WEST FARGO — Teammates Onnica Stansbury and Jacob Knodle are racing more against themselves and time this year instead of opponents. The West Fargo Sheyenne pair is climbing the state rankings and finding ways to motivate themselves.
The race distances at cross country meets this fall are normal, but the size of the competitions was adjusted. The meets are much smaller, as the coronavirus pandemic forced the sport to change how it holds events. Meets are now split into groups, allowing only a limited number of teams to compete at a time. Nonconference competition between the highly competitive West Region and East Region teams was also canceled in July.
Stansbury and Knodle have been running past their in-conference competition so far this season. They're the highest-ranked individual runners from the East — currently sitting at least five and six spots ahead of any other Eastern Dakota Conference runners in the latest Class A cross country coaches poll.
“The smaller meets are an adjustment because we're just not used to that, and especially for Jacob and Onnica, when they are head and shoulders above anybody in this conference, it's kind of hard to find some competition,” Sheyenne head cross country coach Troy Thorson said. “They have to be a little bit more mentally on their game because they're not gonna be able to feed off that competition as much when we get into those meets, especially when there's only like three teams in the meet that they're running against.”
The Sheyenne seniors flexed their muscles with three straight first-place finishes in the first three meets of the year. Knodle crossed the finish line in 16 minutes, 31.4 seconds to win the boys race at the Aug. 22 Fargo Public Schools Cross-Country Kick-Off meet at Mickelson Field in Fargo. Stansbury nabbed the top spot with a time of 19:23.5.
At the following meet in Grand Forks, Stansbury won with a time of 18:56.61, over a minute ahead of second-place Elle Sondag from Fargo North (19:59.66). Knodle tallied his first-place finish at the Aug. 29 meet with a time of 15:46.5.
The duo also earned the top spots at the Andrew Nelson Metro Classic in Fargo on Thursday, Sept. 10.
“There’ll be times when we run within the conference that (Stansbury) will get some competition, but for the most part, if you look at the results, I don’t know if anybody’s come in within a minute, minute and a half of her in a race for the first two meets,” Thorson said. “She’s definitely working on creating some of that motivation just keep pushing through her races.”
Stansbury and Knodle have consistently been the highest-ranked East Region runners in the state throughout the start of the season. Stansbury was No. 8 in the first poll, jumped to No. 2, and now sits at No. 3. Knodle, who is currently ranked No. 2, has flip-flopped between the second and third spots.
If they're not yet having to catch anyone to close the race, competitions have required them to lock in that mental toughness.
“It’s different. But at the same time, I kind of like how we have less teams to compete against,” Stansbury said. “It can go both ways. Because at this point, I've realized that really, my only competition right now is from the West. So racing this year in the meet, it's basically me trying to push myself to get a better time rather than competing against other people. So it’s more of waiting for state to come so I can finally compete with the West.”
Knodle said once the race gets going, the instincts take over and it’s business as usual.
“Across the state, this (boys) senior class may be one of the best senior classes we’ve ever had in this state as far as running in cross country,” Thorson said. “That senior class, the depth of it, it’s a really tough group.”
The coaches poll rankings also give the duo a little boost, Knodle said.
“It’s definitely encouraging, especially when you know that you’ve put in a lot of hard work to be able to see some of the payoffs,” he said. “Moving forward, I'm just trying to make sure I stay focused on always trying to improve so that when it comes time to see what the polls really mean when we race, that I’ll be ready for that.”
Knodle and Stansbury, who both started running in eighth grade, have made program history with the highest cross country state finishes (Stansbury, ninth; Knodle, seventh) for the Mustangs.
Both runners have made leaps since they were freshmen. Knodle placed 49th his freshman season and Stansbury finished 31st. Neither athlete thought they’d become a top runner in the state. Their coach had more faith.
“I'm not surprised by it because I get a front-row seat to that every day. I definitely knew they were capable of doing that,” Thorson said. “...This hasn’t just happened within a season. This has been coming for some time. Jacob started 49th at state as a freshman and he’s worked his way up to one of the best or runners in the state. They’re great at being consistent for a long time.”
The runners showed that consistency this summer. After their track seasons were canceled this spring, Knodle, Stansbury and their team immediately started training to get ready for the fall cross country season.
“Both Jacob and Onnica took a hard circumstance of losing their season in track in the spring, and I think they came out of it more motivated and they were more committed,” Thorson said. “I think they also have the mentality that, ‘We’d better cherish this because it could be taken away at any time.’”