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Historic season carries West Fargo XC to state

West Fargo cross country runners Alissa Mears, Jessica Roseneau, Christine Baltezore and Ellie Grooters finish as the top four placers last week during the Andrew Carlson Inviational at Rose Creek Golf Course in south Fargo.

Look out North Dakota, because the Packers are headed to the state cross country tournament riding a big wave of momentum.

West Fargo recently swept the Eastern Dakota Conference meet in Grand Forks, taking team and individual titles in both girls and boys divisions.

Jamison Gehrig and Ellie Grooters each were named EDC senior athlete of the year.

Even the West Fargo middle school teams have done well, winning both divisions in the EDC tournament. After a steady climb to the top of the North Dakota cross country rankings, the Packers suddenly have an abundance of qualified runners waiting in the wings.

"The key (to our success is) the numbers have increased," said cross country coach Joe Bailey, who has seen his team steadily improve since joining West Fargo nine years ago. "There were talented runners in the past, but it just seems we have more of them now. That's what helps to make a successful team."

As a little sweetener before the big state tournament meet at 1 p.m. on Oct. 24 in Valley City, the Packers varsity squads also took top honors in the Andrew Carlson Invitational on Oct. 14 at Rose Creek Golf Course in South Fargo. The course only was 3,000 meters long, shorter than the normal 4,000 meters for girls and 5,000 meters for boys.

"It's a fun meet - a good race," Bailey said. "It's a little bit competitive, but probably more just to keep them kind of sharp."

Runners stretched and went on quick jogs to get loose as a stiff wind forced others to huddle together for warmth. Adding to the misery was a relentless rain that saturated the ground and threatened snow. Running hard simply to stay warm may have been stronger motivation than winning.

Boys and girls each were split into two divisions. The West Fargo girls, led by sophomore Alissa Mears' time of 11:38, placed seven runners in the top 10 spots in their division, with Jessica Roseneau and Christine Baltezore only one second off Mears.

The Packers boys also fared well in their respected division, getting a 10:12 first-place finish from junior Nate Peterson. Darin Baltezore brought up third while Luke Johnson and Tony Schulz also made the top 10.

"The kids have run real well. They're talented and they work hard and they do everything we ask of them," Bailey said.

Tough competition awaits

But even with a strong showing at the East Region tournament and a successful cap to the regular season at Rose Creek, stiff competition awaits in Valley City, namely from Bismarck schools.

Both boys and girls Bismarck High School cross country teams are ranked first in the final North Dakota coaches' poll of the season, with West Fargo teams nipping at their heels. Bismarck also has four boys and four girls ranked as top-10 runners in the state.

And though Bismarck Century only is ranked fourth as a team, it has the No. 1 boys runner in Brett Kelly.

Bailey thinks his girls team has a good shot at placing well at the state tournament.

"If we look at our top six of the All-Conference runners, who ran an outstanding race (at the East Region championship), we certainly will be right in there with Bismarck High," he said. "Each week, we seem to have a girl that steps up and runs great."

Some of those girls who ran well during the year will be looked at to produce once more.

"Certainly, we're looking at (Mears) running a good meet," Bailey said. At the EDC meet, Mears took first place with a time of 15:00.44. "That's a great time. I would anticipate that in two weeks she'll be in the 14:00s and competing at the top spot.

Other girls who could have an impact include a group who finished with times in the 15:20s. Ellie Grooters, Christine Baltezore, Jessica Rosenau all were within seven seconds of each other.

"If they can run those times again, that might put them in the top 10 at Valley City," Bailey said. "Britny Bucholz and Brooke Grooters can run faster, too.

"If we can run well, it could be a tight race."

As far as the boys teams, West Fargo might have a bit more of a struggle even though it has top state runners in Gehrig (No. 4) and Spencer Uetz (No. 5).

With Gehrigh and Uetz finishing 1-2 at the East Region meet "and Nate Peterson improving and coming in fifth, that was a great race," Bailey said. "Having two seniors who have run together for four years and are good friends and have run a lot of miles together, that was pretty special for them."

Bailey also hopes other boys will step up at Valley City.

"We will really need Peterson," he said. "Luke Johnson and Darin Baltezore have been pretty consistently our (fourth place and fifth place) runners. I think they can improve a bit.

"We have to have a great race to try to compete with the Bismarck teams."

Get your game face on

With two weeks between the Andrew Carlson Invitational and the state tournament, the Packers have some time to lose their edge. But Bailey isn't worried. In fact, he looks forward to the long stretch.

"It will be time to focus on running," he said. "We still have to keep working fairly hard ... Mental preparation is a lot of it. We need to keep working to keep sharp over the next couple weeks."

In the end, however, where West Fargo finishes at state isn't important.

"We're going in to run our best," he said. "If we do that, than we're happy with it."