Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Team Of Steel Wins Nike Cross Country Nationals

Wayzata high school has been on a roll, as of late. Both the boys & girls cross country teams won at the Minnesota State Meet. The girls swim team followed that with their first ever state championship. But the best was yet to come.

I had been predicting a national championship for the girls cross country team as far back as October 23 when I witnessed absolute and utter domination, the likes I'd never seen in my five decades of running. And I've been on dominating teams myself. I was a 16:30 5K runner who never once cracked the varsity squad. We were simply too deep. We had more kids running in the cross country program than went out for the football team. Our top runner later went on to become the N.A.I.A National Champion in the men's 3000 meter steeplechase in college. We were damn good.

Let's return to the 2013 Minnesota 6AA girls cross country sectionals. As good as I've seen, and as good as I've been around......I'd never seen this before. Take a gander:

1. Wayzata
    1  Anna French, 11                  14:08.4 
    2  Annika lerdall, 9                  14:33.8 
    3  Annika HalvErson, 12         14:34.3 
    5  Alayna Sonnesyn, 12           14:40.3 
    7  Mary Franke, 12                  14:41.9 
    8  Michaela Keller-Miller, 10  14:43.8 
    9  McKenna Evans, 12            14:46.7

That's OK, rub your eyes if you must. The text is correct. All seven runners finished in the top nine. A 6.5 second spread between the #2 and #5 runner. An even more mind boggling 12.9 seconds between #2 and #7. This is the race that garnered national attention. This is the race that spoke volumes and gave the national pundits pause. Don't tell me this team wasn't hand-picked by the heavenly cherubs of God's very own orchard.

When it came time for the NXN Nike National web cast, I was glued to the screen. My heart was oscillating like a filament in a 100-watt bulb. The pre-race talk neglected to talk about Wayzata at all. They were ignorant.

Meanwhile the girls were warming up, gold glitter on their cheeks and gold pixie dust exploding from their feet. The cannon signaled the start....and the race for the team title was decided between the 4K and 5K marks.

The girls won, as I knew they would. Yet, the announcers didn't believe. It was as if they refused to crown them champion. Their comments of denial were all over the place like a deranged women's fried breakfast. I was flabbergasted. It was not until the standings were posted, that they proclaimed Wayzata national champions.

This group of girls from Wayzata had brought to Portland a box of oils and an easel and painted a picture of near perfection that would make Satan weep. And weep I did. Out of sheer admiration for the girls. And for my beaming pride for my Running Daughter, Mary Franke.

But I wanted to get a personal perspective from someone who was actually at the race. And I found a person, who witnessed what is being called the fifth best women's high school cross country team of ALL-TIME.

The following is that person's hand written account. These eloquent words are not mine. And to protect this person, we're just going to call the writer "Clark Kent", because this was the Team of Steel, after all.

Date – December 7, 2013

Column that appeared in the “Daily Planet” as reported by Clark Kent

It was a cold and windy day at the Portland Meadows Race Track. The meager sun was shining, and the snow-covered Mt Hood to the east gave a sense that the cold would continue throughout the morning. The collapsed peak of Mt St Helens to the north gave pause to onlookers that today might yield a possible volcanic outburst that would shake the cross country world. Seven-time Fayetteville-Manlius was in town to continue their dominance of the Nike Cross Nationals. If the horse track could have been filled with betting enthusiasts, most surely would have laid their money on the FM team. Most, but not all. One statistician had run a series of mathematical algorithms that predicted a relatively unknown team from the Heartland Regional might have the best chance to break the streak of Fayetteville-Manlius. A team from a state known for hockey as well as eternal frustration in professional sports had emerged over the fall 2013 cross country season. The Wayzata High School girls team arrived in Portland on Thursday with an impressive resume: Undefeated season. Winners of the Roy Griak Invitational with a record low team score and all seven runners in the top 25. Wayzata went on to win the Lake Conference Meet with a staggering low total of 17 points. These same girls then scored 18 points to win the Section 6 title and qualify for the Minnesota State Meet. At that meet, the girls ran a phenomenal team race, finishing in a pack that averaged 14:34 and a 6.6 second spread from 1st to 7th runners. Additionally, all seven girls were ALL STATE. One week later, emotionally tired from state and down their top runner, the Wayzata girls went to Sioux Falls and the Heartland Regional. The girls won both divisions of the competition and qualified for Nike Cross Nationals. In anticipation of this national meet, they were asked to create a team photo. They decided upon a “Superman” theme, calling themselves “The Team of Steel.” While some thought the photo a bit audacious, the girls were simply having fun.

Once the team arrived in Portland, they spent time mentally preparing for the race the same way they had all season. They shared fun together, laughed in the moment, and tried to remain positive. On race day, the girls tied their hair into ponytails (fitting for the Portland Meadows Race Track), added ribbons to their ponies, and streaked their cheeks with gold glitter. Cold on the outside, they were warmed by fleece blankets and a sense that this was their opportunity to achieve a truly historical goal. These girls were bonded by a friendship and focused by a common goal that was both individual and team oriented. If each member of the team ran their best, found Manlius runners on the course and tried to pass them, they might have a shot at immortality.

The cannon shot announced the race, and off they went. Anna French literally took off and chased the top runners.

Anna French prepares the lethal injection to dethrone the reigning team champion

Team mates Annika Lerdall and Mary Franke went wide to avoid the crowd, and perhaps enjoy a better view of Mt Hood to the east.

Lerdall and Franke take a ride on French's Superwoman cape

The race looked great for Manlius, who doubled up on the next fastest team at the 1K race mark. Wayzata was not even in the top five. After 2K, Wayzata had made a move and were in contention … in second place, but Manlius had half the points of Wayzata. Undaunted and not having any idea where they were in the competition, the girls raced on.

Michaela Keller-Miller broke from the pack and set her sights on Mary and Annika up ahead. Through the wind and the cold, the Wayzata runners ran with a purpose, each pushing herself to do her best for the team. One in the front, two and then one more in the middle, the Wayzata girls kept racing.

Keller-Miller ran with such ferocity in the second half, it could have powered a nuclear experiment

But this race, like all of the other races during the season was not only about a lead runner, but about “the pack.” Every race, some of these girls had run in a pack, and while the names changed from race to race, the “Wayzata Wall” was always present. Sometimes the pack was three, four, five, six, and even seven.

The Wayzata Wall charged the atmosphere vibrating like the strings of a heavenly harp

Today, the pack was made of three seniors: Annika Halvorsen, McKenna Evans, and Alayna Sonnesyn. They were the pack. They were the “Wayzata Wall.” They were the ones determined to find and pass anyone wearing bright green … the color of the Manlius singlets. At the 4K mark, Wayzata was still in second place and closing in, but the announcers were convinced that this race belonged to Manlius. “They always close well and finish strong,” stated one race analyst on the live webcam feed to anxious followers across the US.

Anna French was the first to cross the finish line, eighth overall, and easily qualifying for All American honors. She was the catalyst this day. She had set the tone. Forty-five seconds later, Annika Lerdall crossed the line. Not far behind was Mary Franke. Michaela Keller-Miller could see Mary just ahead and was yelling, “Go Mary!” Michaela crossed the finish line … three Manlius runners already across the stripe, but four from Wayzata. Once again, this race was decided by the pack. Unknown to the announcers who were either distracted or else too sure of their 4K prediction, they announced that all five Manlius runners had crossed the line. Too bad they never noticed that the pack of Alayna, McKenna, and Annika had already crossed that line, passing two Manlius runners in the final 1000 meters. All seven Wayzata runners had finished ahead of the 4th Manlius runner.

Exhausted but joyous with their great race as a team, the Wayzata girls huddled, hugged, and congratulated each other. They had come to Portland to race … to give it their best … and they had done exactly that. A lone cameraman and reporter talked to the girls. Michaela shared that they were thrilled to be second, echoing the sentiment of the race announcers. They had done their best and they were proud.

With the expectant camera crew surrounding the anxious Manlius runners, and with the announcers praising their dynasty, screams broke out at an unexpected location. “There seems to be some screaming over there. I do not know what team is there,” mentioned the commentator. But the parents and coaches who had shared such a glorious journey were standing with the Wayzata girls … and it was those girls who were now screaming. The scoreboard showed … 1 WAYZATA.

Unspeakable joy rushed upon the girls in such a hurry that none could contain what they felt and experienced inside. Tears flowed freely down the gold-glittered cheeks. Coaches hurried in to hug the girls and share the moment. Parents and siblings cheered wildly alongside. Still, the announcers were not convinced that the scoreboard was correct. “These preliminary results have been known to change,” one commented. “I will not be sure until Tony makes the word official,” stated another.

But the results didn’t change. The scores were official. Wayzata 108 … Manlius 120. Kara Goucher, a former Duluth East standout and two-time Olympian was especially thrilled to see girls from her home state of Minnesota take home the most coveted prize in cross country running.

With fellow Minnesotan, Kara Goucher, now confirming Wayzata as national champions, the announcers went missing like the children in the Blair Witch Project

Shortly afterward, the top three teams received their trophies. Davis from Utah had finished strongly to claim third, Manlius had finished in second, and the Wayzata runners were victors on this suddenly bright, sunny, and windless day. To the girls, it felt like it was 80F outside. Their bright smiles, their giddy and delirious spirits, and their genuine appreciation of this moment were infectious. They were humble in their hearts. They answered all of the questions asked of them with dignity, humility, honesty, and unabashed happiness. Running fans across the country embraced this team and enjoyed the moment with them.

The Wayzata team danced across the turf like a cat-burglar upon heavenly clouds. They snuck in, pick-locked the back door and stole the gold

Long after the race was over; after the awards banquet was completed; after Anna French had received her All-American and Top 10 award; after Alayna Sonnesyn had received her “Anchor Award” for being the first 5th place runner to cross the line; after the Wayzata girls had received a standing ovation initiated by the Wayzata boys; after the Wayzata girls danced the night away with the Wayzata boys; after East Ridge girls and Edina boys had shared their congratulations; after the thankful and emotionally weary Wayzata girls had gone to bed, this reporter reflected on what had happened this day.

For nine years, teams from 49 states not named New York have tried to take the top spot at Nike Cross Nationals. For seven years, teams not named Manlius had tried to take the top spot at Nike Cross Nationals. This means that over the past seven years, and including this year, 168 teams have tried to win this event and end the dynasty of Fayetteville-Manlius. But on this glorious day, on this seemingly miraculous day, seven girls in pony tails, ribbons, and gold glitter had done what 167 other teams could not do. It was not a miracle that these girls won, they simply decided to do it. A junior had finished first among these seven, followed by a freshman, then a senior, and then a sophomore. All of the four high school grades were represented equally. But it was the pack, the “Wayzata Wall” of three more seniors who had crossed the line unnoticed by the media who had made the difference. This was a victory that belonged to the team because each runner had made a difference, and when the point spread between first and second is only 12, every point earned by a runner who moved up when others in the race faltered proved the difference. And in the eyes of this mild-mannered reporter from the Daily Planet, these seven girls had run with iron will; they had persevered through personal struggles of failure and disappointment; they were bonded by friendship for each other and a love of running; and they forged that iron will into the strongest of metals. With steely eyes fixed on the prize, they had torn off their jackets, ripped off their glasses, and revealed to everyone that they are “THE TEAM OF STEEL.”

Clark Kent reporting for the Daily Planet, December 7, 2013.

2013 Wayzata Nike National Teaser from Brian Maas on Vimeo.