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Seconds count; Kiersten Conway on to state

Lady Spartans just miss qualifying as a cross country team
Kiersten Conway, flanked by teammates Erin Kerkhoff (left) and Sophie Nicol (right) displays proof that she did, indeed, get her ticket punched to the State 3A cross country meet. Conway was sixth at the Solon qualifying meet, good for an individual spot on the starting line. Kerkhoff and Nicol just missed qualifying, but were top-25 runners. Solon’s girls missed a team slot by just eight points. (photo by Joe Wilkinson)

SOLON– A season spent near the top of the pack has paid off for Solon freshman Kiersten Conway. She will be on the starting line Oct. 28 at the State Cross Country Meet in Fort Dodge. Conway was sixth in the Oct. 19 regional qualifying meet in Solon.
Across Iowa, the top 15 individuals and the first, second and third place teams from each of five Class 3A regional meets qualify for state. The Solon meet featured No. 1 Dubuque Wahlert, No. 12 Grinnell, No. 13 Benton, as well as Davenport Assumption and Solon, both ranked in the next five teams to watch. With five of Iowa’s top 3A girls teams on one starting line, something had to give.
The coaches rankings held true. Wahlert sailed to the team title with 47 points and all five scoring runners in the top 15. Grinnell’s 99 points gave them the edge for second. Benton (106) grabbed the final pass, with Assumption (111) and Solon (114) each within seconds of returning to state. Class 3A 2016 state champ Adriana Katcher of Center Point-Urbana was the individual winner, in 18:40.
Conway broke out well from the start, running 10th as 80 runners disappeared into the woods at the Solon Recreation and Nature Area. “Through the race, as I ran, I really wanted to get the next person, then the next,” reviewed Conway. “I just wanted to end up with the fewest points (and best finish) for my team.”
She brought it down to sixth place in 19:36 at the finish line. No surprise to her coach, though. “Kiersten ran 50 seconds faster than her best time all year. She beat four ranked runners,” said coach Emy Williams.
So, in her first weeks of high school, how does the freshman feel, heading to her sport’s state championship? “Awesome! It’s sinking in,” she beamed. “But it would be a lot more fun if my team could have gone, instead of just me.”
They tried. Junior Erin Kerkhoff just missed the cut, finishing 17th (20:41). Senior Sophie Nicol was 27th (21:17). Each just missed going to state in 2015, but were mainstays last year, when the team qualified. Sophomores Ella Düster (29th, 21:31) and Nicole Shafer (35th, 21:39) wrapped up the scoring. Freshman Ashley Stinocher (49th, 22:33) and junior Saige Hauer (59th, 23:18) crossed sixth and seventh for Solon.
Like a family? You hear that a lot among runners. Shared experiences, a lot of effort; sometimes pain goes with it. It’s hard to close the door when it’s over. Now a senior, Nicol reflected on her last cross country race. “I left it all out there. But I wish it would have been better,” she said. “The first thing I thought about, when I crossed the finish line (and learned the results) was that it was the last time to run with the people you love the most.”
After the drama of who is going to state, the rest of the teams shook out as; Mount Pleasant sixth place (139 points), then Fort Madison (163), Mount Vernon-Lisbon (177), Center Point-Urbana (196), South Tama (288), and three teams without full seven-runner lineups; Keokuk, Liberty and West Burlington-Notre Dame.

Boys 10th at qualifier; times still dropping
With times still dropping across the Solon boys lineup, it might not have been the best time to end their season. The boys were 10th in the regional qualifying meet. No Spartans moved on to the state meet. However, with times dropping through the season, it raises the question, “What about next year?”
Each Solon runner saw a drop– again– from September’s clockings at the Solon Invitational. Back on their home course for the state qualifier… the drops ranged from eight to 68 seconds.
How does that feel?
“Pretty good,” admitted junior Andrew Bransky. “I didn’t have a great start. But after the first mile, I got better… picked it up toward the end.” Bransky dropped from 19:15 to 18:43 on the same course. No. 1 runner Carl Richey dropped 31 seconds. Senior Payton Philipp cut 59 seconds off his time around the 5 kilometer Solon course. Their teammates saw similar cuts.
“Payton and Carl were great leaders on the team,” stressed Williams. “Payton worked hard but kept it light and Carl was a leader by example and always pushed himself. Seniors Christian Haight, Ryan Sears, Logan Yakish, and Elijah McKinnis will also be greatly missed.”
Though the Spartans lose two of their top runners– Carl Richey and Philipp– those dropping times and a crowd of runners returning, are encouraging; especially with four freshmen moving in and out of three varsity spots during the season. “I feel good about next year,” said Bransky. “We return nearly the full varsity, plus a few (other) sophomores and freshmen from JV. If we keep improving times like we have been, we should be really good next year.”
“We have talked a lot with the boys about how they are on the edge of being a really good team,” said Williams. “There were tons of improvement from last year to this year and we just have to keep that going. I think they are excited about the future.”
For the present, Mount Vernon-Lisbon, fourth-ranked among Class 3A boys, won the Solon regional qualifier, with 62 points; including three top-10 runners. Grinnell, 10th-ranked in boys 3A, kept it close; its 69 points good for second place. Center Point-Urbana, with medalist Miles Bach (16:17) was third. Benton Community (105) grabbed fourth place, followed by Wahlert (124), Mount Pleasant (146), Fort Madison (170), Davenport Assumption (205), Liberty (231), and Solon (10th, 238). Following were West Burlington-Notre Dame (251), South Tama (3830 and Keokuk (389). Two schools at the qualifier did not field full teams.