Cross-Country: Willmar Cardinals looking forward to '23


— Both the


boys and girls cross-country teams are running it back in 2023.

Both squads have everyone back from its section teams last season. And both squads have their expectations high as new challengers emerge in the postseason.

"A start of a season is so full of excitement and potential," said Cardinals head cross-country coach Connor Haugen. "It's tough not to catch some good energy."

The girls squad is coming off a fifth-place showing in the Class AA state championship meet, a second-place finish in Section 8AA and third place in the Central Lakes Conference. The boys were fourth in the section and sixth in the CLC and return a pair of state runners in Sully Anez and Fathi Dubet.

"Everybody's back and then some," Haugen said. "We started off with 44 (boys and girls) on the roster the first day and now we're above 70. It has been a crazy couple of weeks. ... Those numbers are really going to help us this year."

The road to state will get harder for both teams this fall. Along with state standouts like Alexandria and Rocori back in 8AA, Perham now joins the section. Perham is the defending Class A girls state champions while the boys placed third at state a season ago.

Willmar got a taste of that added competition after competing in Perham's "Brave Like Gabe" Early Bird Invitational on Aug. 26. Without its top two runners — juniors Lauren and Erin Eilers — the girls placed fifth and the boys were sixth.

"It is going to be a battle this year," Haugen said. "We have the toughest section in the state. We have three of the top five in the state on the girls side (Alexandria third, Willmar fourth, Perham fifth). On the boys side, we aren't ranked yet but we fully expect to be. ... That's some pretty incredible competition. We see this as an opportunity because the team that comes out of our section will be in a great place at state.

"We're just going to take it one meet at a time and we're going to continue to believe in ourselves and each other. We can't control the people around us; we can only focus on us."

Both teams have a strong foundation to build on.

The girls squad will once again be led by the Eilers twins, Lauren and Erin. Lauren is ranked seventh in the state preseason poll after placing eighth at state last season. Erin Eilers was 17th at state and was an All-Central Lakes Conference performer along with her sister. Both are juniors.

Eighth-grader Sophia Negen is back after an All-CLC season in '22. Senior Madi Engstrom, senior Jaidyn Flolo, senior Hannah Quinn and sophomore Leah Eystad also return from last season's state squad. With the number of athletes on the team, the lineup could constantly be changing. It's a good problem to have for Haugen.

"There's a laundry list of names," Haugen said about the depth of the girls' lineup. "You got Jaidyn Flolo, you have (freshman) Gabby Martinez, you have Leah Eystad, you have (eighth-grader) Anna Konold. You can basically go through our roster and check off girls that could end up being on the varsity team or in those alternate spots. While it's great, it's kind of frustrating from a perspective of well, I wish I could get all of those girls varsity spots because they deserve it. We have 10-to-12 girls hitting the standard for the average seventh runner at state last year."

The boys team will be led by Anez, a junior who is one of the top returning runners in Class AA. Ranked second in the preseason poll, Anez already started off the '23 season by breaking a school record with a third-place time of 15 minutes, 23.40 seconds at Perham.

"It's kind of an interesting spot to be at that every PR you have is a school record," Haugen said of Anez.

Dubet, a senior, placed 11th at 16:44.50.

"Fathi started off with a PR as well; he's looking great," Haugen said. "And there's more to come from him."

Haugen added, "(Freshman) Zach Engstom started off about 45 seconds faster than he ended the season last year. (Senior) Matt Eystad started off half a minute faster than he ended last year. (Junior) Eli Heinen started off not with a PR but 20 seconds faster than he started last year. Then you have a string of PRs from (junior) David Lammers, (junior) Jaret Brakken who started off a minute faster than his PR last year."

After Anez and Dubet, any number of runners may contribute to the boys varsity team this season.

"There are five-to-10 kids that could fill those spots three-through-seven," Haugen said. "It's pretty incredible depth. The amazing thing about the boys is a lot of them were sophomores last season and the jump from sophomore to junior can be pretty big. So we're very hopeful on the boys' side."

"Our boys are going to surprise some people this year," Haugen added.

Along with a competitive conference season, the Cardinals will face top competition at Gale Woods in Minnetrista on Sept. 7 and the Lucky Lindy in Little Falls on Sept. 14. Willmar's lone home meet is Saturday, Sept. 30 at Eagle Creek Golf Club. Top teams there include Perham, Hopkins and Marshall. State will also have a different look this season, moving from St. Olaf College in Northfield to Les Bolstad Golf Course in Falcon Heights.

"I don't think there's a single throwaway meet this year," Haugen said. "Our home meet will be a good state look for us. The new course is hilly, a lot like our home meet."