Bomber girls continued to rule 3A in 2020: Girls repeat as state champs, boys show promise

Joe Randleman
Tri-County Times
Ballard sophomores Shewaye Johnson (left) and Paityn Noe were the two fastest runners in the entire state for the 2020 girls' cross country season. The duo led Ballard to a repeat state team championship in Class 3A.

The Ballard girls provided quite an encore performance to last year's state title run during the 2020 cross country season.

A year after winning the first team state championship in program history in 2019 the Bomber girls not only repeated as Class 3A champions, but produced the individual champion and runner-up.

  “Last year’s championship was special in that we had been building the program for so long that it was very satisfying to finally reach the top of Class 3A,” Ballard head coach Scott Barth said. “This year we got more satisfaction from proving that we were number one and defending our title. Both were great feelings for us, but in different ways.”

A tough mentality was the key for Ballard’s repeat.

Like everyone else the Ballard girls had to deal with the COVID-19 restrictions impacting this season. The Bombers were also dealt a setback at the start of practices in August when the derecho storm hit and did tremendous damage to Huxley and surrounding communities.

To top it all off Ballard was the team with a big target on its back. The Bombers were the team everyone in 3A was gunning for as the defending state champions.

“Now that we proved ourselves last season, it added pressure,” Barth said. “We handled it well though and didn’t let it weigh on us mentally. So, to get that second title was really special for us. We proved ourselves without question.”

Barth said there were three main keys to Ballard’s repeat run: Continued development of its six returning varsity runners, the leadership of seniors Caitlin Maher and Josie Fleischmann replacing departed captain and current Iowa Hawkeye Ellie Twedt and the rise of freshman Ava Vance to help fill in Twedt’s shoes.

As amazing as sophomores Shewaye Johnson and Paityn Noe were last season in placing second and third respectively at state, they took it to a whole new level this fall. By the end of the season they were the two fastest runners in the entire state.

“They both are also very competitive and feed off of each other,” Barth said. “Having two elite runners, arguably the best 1-2 tandem in the state regardless of class, is very helpful because they can challenge each other to be better. Paityn has her strengths and Shewaye learned from her. Shewaye has her strengths and Paityn learned from her. Elite athletes don’t come along that often and having the two of them is remarkable to watch.”

Noe was the dominant runner throughout the regular season and the 3A state qualifying meet in Pella. After placing second to Carlisle’s Ainsley Erzen at the Ballard Invitational - the Bombers’ first meet - Noe won every other meet until state and broke the school 5-kilometer girls’ record five meets in a row.

Noe whipped Erzen at the Raccoon River Conference meet in Ames Oct. 12 with an amazing time of 17 minutes, 36 seconds. She topped that at the qualifying meet with 17:35.62 showing.

At state Noe clocked in at 18:01.1 run to end up second in 3A. The one runner to beat her? Johnson.

Johnson started the season slow, but gradually found her form. She ran without Noe at Perry in the middle of the season and her confidence began to grow from there.

At the RRC meet Johnson also beat Erzen to take second in 18:16. She ran a career-best time of 17:49.53 at the qualifying meet.

At state Johnson didn’t miss a beat, running a 17:55.3 to win the first individual state title in the history of the Ballard girls’ program.

Johnson and Noe ran faster than any other runner in all four classes at the state meet.

“They have the deadly combination of natural talent, tremendous work ethic, a never ending desire to improve and mental toughness,” Barth said. “They are hard to match.”

Perfectly complementing the sophomore superstars was the leadership of Maher and Fleischmann. Johnson and Noe garnered the headlines, but Maher and Fleischmann made sure every runner was in top form, constantly kept their team’s spirits up and made sure everyone focused on one meet at a time.

“They were most definitely our anchors,” Barth said. “I have been around long enough to know that leadership comes in many forms. Some are quiet leaders and others are more communicative. What makes Caitin and Josie so special is that they knew when to push and when to lay off. That allowed the team to never get too high or too low - they anchored us firmly and steadily.”

Maher was ranked at one point in the season. She placed fifth at the RRC meet, seventh at the qualifying meet and 29th at state and her fastest time was 19:55 at conference.

Fleischmann took eighth at conference, fifth at the qualifying meet and 42nd at state. She peaked at the qualifying meet with a 19:58.65 showing.

Vance was the key in helping lesson the blow after losing Twedt - a two-time individual state placewinner. Vance came on big late in the second, finishing seventh at conference, ninth at the qualifying meet and 22nd at state.

  “I was surprised at how quickly she adjusted to the 5k race, but I was not that surprised in her ability,” Barth said. “I knew she had the ability, but I thought it might take a few weeks to adjust to the pressure and distance of a high school race. She had a tremendous season. She exhibits the work ethic and mental toughness that I like to see in runners.”

Juniors Brooke Loewe and Kate Huisinga were steady runners filling in the other two varsity spots in races.

Loewe was consistently near the top 10 in meets, finishing ninth at conference, 12th at the qualifying meet and 73rd at state. Her best time of the season was 20:11 at the conference meet.

Husinga was a late bloomer for the second year in a row. She 17th at conference 15th at the qualifying meet to give Ballard seven individual qualifiers for the second year in a row and 54th at state.

Huisinga’s fastest time was 20:36.5 at state. Junior Meg Rietz and senior Ashley Wuestenberg were the top alternate runners for Ballard, producing respective season-best times of 21:43 and 22:39.

As a team Ballard won every meet it competed in as a full varsity team except for the Heartland Classic in Pella on Sept. 19 in Pella. The Heartland Classic featured top teams from across the midwest and the two teams to top Ballard were S.F. Lincoln from South Dakota and a Johnston team ranked at the top of 4A in Iowa. 

Another state championship should be within reach for Ballard in 2021. The Bombers  will need a couple runners to step up and fill in for Maher and Fleischmann, but with the two best runners in the state they will be able to compete with anyone.

“I think replacing Caitlin and Josie will not be a small feat, however returning the top two runners in the state is encouraging,” Barth said. “The question is who will step up and round out our varsity? There are several candidates on our JV. I would say a three-peat is not out of the question. The thing is nothing in life is guaranteed and we will approach the season in that frame of mind. We still have things to prove.”

The Ballard boys didn’t win any varsity meets or individual titles. But Barth was satisfied with their performance after placing in the top five during four consecutive meets in the middle of the season.

“The boys took a big step forward this season,” Barth said. “It might not be reflected in team championships or state qualifiers, but I see it plainly. Our biggest success this season has been in our team culture. We finally had a group of guys that knew what it was like to push themselves and get satisfaction and joy from seeing their own personal growth. If we can get this to carry over into next summer we will start showing our growth in a big way.”

The Bomber boys took 10th at the Ballard Invitational, seventh at the Heartland Classic, fourth at Adel-Desoto-Minburn, fifth at both Knoxville and Perry and fourth again at Norwalk. They ended the season by placing seventh at the RRC meet and eighth at the qualifying meet.

“We don’t have that one runner - or two in our girls’ case - that goes out and dominates races,” Barth said. “So to make up for that we need to counteract that with a solid pack of runners one through five and even beyond that. It seems we started to get that pack closer by season’s end. We just ran out of time and couldn’t make the last push.”

Sophomore Austin Shoen was the breakout runner for the Ballard boys. Shoen took 19th at the RRC meet with a season-best time of 17:33 and also came in 32nd in the qualifying meet after crossing the finish line in 17:54.2.

“Individually I would say the biggest highlight is the emergence of Austin Shoen,” Barth said. “He has always had solid natural ability, but this year we saw that mental switch go on and a genuine desire to get better and become a state qualifying runner. With more time over the summer and continued mental training he could be the frontrunner that we are looking for - an all-conference and all-regional performer.”

 Senior Gage Long led Ballard at the qualifying meet with a 28th-place time of 17:45.17. He also placed 27th in the conference mee with a 17:57 showing.

Jack Chism (center) was a valuable senior leader for the Ballard boys' cross country team this fall.

Jack Chism was the other senior leader for the Bomber boys. Chism took 48th at the qualifying meet in 18:35.04 and 39th at conference in 18:32.

Chism’s best time was 18:26 early in the season.

“Gage Long and Jack Chism have been huge contributors to our boys program for  the last four years,” Barth said. “They work hard and really model what needs to be done to be better in the sport of cross country. Gage is the quiet leader and does so by example. Jack is the high energy spark plug that can get us going with is energy. They will be sorely missed.”

Seth Pencook, Chase Brekke, Trent Payne and Wyatt Borg were Ballard’s other runners at the RRC meet and Ben Ward ran at the qualifying meet. Pencook topped out at 18:09, Brekke 18:33, Payne 19:05, Borg 19:14 and Ward 19:28.

“We now have as solid of a team culture as I have seen since 2014, which is the last time the boys punched their ticket to the state meet,” Barth said. “With that under our belts, we now need to take the next step with continuously improving performances.”

“I do feel strongly that Austin Shoen, Seth Pencook and Chase Brekke  will be a solid one through three for us next season,” Barth said. “Trent Payne, Ian Godbold, Kale Zimmerman and Owen Greco should be in contention to round out a pretty good lineup for us. I am very excited and optimistic about next season. I love working with these guys and I know they are on the right track.”