Mustangs try to recapture 2014 magic

LE GRAND — Heading to the state cross country championship has become routine for the East Marshall boys cross country team, as the Class 2A No. 15 Mustangs return to the course at Lakeside Municipal Golf Course in Fort Dodge for a sixth-straight time on Saturday.

East Marshall junior Cam Hungerford, the team’s highest finisher at the state qualifying meet in Iowa City last Thursday, said making his third trip to the state meet has him feeling confident about what he can accomplish.

“The first year it’s like you’re scared, then the second year you think ‘I am doing this again,’ then the third year you know the environment,” Hungerford said before practice Wednesday. “We run with top schools all year and now you go out and run with everyone else in the state, so it’s kind of hard to pick your guys you go with. You’ve got to go with the flow and do what you do for your own race and stick with your own guys.”

Senior Seth Kilborn, who has been on a state team every year he’s run for the Mustangs, said his past experiences have shaped the way he is approaching his final state meet.

“I feel like I finally have the knowledge of the course and the competition at the state meet to be very competitive this year,” Kilborn said through email correspondence Wednesday. “Everyone at state starts at an insane pace, and I’ve learned to not get caught in in that, and to run my race.”

During his freshman year, Kilborn was an alternate on the 2014 East Marshall team that won the 2A state title. He said being a part of that group and being a part of Mustangs cross country means something in Le Grand, and he would like nothing more than a chance to add another title to the East Marshall arsenal.

“Over the last four years, I’ve had the privilege of meeting several East Marshall Cross Country alumni,” Kilborn said. “EMXC is such a family that these guys come back to meets and message us encouraging words. For me, it’s all about maintaining the program they built. I want to make all of them proud, as well as the coaches I have had in the past, and currently.”

In order to accomplish that goal, the Mustangs have an uphill battle. They enter the meet as the last of the ranked teams competing, and head coach Trent Taylor said a lot of that has to do with not having any one runner who is considered one of the top in the state.

“What’s interesting about this team, and last year was kind of the same way, we are going into this state meet without having one single ranked individual runner in Class 2A,” Taylor said. “And when you look at the group we have and the times they run in the spring, they are not winning the two miles, they aren’t winning the 1,600s. They’re not winning the 800 or the 4×800, but what they are doing is they are scoring. When you take all those and put them together, that’s what makes it really neat as a cross country team.”

That scenario played out in the Mustangs’ state-qualifying meet, as East Marshall finished just two points ahead of fourth-place finisher Northeast. The Rebels had a fourth- and fifth-place finish, better than the Mustangs’ two top runners in eighth and 10th, but it was the middle placers who put East Marshall over the edge.

“We were a little nervous in (Iowa City) Regina because it was hard to figure out where we sat, but we had those nice middle runners and they passed a lot of runners at the end of the race,” Taylor said. “The last half mile was definitely our race, and if they hadn’t done that we’d be sitting at home right now. They are sleepers, they fly under the radar and do their job. They come to practice every day with their hard hat on and their lunch pale and they get to work knowing that they are going to be running.”

One of those middle runners is senior Brandon Fogt, who actually just joined the cross country squad for the first time this season. Fogt has consistently been the fourth-best Mustang all season, and he’s even beaten Hungerford out for the top finish earlier this year.

He said when he decided to join the cross country team, after having a background as a track runner, he didn’t expect to be such a crucial member of the Mustangs.

“I just went out expecting this to be hard, harder than track season,” Fogt said. “Three miles is really different than 400s and 800s, I didn’t think I was going to be the fourth runner or anything close to these guys. I just try to keep up with Seth and those other top runners, I don’t even know how I am keeping up with them but it’s kind of fun.”

Having that background competing in shorter races, Fogt said he is going to try and use some of the techniques that have worked for him in the track season in this cross country state meet.

“In track, our coaches always say to draft and run behind somebody, so that’s what I’m planning,” he said. “Find someone and run behind them until the finish line then try to draft off of them.”

Kilborn’s influence reaches further than just to newcomers like Fogt. Junior Cade Curphy, who fought with Kilborn all year for the second spot in finishes, said having a guy like Kilborn push him and teach him has done wonders for his running.

“When I was younger into this, in my first two seasons I was always concerned about times and it was Seth actually who said ‘just go run, run your race, run what feels good,'” Curphy said. “It’s good that he’s there because I like to have someone to compete with and we are always working with each other to see who goes out and has the better day.”

Along with Hungerford, Curphy would have qualified for the state tournament had the team not made it, as he finished 10th at the state-qualifying meet. He said there’s something special about being able to make the meet as a team, rather than just going as an individual.

“It’s nice to send individuals but I think it’s more of an accomplishment to send a team because you need more of those great individuals to have a team in,” he said.

Hungerford agreed with Curphy’s thoughts, saying he is really more into continuing to build on the legacy of East Marshall cross country than any individual glory.

“It’s amazing to do it six years in a row. Granted I’ve only done it three years in a row now, but it’s a tradition and you want to keep it going every year,” Hungerford said. “Every year it’s a goal to make it as a team, going as an individual isn’t as great as that tradition. You’ve got your brothers with you, and when they are with you it makes it more fun and more enjoyable, everybody is there, it’s a family and the camaraderie is there.”

Hungerford, Curphy, Kilborn and Fogt have the top four spots locked down, but what will separate the Mustangs from a great finish and an alright finish is how the final three runners fare in the meet. Taylor said, the nice thing about that fifth spot is there are four guys who can all fill in that role on a given day.

“I feel very fortunate that we are going to send eight and run seven, and any one of those numbers five, six and seven can step up and take care of business. That’s pretty comforting going into a meet like this,” Taylor said. “We did some comparisons from last year when we finished in ninth and we compared our times to the top team and the average time difference was 24 seconds. That’s not much, then you start breaking the race down to where can you pick up time, where can you make sure you don’t lose time, and plan for that. Even have individuals as targets that you use as rabbits or goals in the last half mile of the race.”

As Taylor said, East Marshall finished in ninth last season and eighth in 2015, and of course they took first in 2014. He said in order to continue this recent stretch of top-10 state finishes, the guys will have to accomplish some goals, but not ones they haven’t met before.

“I think realistically we need to have a runner run in the mid to high 16s, but if we could have three runners run low to mid 17s that would be fine,” Taylor said. “For us to place well as a team, we can’t have a 19. We are going to have to have that number five run in the 18s, and those are realistic numbers. We have guys on the team that have all done that.”

Hungerford said the goal this season is another top-10 finish, but even if the guys can’t quite manage that he is just happy to be competing with his team all the way to the end.

“I’d like us to get in the top 10, but anything would be acceptable because I know that we are going to do well,” he said. “We have to pour our hearts and souls out into this and if it doesn’t turn out the way we expected, we at least made it to state. We are going as a family, and we are going to finish as a family. As long as we all finish it will be alright.”

The 2A boys portion of the 2017 Iowa State Cross Country is scheduled for a 1:30 p.m. start time in Fort Dodge.