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Shafer leads Solon girls to 15th place at state cross country meet

Just ahead of the 2-mile mark, Nicole Shafer (left or bib #196) and sophomore Erin Kerkhoff (right or bib #193) lean into the turn at the state Class 3A cross country meet, Saturday, Oct. 29. Shafer and Kerkhoff finished one-two for the Lady Spartans in their first team trip to state since 2012. (photo by Joe Wilkinson)

FORT DODGE– Solon’s girls showed they were up to the challenge with a 15th place showing in the 2016 Class 3A state cross country meet Oct. 29 in Fort Dodge.
Though ‘last’ in that championship field, they outpointed every 3A team sitting at home for the day. Their finish matched a slow, steady improvement from middle of the pack showings early in the season to conference and district meet runner-up finishes and a No. 14 ranking from the Iowa Association of Track Coaches heading into state.
With three freshmen, two sophomores and a junior in the lineup– and a half dozen others pushing for varsity spots all season– it sets the bar pretty high in 2017. There is still plenty to cross off the to-do list in the year ahead, however.
Freshman Nicole Shafer was the first Solon runner to cross the finish line at state. At 20:57 over the rolling course north of Fort Dodge, she was 51st in team scoring. Early in the season, the ninth grader was buried deep in the middle of the pack. About mid-season, though, she and fellow freshmen Aira Foster and Ella Düster found the next level to compete through 3.2 miles.
“After the first turn (a 200-yard uphill sprint at the gun, bumping elbows with 130 runners surrounding her) my legs felt pretty good,” recalled Shafer. “Before the race, Ella and I said we’d stick together. About halfway through, I caught up with (teammate) Sophie (Nicol), stayed with her, and then passed some people in the last couple hundred meters. I was glad when I finished, but knew I ran a good race.”
“Nicole ran strong. I think she surprised herself,” observed Solon head coach Emy Williams. “Running your first time at state can be overwhelming. There is no way to simulate going against the best runners in the state; not in practice, not at any other meet.”
Sophomore Erin Kerkhoff (21:10, 60th in team scoring) and Nicol (21:22, 66th) were next across for Solon. Freshmen Aira Foster (21:33, 69th) and Düster (21:54, 81st) grabbed the remaining scoring spots for a 327-point team score.
“I’m very proud of them all. I can’t wait until next year,” said Williams, noting the improvement from early in the season. “Running at state gives you experience. You are more prepared for the next time you get to run here.”
And the crowd? A three-hour drive across Central Iowa prairies only ramped up support from family and teammates, including cross country boys’ team members. “We had a great support system in Fort Dodge,” noted Williams. “This was probably the most people we have ever had to cheer on a team at state. It says a lot about how this team is very close and supports each other.”
In cross country, team scores are determined by the place of finish of its first five runners. Decorah, ranked third in the final coaches’ poll, won the 3A meet with 102 points, edging top-ranked Pella (106). Charles City (second-ranked) finished third (135).
Individual runners– whose team did not qualify for one of three state qualifying berths at five meets statewide– do not figure into the team score. Adrianna Katcher, of Center Point-Urbana, for instance, went home with the winner’s medal for her overall first-place 18:27 finish. However, girls running with a team had that overall finish, and their ‘individual’ place, which can range from one to 25 or 30 spots apart.
And though a school’s finish factors in only its top five, that sixth runner can break a tie. For Solon, sophomore Calista Haasl (23:18) and senior Haley Kluesner (24:40) were those important sixth and seventh insurance runners.
A bright outlook ahead, but it still marks a bittersweet end for seniors on the roster. “This is a great group of girls. We will miss Haley and all our seniors. If we continue to improve from here, though, I see great things in the future,” assessed Williams.
“It is hard to believe we are really, really done” reflected Kluesner– who ran varsity most of her senior year. “It was a lot of fun; a great experience. We pick each other up a lot. I think about our last practice, our Pajama Day, the ‘Dress Up As Coaches Day…”
Hmm? Dress Up As Coaches Day? The word is out; Sophie Nicol’s turn as ‘Coach Emy’ was spot-on.