STATE XC PREVIEW: No. 7 Hawks just happy to run

JEWELL – Darrell Paulsen admits that he was overwhelmed, perhaps even intimidated, by the state meet atmosphere during his rookie year as the South Hamilton cross country coach a season ago.

The 5,000-plus fans and nearly 1,000 competitors – it was a lot to take in for he and his runners, and it showed up in the results.

But the disappointments of the past – the Hawks were 14th in the Class 2A field in 2012 – only serve as motivation in the present for the seventh-ranked (1A) South Hamilton girls’ team as it prepares to compete at the Iowa High School Cross Country Championships for the third consecutive year on Saturday at Lakeside Golf Course near Fort Dodge.

“I was very intimidated last year with just the amount of people that are there from all the classes,” Paulsen said. “Last year we went in thinking we could get in the top 10, but it just didn’t happen. But the goal this year is about the same as last year.”

Saturday’s meet – one of the largest in the country with a total of 995 competing athletes from 178 schools – will begin at 11 a.m. with the girls’ 4A race. South Hamilton is scheduled to go off with the rest of the 1A field at 2 p.m.

Senior Meghan Fisher and juniors Kayla Lucas, Kali Lucas and Allyson Ervin will all be under the state spotlight for the third time. Junior Sarah Rueger and sophomore Rachael Huegerich are two-time qualifiers and senior Kayla Monthei – a rookie to the sport this fall – will take her cues from the rest of her teammates in her first state meet experience.

Kayla Lucas has been the unquestioned leader of the team since she first stepped onto the course in 2011 and she’s steadily climbed the state leaderboard in her two previous state runs at Lakeside. She was 58th as a freshman and improved by 17 seconds to jump up to 36th last fall.

Fisher was 71st in 2011 and 78th in 2012.

South Hamilton’s strength in the regular season was its depth and pack running with five girls consistently finishing in the top 25. But that won’t necessarily work against a star-studded state field of more than 120 runners; teams that routinely compete for the prized spots usually have one, two and sometimes three runners in the top 20.

Laura Sigmund was the last Hawk to place in the top 20 when she was eighth in 2007.

“It’s the best 15 teams (in the state) there and it’s fun to watch because they’re all good,” Paulsen said.

Rankings aside, Paulsen says if his squad can crack the top 10 they’ll all walk away satisfied.

“If we can get into the top 10, that would be great,” he said. “But I won’t be disappointed with anything that happens. I’m just happy we made it and hopefully (the girls) will run their best.”

Three former individual champions will look to add more gold to their haul. Griswold junior Rebekah Topham has won the last two girls’ 1A titles, Chandler Austin of Boone was the 2012 boys’ 3A winner and Grace Gibbons of Gilbert picked up the girls’ 4A championship running for West Des Moines Dowling in 2011.

The girls’ 1A race is sure to be tightly contested, as Topham will be pushed by the 2012 silver and bronze medalists – Leah Seivert of Sibley-Ocheyedan and Tiffany Christensen of Eagle Grove.

Linn-Mar’s Stephanie Jenks, last year’s state meet darling when she won the girls’ 4A crown in 13:42 as a freshman, will not be back to defend. One of the country’s premier junior triathletes, Jenks opted to forgo cross country this fall and concentrate on swimming for the Lions.