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The girls field in this year's Nike Cross Nationals Heartland Region may not compare to other regions.
But the disparity between the field's best -- both from an individual and team capacity -- is as close as its ever been. The individual field has just five automatic spots to NXN, but as many as 20 have the potential to qualify. The same can be said in the team race, where anything can happen.
The storylines are boundless in this year's event, and it's expected to be bursting with surprise.
2018: 1. Wayzata (MN), 2. Edina (MN), 3. STMA (MN), 4. Muskego (WI)
2017: 1. Wayzata (MN), 2. Edina (MN), 3. Minneapolis Washburn (MN), 4. St. James Academy (KS)
2016: 1. Edina (MN), 2. Willmar (MN), 3. Wayzata (MN), 4. Minnetonka (MN)
2015: 1. Willmar (MN), 2. Edina (MN), 3. St. Thomas Aquinas (KS), 4. Wayzata (MN)
2014: 1. Wayzata (MN), 2. Willmar (MN), 3. Edina (MN), 4. Johnston (IA)
Teams To Pay Attention To:
- Edina (MN): The Hornets had their best race of the season at the Class AA state championships, and the team looks to be in full health and ready to go. If they can replicate that same effort at Heartland -- an 18-second compression and a fast average behind great efforts from underclassmen and veterans -- you can be sure as day Edina will make it four straight years at NXN.
- Muskego (WI): Muskego has the type of runners who can score well in a big field. Led by junior Kate Sperka and two others with top 30 potential, this team has the talent to qualify. The Warriors' performance at Wisconsin's state championships proved they are ready to go, too. But the squad has been on the outside looking as recently as last year. Can they make the jump?
- Johnston (IA): This is a sneaky good team. The squad scored 56 points at its Class 4A state championship, earning an 18:55 average across a 53-second spread. The team has three runners who can score in the top 25 -- Bella Heikes, Aleah Tenpas and Samantha Strauss -- so if it all comes together, this Iowa team could overcome the tradition of Minnesota teams dominating Heartland.
- Mill Valley (KS): Your Class 6A champions in Kansas averaged 19:24 across a 73-second spread.
- Wayzata (MN): Minnesota teams have dominated this region in the past. The Trojans finished third at NXN last year. The program won its first NXN title in 2013. Historically, Wayzata knows how to get it done. But 2019 has been a bumpy ride. There's no doubt the team has talent -- but will it come together? Interestingly enough, the Trojans finished second in the Class AA race -- many believed STMA and Stillwater were more talented. If Wayzata can beat projections, it might be able to book its third straight auto-qualifier.
- Stillwater (MN): There's no doubt Stillwater was disappointed with its fifth-place finish at state. After finishing third at the Roy Griak Invitational -- the highest of any Minnesota team -- and generally looking like one of the state's best heading into the Class AA championships, all eyes were on Stillwater. So maybe the Heartland Region will provide the kind of redeeming venue this team needs. Analee Weaver will lead from the front. But can the pack find its way into critical scoring positions?
- Saint Michael-Albertville (MN): A pre-season favorite, STMA has battled a tough season, much like Wayzata. But the talent is there. Sophomore Ali Weimer could auto-qualify as an individual. The team averaged 18:47 at its Class AA Championships.
- Kora Malecek, Onalaska (WI): Not only did Malecek win a state title in Wisconsin, but she set a meet record in the process and was the only female under 18 minutes on her state course. Those high honors are nice, but can they cross over into an NXN berth? She should be one of the race's biggest contenders, and, being from Wisconsin, she likely understands all too well how to combat frigid temperatures. She was 18th in this race last year.
- Abbey Nechanicky, Wayzata (MN): Nechanicky isn't a newcomer to regional races. After finishing 19th in this race last year -- which wouldn't have qualified her -- Wayzata punched its ticket to the big dance. An auto-qualifier isn't so likely this time around, so Nechanicky, who's been one of Minnesota's best runners in 2019, will need to have a career race in order to guarantee a spot on the line at NXN in December. She's coming off a runner-up performance in her Class AA state race, where she broke 18 minutes for the first time. That time could get even faster in South Dakota.
- Analee Weaver, Stillwater (MN): Weaver, like Nechanicky, won't be able to guarantee a spot on the line with a team win. So she's going to have to have a great race to position herself into a first-time appearance at NXN. She looks like a strong candidate. As Minnesota's Class AA winner, Weaver is in top form and is coming off a career best of 17:46.10 for 5K.
- Anna Fenske, Farmington (MN): Fenske has reached NXN the past three seasons. So she knows how to qualify. While she was third in Minnesota's Class AA state race, a safe bet would have Fenske in the top five here. If we had to guess, Fenske hasn't had her best effort yet. She finished fourth in this race last year and owns a career best of 17:05.14 on this course.
- Tierney Wolfgram, Woodbury (MN): After a transfer to Woodbury last spring, Wolfgram had to sit out two seasons. But she'll be able to compete at this regional. And anything can happen. She ran 18:08.56 at the Lakeville Applejack Invitational. If we had to guess, Wolfgram has the talent to qualify.
- Camille Jackson, Ames (KS): Iowa's top runner won her Class 4A race this past weekend in a career best 17:23.90. She's one among a host of athletes with a chance to get to the big dance.
- Tori Wingrove, Blue Valley (KS): A Class 6A state winner in Kansas, Wingrove has posted a top time of 18:24.70.
- Marie Hostetler, Mid-Prairie (IA): Hostetler is undefeated thus far in 2019. She won her third straight small school title in Iowa this past weekend. A year ago, she just missed out on a bid to NXN, finishing in this race. She's probably overlooked by runners who compete in bigger classifications, but she's got the talent to get there.
- Meghan Ford, Jamestown (ND): A forgettable race at Roy Griak aside, Ford's season has been lights out. She's won her five other races and ran 16 seconds faster at her state race on October 26 than she did as a sophomore, scooping up her second state title. Ford finished 17th in this race a year ago. A smart plan could yield a high return this time around.
- Ashlyn Keeney, Liberty (IA): Keeney was the second fastest runner in Iowa this season, with a best of 17:32.00. She was runner-up in the Class 4A race, behind Jackson.
- Roisin Willis, Stevens Point (WI): Willis may have been third in her state championship in Wisconsin, but she has the fastest turnover of anyone in this field. She's a national-caliber 800m runner whom, if this comes down to a footrace, can beat anyone head-to-head.
- Kate Sperka, Muskego (WI): In one scenario, Sperka gets to NXN when her team, one of the contenders in the team competition, secure a top-two finish. That's possible. But it's no guarantee, so Sperka will have to make sure she has a great race. She was 21st last year.
Other Athletes To Watch: Natasha Sortland, Zumbrota-Mazeppa (MN), Elli Dahl, Freemont (NE), Ali Weimer, STMA (MN), Alea Hardie, Sioux Falls O'Gorman, Lauren Pansegrau, Middleton (WI), Morgan Gehl, Murray County Central (MN), Micah Poellet, Linn Mar (IA),