Fye, Mustangs make program history

REINBECK – With its season-long nemesis shorthanded for the day, the East Marshall girls’ cross country team played the role of opportunist to perfection.

As a season’s worth of good fortune turned sour toward South Hardin, the Mustangs made good on the Tigers’ absence by scoring their first North Iowa Cedar League championship behind their first-ever meet medalist.

Running in second place midway through the race, East Marshall sophomore Haley Fye made her move past Hudson’s Amanda Cartney and held off the Pirate junior to win Saturday’s NICL title in a time of 15 minutes, 39 seconds. A comfortable 16-second margin secured the program’s place atop the 14-team field – known by school officials to be the first since LDF-SEMCO merged to become East Marshall prior to the 1992-93 school year.

“The girls ran fantastic today,” said coach Erik Niggemeyer. “Our fourth and fifth runners really closed the gap. It’s a shame South Hardin didn’t have a full team because they’ve been really rock-solid all year long.

“They were probably the favorite so it’s unfortunate that they didn’t have enough to run, but I couldn’t be more happy with how our girls did.”

South Hardin, ranked 11th in Class 2A, had won four of its last five meets, not to mention a first-place finish by 17 points ahead of East Marshall at Tuesday’s Union Invitational in La Porte City. Seemingly healthy and progressing toward the postseason, the Tigers were stricken by illness in their bid to be their cooperative program’s first NICL champ.

But with 23rd-ranked Claire Damon out because of a throat ailment and Kylee Zoske sent home with similar symptoms, South Hardin didn’t even field a full team.

Damon was on hand to congratulate her racing compatriot Fye afterward, but couldn’t help shedding a few tears after seeing her best chance at an all-conference performance denied.

“It’s just kind of unfortunate, everything hit us at once and we’ll just have to try to get regrouped and hopefully we can get healthy,” South Hardin coach Mike Olson said. “The whole team has been such a tight group all year. We’ve won four of the last five meets and it’d been going so well.

“Today we went from conference favorite to not fielding a team, and the remaining girls just couldn’t get around that. We’ve just got to bounce back and see what we can do (at districts).”

South Hardin was one of only two ranked teams at the NICL meet, as 1A No. 14 Denver came in fourth. East Marshall claimed the title with 78 points behind a trio of top-10 finishers, Dike-New Hartford was second with 85, Hudson took third with 94 and the Cyclones had 103. South Tama, in its last NICL meet, placed fifth, and BCLUW claimed sixth.

The Tigers had finished in front of East Marshall each of the last five times they had faced off this season, with Damon and Fye going back-and-forth throughout the fall. On a cool and breezy day at Oak Leaf Country Club, Fye had only to chase down Cartney and keep her at distance once she overtook the speedy Hudson junior.

“I was two spots out of (first-team) all-conference last year so I wanted to get top-seven today, but I was not expecting to win at all,” said Fye, who is ranked 23rd in 2A. “I knew (Cartney) had a good kick at the end and I’m not so strong at the end, so I knew I had to get in front of her before the last 800 (meters).

“I was expecting (Damon) to be right beside me because she usually is and she pushes me a lot in the middle of the race and we’re so used to running by each other, so that was weird. I feel really bad, I missed her a lot. She gave me a hug after the race.”

East Marshall senior Kristen Amendt, like Fye, moved up into the first-team all-conference distinction for the first time, too, gaining sixth in a time of 16:14. Amendt’s younger sister Bobbi, a freshman, was one spot out of the top seven, earning second-team all-conference honors with an eighth-place finish in 16:21.

“I was going to try to stay with Haley and Claire from South Hardin … so I just had to stay up there with them if I wanted it,” said Kristen Amendt. “I was one off (all-conference) last year so I was hoping to get it this year.

“I was really nervous coming into these last two meets we have before districts, and placing in the top 10 in them has really boosted my confidence a lot. I’m hoping today boosted everyone’s confidence, especially winning this. That’s awesome.”

Key contributors throughout the season, freshmen Carrington Curphy and Megan Pansegrau placed 30th and 39th, respectively, to bridge the gap between themselves and East Marshall’s third runner as best as they have all fall.

“They were just out quicker and kept in contact with our third runner,” said Niggemeyer. “They just ran a more consistent race.”

Kristen Amendt said she found her motivation from Fye as she watched the sophomore make her move moments after the long downhill portion of the race prior to the two-mile marker.

“As soon as I saw that girl (Cartney) fall back, that gave me more confidence to move up and get the two ahead of me,” Amendt said. “I saw it back there when Haley first passed her and I saw her at a corner and she was by herself.”

South Tama’s fifth-place team finish matched its best in three seasons in the NICL, led by senior Taylor Ellenbecker. Ellenbecker earned her third all-conference honor (seventh in 2011, 11th in 2012) by gaining second-team mention as the 10th-place finisher in a time of 16:24. Freshman Allison Yuska collected honorable mention with a 21st-place result (17:15).

BCLUW’s sixth-place finish equaled its best over the last five years, led by a pair of first-time first-teamers. Both Becca Steckelberg and Amelia Tonner took honorable mention status from last year’s meet, and Steckelberg savored the chance to improve upon her eighth-place finish from her freshman campaign.

Steckelberg took fifth in 16:13 and Tonner was seventh in 16:16.

“I was really hoping for the top seven today because I wanted to get it, so I just tried to stay with someone I knew would be up there,” she said. “During the middle of the race I got into seventh place and I told myself I needed to stay up there.

“I didn’t think too much about conference because I didn’t want to psych myself out for it, I just tried to have a normal race and it pushes you for districts because you see you can do it.”

Tonner simply wanted to move up from last year’s 15th-place result.

“It’s really exciting because last year I only got honorable mention and I wasn’t expecting (first team),” said the sophomore. “I was just hoping to get top 14 so finishing top seven is really exciting. It’s my second-best time of the season. I was just trying to make sure I stuck with Becca and kept the spot I was in.”

Grundy Center earned ninth place behind senior Hannah Stumberg, who gained her second straight second-team honors in placing 14th in 16:50. Freshman Tiana Saak was 15th in 16:52.

West Marshall came in 10th with the smallest spread between first and fifth finishers – 19 seconds – as Allison Hilleman led the Trojans’ pack by placing 45th in 18:20.

Gladbrook-Reinbeck and South Hardin both had just three runners. G-R’s Nicole Adair, a junior, earned honorable mention status for the second time in her career with a 20th-place finish (17:11). South Hardin was paced by a pair of honorable mention runners, as sophomores Lydia Rose (16th, 16:56) and Megan Carr (19th, 17:10) led the way.

The Tigers seemed to be the runaway favorite after defeating most of their conference rivals in Tuesday’s Union Invitational, but that’s not the way the meet played out.

“We beat every team here four days ago, and we’d beaten everybody in the conference so we were the target,” Olson said, “and it just didn’t work out for us today. That’s just how the day’s gone. They towed our bus out of here a little while ago with my car keys and my school keys on it, so you either burst into tears or you laugh about it and keep going.

“We’re pretty down right now and that’s to be expected. It’s a big disappointment to everybody. The nice thing is we get a chance next Thursday to make it all better.”

Four NICL teams – South Tama, West Marshall, the Mustangs and the Tigers – all compete in the same 2A state-qualifying meet at the Iowa State University course in Ames. The top three teams and 10 individuals advance to the Nov. 2 state meet in Fort Dodge, and both East Marshall and South Hardin expect to move on.

“We’ve just got to go out there and do what we can do,” Kristen Amendt said. “We were a couple off last year, and this year that’s all coach has been talking about is we do have a chance. From day one he’s been saying we have a chance.

“Coming into these last two meets South Hardin has beaten us by a couple points and coming into today we were all like, ‘We need to do this,’ so we were ready to go and we heard what happened (with South Hardin) and that boosted us a lot and it’s an awesome feeling to win conference. I can’t even describe it.”

Gladbrook-Reinbeck and Grundy Center go to the state-qualifying meet Thursday at Eagle Grove, BCLUW travels to Ottumwa, and West Marshall visits Jesup in Class 1A action.