Noe's brilliance, Vance's rise help Ballard girls turn in another memorable cross country season

Joe Randleman
Ames Tribune
Paityn Noe turned in an amazing junior season for the Ballard girls' cross country team in 2021. Noe won her first individual state title in Class 3A and helped the Bomber girls place second as a team.

The Ballard girls turned in another memorable season and the boys had an up-and-down campaign during the 2021 cross country season.

The Bomber girls entered the season as two-time defending state champions in Class 3A. But they were without 2020 individual state champion Shewaye Johnson and two other top-five runners off that team in graduated seniors Caitlyn Maher and Josie Fleischmann.

"This was a season of adjustments, which led to up and down performances for us," Barth said. "We were expecting this, for the most part, since we lost Shewaye, Caitlin and Josie, who were our Nos. 1, 4 and 5 runners at the state meet last season. You lose that sort of talent in one year and you have to expect some rough patches. However, we navigated those loses really well and there were by far more ups than downs this year."

The Ballard girls brought back state runner-up Paityn Noe, ranked runner Ava Vance and seniors Kate Huisinga and Brooke Loewe. With the addition of freshmen Annika Larson, Ava Richardson, Raegan Loewe and Brynn Wilson they were able to build up enough depth to compete near the top of the team standings.

Ballard ran at both the Ray Griak Invitational in Minnesota and the Heartland Classic at Pella. Those meets and the Mike Carr Invitational on their home turf at the Ballard Golf and Country Club were the highlight meets of the season heading into the Raccoon River Conference meet at Boone.

The Bombers didn't have their best race at Boone. They failed to defend their conference championship in placing fourth.

But a little over a week later they rebounded in a big way. The younger runners stepped up and Ballard won the 3A qualifying meet in Pella, scoring 61 points to beat sixth-ranked Gilbert's 77 points for the victory.

Ballard ended the season ranked fourth in 3A. They proved to be even better than that at state.

With Noe completely wiping the floor with the rest of the 3A field, Vance nearing the top 10 and Larson continuing her late-season surge the Ballard girls fell just a little short of three-peating as state champions in 3A. The Bombers scored 103 points to take second to a deep Solon team that finished with 77 points.

"I really enjoyed seeing how the team rose to the challenge," Barth said. "No one expected us to do what we did and we were able to do great things with great leadership and superlative effort."

Noe was the superstar runner for Ballard. She was ranked No. 1 in 3A all season and made a huge statement at state.

Though she couldn't quite meet her school-record 5-kilometer time of 17:35 set last year or 18:01.1 showing at the 2020 state meet, she was outstanding all season. The only meets she didn't win were the Griak and Heartland meets featuring the best runners from larger schools across the state and Midwest.

Noe won the RRC title by 46.4 seconds with a time of 18:25 and she ran an 18:28.91 at the qualifying meet. At state Noe was in peak form, finishing just shy of her 2020 time with an 18:12.74 showing to win the meet by an amazing 53.67 seconds.

"The lower back pains that she encountered at the beginning of the season held back her training," Barth said. "She practiced patience to allow herself to heal and got back on track and really hit her stride by the end of the season. She is such a talented and hard-working athlete that in her mind, and in ours, we knew she would be back and get that title."

Vance had a tremendous sophomore season. She was ranked 11th to end the regular season and placed fifth at the RRC meet in 19:32.4, fifth at the qualifying meet in 19:56.98 and 11th at state in 19:32.16.

Ava is a committed runner, which leads to her growth and success," Barth said. "She started the season strong, but she really showed the state what she had at the RRC, qualifying and state meets. She is not flying under the radar anymore. We always knew the potential she has due to her skills and work ethic. Now everyone else does as well. The fun thing is she has more growth in her and that bodes well for us in the future."

Larson emerged as the third runner on the team late in the year. She took 18th at the RRC meet in 20:47.9, qualified for state individually at Pella with a 15th-place time of 20:44.14 and took 30th at state in 20:08.49.

Huisinga finished 19th at the RRC meet, 23rd at the qualifying meet and 47th at state. She ran respective times of 20:53.1, 21:23.08 and 20:34.79.

Richardson was 34th at conference in 21:53.3, 17th at the qualifier in 21:10.3 and 61st at state in 20:50.91. Brooke Loewe took 36th at conference, 25th at the qualifier and 101st at state with respective times of 21:56.2, 21:28.21 and 21:35.71 and Raegan finished 49th at the qualifying meet and 22:47.61 and 102nd at state in 21:36.13.

Sophomore Erica Espinoza also stepped up for the Ballard girls. Espinoza placed 40th at the RRC meet in 22:28.2.

Gracie Ross joined Espinoza as a state alternate for Ballard.

With Huisinga and Brooke Loewe the only losses among Ballard's top runners the the Bomber girls will be right back in the hunt for a 3A state team championship in 2022.

"Some talented incoming freshmen will join the team and have potential to grow into varsity runners," Barth said. "We should be a very solid team next season. We will enter next season with much optimism."

The Ballard boys continued to build for the future. But the Bombers struggled to maintain consistency due to health issues.

"On the disappointing side, I do not think we ever saw the team that I envisioned at the beginning of the season," Barth said. "The initial loss of our top returning runner Austin Shoen really left us in a pinch. That was compounded by minor injuries and illnesses that never allowed us to get all of our best guys on the course at the same time."

But Barth was happy with how the varsity runners who were able to run came together, toughed it out and improved during the season.

"On the optimistic side, the team culture is as strong as it has been in recent memory," Barth said. "The guys worked hard, did as was asked and had fun doing it. There was a great bond on this team and that change in culture will help the other pieces fall into place." 

Seth Pencook was the top runner for the Ballard boys' cross country team in 2021. Pencook and several other top runners will return for the Bomber boys in 2022.

Seth Pencook was the top runner for the Ballard boys. Pencook ran a 5k time of 17:21 at the RRC meet to place 16th and he took 30th at the qualifying meet in 18:04.30.

Trent Payne took 45th in 19:16.4 at the RRC meet and 41st at the qualifying meet in 18:46.21. Bradley Sage finished 38t in 18:51 at the conference meet and 58th at the qualifying meet in 19:10.92.

Chase Brekke finished 54th at the conference meet in 22:45.1 and 55th at the qualifying meet in 19:04.70. Freshman Zack Charter was 46th at the RRC meet in 19:17.1 and 72nd at Pella 19:46.33. 

Logan Huntrods ended up 52nd at the conference meet in 19:50. Kale Zimmerman was 55th at the RRC meet in 22:55.

"Seth Pencook really grew into the lead runner for us this season and I am very happy with the trio of sophomore Bradley Sage and freshmen Zack Charter and Logan Huntrods," Barth said. "They were thrown into the fire having to run varsity competition on a tough high school schedule. They didn't let that get to them and handled the pressure very well. I think it helped them get more mentally tough and help us build our program for years to come."

 "We will return a bulk of our scoring next season with Seth Pencook, Trent Payne, Bradley Sage, Zack Charter and Logan Huntrods all returning," Barth said. "Throw in our top 2020 runner Austin Shoen and what looks to be a few excellent prospects rising up from eighth grade and we should be able to return strong. I am so looking forward to next season and giving our best shot at some team titles, higher conference and qualifying meet finishes and a potential return to state. It has been too long for our boys and I have a feeling that we will make a good run next season."