With a plethora of national caliber talents and teams, the Gary Wilson High School girls gold race could be the most exciting competition of the day on Saturday at the Roy Griak Invitational.
In past years, various elite teams from around the country have made the trip to Minnesota, and that's no exception this season, with two top 25 teams in No. 4 Naperville North (IL) and No. 12 Yorkville (IL) both represented in the entries. Wisconsin state champion Sun Prairie and Kansas stalwarts Olathe North and St. Thomas Aquinas will also toe the line.
The quality of the field should be as good as it's ever been. But individual talent, specifically, is rising to the top this year.
Minneapolis Washburn senior Emily Covert returns to defend her Griak title, and she will face some of the deepest competition this meet has seen in recent memory, including in-state stars such as Grace Ping, Tierney Wolfgram, Lauren Ping, Lauren Peterson and Anne Fenske.
The setting at Les Bolstad Golf course can be deceiving, though, as rolling hills make for an overall challenging course. Thankfully, weather should place nice this year. While the race began in the 90s last year, temperature is expected to be in the 50s on Saturday.
And as we've seen in the last few years, anything can happen at Griak. Though there are clearly more than a dozen runners worthy of recognition, here are 12 girls to watch out for on Saturday. Expect plenty of surprises, from those listed and not listed here!
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Emily Covert, Minneapolis Washburn (MN)
In 2017, Emily Covert shocked at Griak with a victory over a nationally talented field. While she had earned recognition at the state level for years, the then-junior hadn't received much national attention prior to that breakout performance. That won't happen in 2018. Covert enters as the presumptive favorite. After a historic track season that saw her break the all-time Minnesota 3200m record (in a time of 10:01.68c), Covert opened her season at the St. Olaf High School Showcase in dominating fashion. Not only did she annihilate the state course record by 23 seconds, but she also took down US No. 7 Tierney Wolfgram and US No. 23 Lexy Halladay. Since then, Covert has continued to run quick times, including a 17:10 effort at the Grasshopper Invite on the famed Gale Woods Farm course. Expect the senior to back up her US No. 4 ranking on Saturday.
Tierney Wolfgram, Math & Science Academy (MN)
At Griak last season, Tierney Wolfgram had a somewhat disappointing race and ended up fading to 17th after falling in the final stretch. Again, that won't happen in 2018. This season, Wolfgram won't let freshman nerves get in the way. While Wolfgram was defeated by Covert by 21 seconds at the St. Olaf Showcase, she did not compete in another 5K until this past Saturday and it was well worth the wait, as the sophomore dropped a blistering a 17:06 (a Minnesota No. 1 time) at the Milaca Mega Meet. Running the fastest time of the day by nearly a minute, Wolfgram even passed the pace cart during the race. Currently ranked No. 7 in the MileSplit 50, Wolfgram should be right with Covert.
Grace Ping, Winona Cotter (MN)
When thinking of the Roy Griak Invitational, it's hard not to picture Grace Ping. Her stunning victory as a seventh grader in 2015, over Naperville North senior Judy Pendergrast, remains one of the most memorable Griak moments in recent memory--the YouTube video of the race has nearly 3 million views, too. Last year, however, Ping finished second to Covert at Griak, then saw an injury end her postseason before it really got started--she was third at state in Class A, then missed NXR Heartland and NXN. But the Ping of old seems to be back this year, and you can attribute that to her track season, when she ran 10:32.89 in the 3200m and collected the Class A 1600m title. This fall, Ping has looked as strong as ever. She remains undefeated heading into Griak.
Lauren Ping, Winona Cotter (MN)
Just an eighth-grader, Lauren Ping has one of the deepest resumes in the field. Ping was second in the Class A championships last season, then went on to finish third at NXR Heartland and 11th at NXN. In the spring, she followed up her success on the grass with a state title in the 3200m, besting Tierney Wolfgram and her sister Grace in a time of 10:29.77. So far, Ping has lived up to expectations, finishing closely behind Grace in each of their races up to this point. Her times have also been quick, as her time of 18:38 at the Rochester Mayo Invite was 43 seconds faster than she ran there a year ago. Ping was fifth in this race a year ago.
Dana Feyen, Gale-Ettrick-Trempealeau (WI)
Only three girls in the field have broken 18:00 over 5K this season, and you can probably guess why we're giving you that stat right now. Feyen has achieved that feat, along with Covert and Wolfgram. So Feyen seems primed to improve on her ninth place finish from a year ago. A senior, Feyen enters as the two-time defending Wisconsin D2 State champion in both cross country and the 3200m in track. Her time of 10:36.06 at the Wisconsin State Meet set an all time personal best, and extended her undefeated streak in that distance to over two years.
Lauren Peterson, Farmington (MN)
Lauren Peterson has five convincing victories under her belt already, a phenomenal start to her senior year. And she's faced some tough competition, including Class AA ranked runners Liesl Paulsen, Molly Moening, Margaret Dalseth, and Analee Weaver. However, the most impressive part of that streak is the fact that Peterson has treated nearly all of her races as workouts. With little data to demonstrate her full fitness at this stage in the season, it's anybody's guess how good of shape she's in. As we finally will get to experience a full effort over 5k by Peterson, do not be shocked if she finishes in the top three.
Alex Morris, Naperville North (IL)
With the graduation of longtime leader Sarah Schmitt, the reins of one of the most storied programs in the nation were passed on to Alex Morris. With large shoes to fill, Morris entered the season with her own lengthy list of accomplishments, including a 12th place finish at NXN last year. Morris was 10th at Griak last season and should be a lock to repeat (if not improve on) that performance this fall. Morris has only logged one race so far this season, a solid 17:07 3-mile at the First to the Finish Invitational.
Emma Atkinson, Wayzata (MN)
Running on the best team in the Heartland region, it's easy to forget just how good Emma Atkinson can be as an individual. In reality, she's not only the top runner for Wayzata, but can make an argument as one of the best in the country. Last fall, she finished fifth at NXR Heartland. In her season opener, she finished fourth at the St. Olaf Showcase, behind three nationally ranked girls. Her time of 18:26 was just five seconds behind Halladay's mark. Her next true race came at the Milaca Mega Meet last weekend, where she comfortably won over multiple ranked Class AA athletes.
Emily Eberhart, Yorkville (IL)
Throughout most of the season, Emily Eberhart has been Yorkville's top runner. She holds an 18:11 5k personal best and dropped a 17:07 3-mile all the way back in July at Detweiler at Dark. Such an impressive time coming so early indicates that Eberhart has a ton of potential as an individual this fall. That time was 38 seconds quicker than she ran at the same race in 2017, and she has run quicker times in each meet this season when compared to last year's campaign. And as a side note, also keep an eye on her teammate Helena Kleronomos, who has been right on Eberhart's shoulder in almost every race.
Genevieve Nashold, Madison West (WI)
Genevieve Nashold enters Griak as the biggest wild card in the field. Prior to this season, Nashold had never raced competitively at the high school level. Despite that, the freshman phenom has been on a dominant start to her career, winning each of the three races she's competed in. Her most recent effort was the most impressive, as she torched a deep field in 18:03 at the Midwest Invitational. That time was a 43 second personal best, and stands as the 5th fastest season best of the entire Griak field. After already defeating some of the best runners in all of Wisconsin, it appears that Nashold has an incredible amount of talent, the only question being how much.
Leah Kralovetz, Denmark (WI)
In 2017, Leah Kravoletz had a solid cross country season, finishing fifth in Division 2 at the Wisconsin state meet. However, she was on a completely different level during track, breaking out with times of 5:01.04 and 10:53.55 in the 1600m and 3200m. Kravoletz placed second in both of those events, only behind the aforementioned Dana Feyen. She's carried that success onto the grass, winning each of her four races. Despite never having broken 19:00 prior to this season, Kravoletz has already dropped an 18:13 5k, the seventh best mark in the field from 2018.
Eleanor Abraham, Brookings (SD)
With much of the top talent coming from Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois, Eleanor Abraham will be doing her best to represent South Dakota on Saturday. Abraham is the defending South Dakota state champ in both cross country and the 800m, showing her impressive endurance and speed. Though she focused more on middle distance in track, she dropped a 10:55.97 in the 3200m. In her season debut, she cruised to an 18:19 5K, which sits as the ninth fastest season best in the field. Given that she ran that time nearly a month ago, Abraham will likely have improved since then.