"This just shows I can work with the big dogs and hopefully I can make it back to nationals and see what that brings me." -- Riley Stewart, Cherry Creek (CO) High School
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ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA -- Less than an hour before his girls were to set off on a new course, in a new state and with pearly new ambitions, Greenwood Village Cherry Creek High School coach Ethan Dusto was cautiously optimistic about his team's chances at the Roy Griak Invitational.
"I'm looking forward to seeing what my girls can do," Dusto said from a box assignment on the course ahead of the boys race.
It didn't take long for the Bruins to realize that opportunity.
In fact, the Cherry Creek girls may have officially solidified their arrival as a legitimate NXR Southwest contender as early as a few minutes into the race, as No. 1 Riley Stewart positioned herself in the race's lead, while her teammates found comfortable ground in the pack of 30 following.
Dusto's team didn't look like a rookie visitor on the Les Bolstad course, and by the time the race had finished, the MileSplit50 No. 16 ranked Bruins had not only locked down a vital win in one of the best regular season meets of the Midwest, but they had mounted a huge gain in confidence, too.
Cherry Creek dispatched four nationally ranked teams en route to a superb 75 points and the team sported an 18:39 average on a course that many of the team's athletes said "was nothing like Colorado."
"This season we're just trying to make a name for ourselves," senior Lauren Lapporte said. "So we wanted to come out here today and put ourselves on the map officially and get out of Colorado."
Stewart was just a second away from Emily Covert's meet record of 17:28.00, finishing in an impressive 17:29.30. The Bruins' top four all placed within the top 25 and its fifth was in the top 40.
"This gives me a ton of confidence going back into Colorado for my league and state qualifying and hopefully NXR," Stewart said afterward. "This just shows I can work with the big dogs and hopefully I can make it back to nationals and see what that brings me."
MileSplit50 No. 3 Naperville North finished second with 165 points, upstart Stillwater (MN) was third with 186, No. 14 Edina was fourth with 188 and No. 5 Wayzata was fifth with 237 points.
The Huskies (Naperville North) and Trojans (Wayzata) have reason to be optimistic, though. Campbell Peterson is expected to be back for Naperville North ahead of the team's postseason run and NXR Midwest qualifying. Emma Atkinson, meanwhile, likely should return to Wayzata by the end of the season.
But while it's true both runners would have helped, it's unlikely that their additions would have swung either team's chances into a win.
That's how dominant Cherry Creek ran on Saturday.
While the team was well prepared to attack the course at Les Bolstad, having trained in the weeks prior on grass and hills, many still felt a little fascinated by how well the team ran.
"I'm a little surprised," said Claire Semerod, who was 21st overall. "I didn't expect what we did. A lot of us were just flying down those hills and we were passing our teammates that we've never passed before. We cheered each other on and it was amazing how well we did."
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GIRLS GOLD RACE QUOTABLES:
"Last year I was like, I didn't know what I was doing as much. I feel like I came back with a lot more knowledge this year. In staying and working on my last mile and finishing." -- Riley Stewart, Cherry Creek (CO), 1st-place
"Training through the season and being able to come out and get second and running a season best is good for me and I'm happy with it." -- Anna Fenske, Farmington (MN), 2nd-place
"I think I'm stronger than last year at this point. My Richard Springs time was faster than last year's. I'm improving. My goal is mainly to do well at state and make it to NXN again and hopefully Foot Locker as well." -- Lianna Surtz, Rosary (IL), 3rd-place
"Experience plays a huge role. These big meets. It's so incredible the difference between this meet and our previous meets. You have to be prepared for the quick starts and the crowdedness." -- Analee Weaver, Stillwater (MN), 7th-placet
"All I can really hope for is more training and maybe a better time for the next meet." -- Katrina Schlenker, Batavia (IL), 12th-place
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"It's my biggest win so far. But I'm hoping it's not the biggest ever. We still got state and Nike. Hopefully going to nationals. It's big, but hopefully there are bigger ones to come." -- Oliver Paleen
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For the third time this season, Oliver Paleen was able to wear the t-shirt.
You couldn't miss it.
It was the one with the big photo of Brad Moening, the Highlands Park High School coach, showing him during his time with the Naval Academy. Big blue hat. Naval sweater.
For Paleen, an accomplished Highlands Park (MN) High School distance runner, that t-shirt meant a lot anytime he put it on. It represented a victory lap for anyone who would wear it.
"It's my thank you for him and a celebratory thing that I do," Paleen said.
And on Saturday, after he won his third straight race of the season, he adorned it yet again. But no win should have felt sweeter than that Roy Griak gold race title, which he won in 15:46.30. It took a sprint to the finish to leg past runner-up Emmet Anderson, who was less than a second behind in 15:47.00.
Paleen wasn't talked beforehand as a potential contender for the title, even though he was the top returner. He said as much afterward, saying he was motivated by that fact.
But in winning a big race across the Midwest, it also ramped up his aspirations as he looks to finish out his last year in a Highlands Park uniform.
"It's my biggest win so far," Paleen said. "But I'm hoping it's not the biggest ever. We still got state and Nike. Hopefully going to nationals. It's big, but hopefully there are bigger ones to come.
Paleen had been on the Les Bolstad course more times than he can count.
So experience played a factor on Saturday. But he was also comfortable with its many hills, and he knew when he had to make a move on his competitors.
When Cherry Creek's Parker Wolfe started to lose his grip on the race around 3K, Paleen pounced.
"I was totally engaged the whole time," he said.
From a team perspective, the boys race was wide open. No team took command at any point and in the end it came down to points. Despite scoring 304 points, White Bear Lakeland (MN) was crowned champion, ahead of runner-up Edina (338) and third-place Frontier Academy (341).
Wolfe, the favorite entering the race, finished third overall in 15:53.90.
"It was pretty tough. Those rolling hills take it out of you. No question," he said. "You do get the payoff with the downhills, but it still takes your energy."
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BOYS GOLD RACE QUOTABLES:
"I think it's all really been mental. I did more mileage over the summer, did a little harder training. It really was all mental. I remember last year I got to about the 1-mile. I kind of blacked out. And then when I finished they told me I was 10th. I was like, 'Oh really? I thought I did worse.'" - Oliver Paleen, Highlands Park (MN), 1st-place
"Coming up that big hill between 2.5K and 3K. That killed my energy." -- Parker Wolfe, Cherry Creek (CO), 3rd-place
"They thought they were going to come here and be top 10." "No, hunny, they were telling themselves they could win." "Well I heard top 10." -- A mother and father of a White Bear Lakeland athlete talking with Cory Mull on the course following the team's big win.
"Last week we didn't have the best showing in a couple of our first races back. So it's nice to be able to come out here and put up a good performance." -- Sean Baird, Edina, 4th scorer