was the fastest Comet at both the qualifying and state meets. She finished eighth at the qualifying meet with a season-best time of 20:08.6 and 36th at state in 20:20.5.
Sophomores Abi Zimmer and Addie Cooper were the other state participants for North Polk.
Zimmer ran a season-best time of 20:51.60 at the qualifying meet, where she came in 19th. Zimmer wound up 118th at state in 21:55.0.
Cooper peaked with a 26th-place time of 21:02.20 at the qualifying meet. She finished 119th at state in 21:58.5.
Junior Abby Hill and sophomore Izzie Bergstrom also ran some varsity for the Comet girls. Hill ran a 22:30 at West Central Valley and placed 20th at Pella, and Bergstrom peaked with a 13th-place time of 21:43 at West Central Valley.
“It was a pleasure to coach this great group of girls, who worked really hard at practices and in meets,” Leach said.
The North Polk boys battled depth issues all season. The Comets only had 10 runners competing.
“Although we only had ten athletes on the team this season, I really enjoyed them,” Leach said. “They did a great job of establishing a light mood at practice, and that was especially helpful when so many of our meets got cancelled due to rain or sloppy course conditions.”
The best performance from the North Polk boys came at Saydel, where the Comets placed fourth as a team.
“I was encouraged by the performance of the boys at the Saydel meet,” Leach said. “Six of the 10 boys ran their fastest time of the season there, and we fought hard to take fourth out of eleven scoring teams.”
The Comet boys ended up 11th out of 13 teams at the qualifying meet.
Junior Gabe Drake emerged as the top runner for North Polk this season. Drake’s fastest 5-kilometer time was 18:10 at Saydel and he finished 13th at both the Saydel and Pella meets.
Seth Subra, Sam Carstensen and Noah Church were North Polk’s senior leaders.
Subra placed 27th at West Central Valley with a season-best time of 18:50 and finished 51st at the qualifying meet in 19:07.90. Carstensen peaked with a 19th-place time of 18:35 at Saydel and ran a 64th-place time of 19:28.51 at the qualifying meet, and Church ran an 18:57 at West Central Valley, place 19th at Pella and finished 56th at the qualifying meet in 19:17.82.
Sophomores Will Lesher and Bryce Houser stepped up to become varsity regulars for the North Polk boys.
Lesher finished 32nd at Saydel in 19:02 and took 62nd at the qualifying meet in 19:26.99. Houser ran a 19:55 at Saydel, placed 34th at Pella and wound up 75th at the qualifying meet in 20:24.11.
Nathan Crabb turned in a solid freshman campaign. Crabb ran a 19:19 at West Central Valley, finished 32nd at Pella and ended up 69th at the qualifying meet in 19:51.37.
Leach said he is hoping his returning runners for both teams continue to built off what they learned this season to perform at a higher level in 2019.
“We are starting to learn the value of attacking the first mile of the race more,” Leach said. “It can be an effective strategy for some runners to hold back in the beginning of the race, as long as they make a big move in the middle. However, those who don’t go out quickly and also fail to move in the middle get left behind.”
With the returning runners working in the offseason to shave seconds off their top 2018 times, and the addition of talented newcomer,s next year has the potential for another state run for the girls and more growth for the boys.
“Based on the success of some of our sophomores, I believe most of our athletes will continue to get faster,” Leach said. “We will get some help from current eighth-grade athletes to hopefully offset the loss of our seniors.”