CROSS COUNTRY SECTIONS
An outdoorsman who enjoys spending his summer days fly fishing when time allows, it wasn't surprising that Mike Bushey related one of his favorite hobbies to his Cloquet boys cross country team entering this weekend's Class AA state meet.
"We're the small fish in a big pond, but at least we're swimming," said Bushey with a chuckle.
Bushey, now in his 18th season leading the Lumberjacks, was referring to the size of the schools his small-town boys will be lining up with at the starting line Saturday morning at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn.
According to the Minnesota State High School League, Rosemount, Prior Lake, Stillwater Area and Edina all boast school enrollments over 2,000 students. Wayzata, the state's top-ranked program in boys Class AA — even recognized nationally — comes in at a whopping 3,120 teenagers, grades 9-12.
Officially, Cloquet houses 594 students — more than five times fewer than the top-rated Trojans. In fact, Bushey's bunch is the smallest of the 16 teams traveling to Northfield this weekend.
Yet, being the little guy hasn't fazed Cloquet all fall. They were the tiniest team at last Thursday's Section 7AA championships at the Cloquet Country Club, but that didn't slow them down from running to a second-place finish and qualifying for their second straight state meet and fifth in school history.
"They had a good day," said Bushey, as his Lumberjacks scored 76 points, 20 points ahead of third-place Andover. "They ran to their potential. As a coach, that's exciting."
Taking five of the top nine spots, Forest Lake cruised to the win, while the Rangers also landed the first four girls' places in sweeping the team titles.
Yet, it was Cloquet that was most jubilant after the boys race. After hearing of their runner-up finish, the team broke into its customary "Ripsaw" school chant, along with celebratory classmates, fans and family members.
"I fell into tears," said Cloquet's Blaine Bong, a junior who covered the five kilometer course in 17 minutes, 31.5 seconds for a 13th place finish. "It takes a bit to get me to cry. It was overwhelming."
Bong is returning to the Lumberjacks from last year's state squad, as is junior classmate Aidan Ripp, who placed third last week, finishing in 16:45.5 to top all locals. Senior teammate Blake Desmond — taking 21st in 17:53.5 — is also back.
But it's been the steady improvement of other runners that has led the Lumberjacks back to the state's pinnacle. Runners like sophomore Jordan Allen (19th), junior Brady Hall (20th), senior Ethan Matzdorf (49th) and freshman Josh Sanders (51st) littered the scoring sheets at the CCC, while they have continued to push a team further and further this fall.
For example, Hall had never ran a varsity race before September. Saturday, he'll be lining up against some of the state's largest and most elite runners.
"He has no idea," said Bushey with a laugh. "He's just going to be running along with his brothers."
Ripp agreed, expressing that what makes this team go is their closeness and chemistry with one another. And slowly, but surely, they've climbed the leaderboards, and here they are, heading to St. Olaf.
"We've been keeping things positive and really just bonding as a team," said Ripp, the team's top runner despite returning to the U.S. just one week prior to the season after competing in Europe for Nordic-combined ski racing with the United States Junior National Team over the summer. "We've made some really tight friendships with each other. That's such an important part of it."
The Class AA girls and boys races begin Saturday at 10 and 11 a.m. and Class A girls and boys will follow at 1 and 2 p.m., respectively.
Cloquet freshman Lauren Cawcutt also qualified for the girls state competition, finishing 16th in 20:21.7 last Thursday.
Cloquet will also host a pep send-off Friday morning at the Cloquet High School gymnasium at 8:40 a.m., followed by a lap through the new middle school, with hundreds of encouraging students lining the hallways.
"I always remember it being so surreal," recalled Ripp of his days as a middle-school student cheering on former state entrants. "It's such a cool feeling to have your school send you off."
"I wanted to do it again," said Bong, who experienced the send-off last year. "It's an amazing moment to be able to run through there and show kids that if you work hard, you could maybe make it to state one day, too."
And even when you're the small fish in the big pond, you're still swimming with pride.
"It's an amazing feeling to say that Cloquet is still here," Bong said. "And we're willing to put in that work."
ML-WR-B's Olson finishes third, Esko's Kemp fourth
Seeking to defend his Section 7A boys crown from a year ago at the CCC, Moose Lake-Willow River-Barnum's Ethan Olson had an opportunity to do what most prep runners can't.
Geno Uhrbom had other plans.
Uhrbom continued his undefeated season and the state's top-ranked Class A runner rolled to the 7A crown last week in uncontested fashion.
Uhrbom, a freshman for Greenway-Nashwauk-Keewatin, finished the 5K in 16:28, 27 seconds ahead of runner-up Jake Paron of North Shore and Olson in 17:09.8 for third.
Esko's Josh Kemp claimed fourth at 17:15.9.
Yet, it was Uhrbom's day.
"He's having probably the best season that someone could possibly have," said Olson of his counterpart, posting personal-record times a minute faster than a year ago. "He ran a perfect race. I tried to stick with him for the first mile, but he just kept pushing the pace and never gave up.
"The kid is amazing," Olson added.
As is Olson, whose body of work throughout his career as a Rebel is nothing short of decorated. He was last year's section winner and will make his fourth trip to St. Olaf this weekend.
Likewise, Kemp is also making multiple returns to the state meet, while Cromwell-Wright-Floodwood's Cameron Dickey (9th) and Esko's Sam Rengo (10th) also qualified individually.
North Shore won the boys title followed by GNK and Esko in third, while Proctor edged out North Shore in girls. Moose Lake-Willow River-Banrum girls took fourth and South Ridge girls placed fifth overall.
Ranked No. 1, Uhrbom is hoping for a top-three finish, but in Olson's eyes, the freshman phenom could win it.
"It's an honor," Uhrbom told the Duluth News Tribune afterward.
"He's got a really good chance," said Olson. "He's ready."
Olson plans to run collegiately at Minnesota-Duluth next fall, but before then, he's got his mind set on one final run in Northfield.
"For four years here, I couldn't have asked for anything more," said the 6-foot-1, 155-pound Olson. "I have one last week of cross country. It'll be a hard last race. It's been a heck of a run."