Cross-country girls earn third straight section title

Forest Lake ran past 15 other teams in Cloquet last Thursday to earn its third consecutive Section 7AA girls cross-country title. The Rangers on Saturday will make their fourth straight trip to the state meet in Northfield.

Section runner-up Elk River will join the 16-team state field at St. Olaf College. The Elks scored 81 points at the windy, cold meet, 31 back of Forest Lake.

While expecting to win the meet, coach Eric Kaluza said it is still a relief to make it official.

“We don’t get the hotel room or do anything until we know we’re in,” he said.

Sophomore Emma Benner led all but about 100 yards and took home the section title with a time of 14:38. She was neck-and-neck with North Branch ninth-grader Rhianna Rinke coming down the stretch and fell behind the Viking with about 300 meters to go. They hit the last corner at the 200-meter mark, and Benner turned it on to earn first place by three seconds.

It is the first section medalist honors for Benner, who finished fifth at last year’s meet in Princeton and 11th as an eighth-grader in Cloquet the year before.

This year’s time marked an improvement of 43 seconds from the time she posted on the same course in 2011. Benner has entered the individual state rankings for the first time. She will head into state ranked 12th in Class AA.

Forest Lake’s other four scorers all posted top-20 finishes last week to clinch the comfortable win.

“Emma had a fantastic meet,” Kaluza said. “The rest of them ran to their capabilities, and I’m happy for them, but we can still do better.”

Eighth-grader Caroline Schoessow took sixth in 14:58. Ninth-grader Allie Bartlett continued her late-season push with a time of 15 minutes flat, good for seventh. Ninth-graders Maria Valentin and Amanda Forletti wrapped up the scoring by placing 16th in 15:37 and 20th in 15:52, respectively.

Jessica Overland (16:00) and Miranda Overland (16:30) rounded out Forest Lake’s crew.

As a team, Forest Lake is ranked eighth. A great showing could put the Rangers in the top three at state, Kaluza said, and he expects to finish in the top half of the field. Wayzata sits atop the rankings followed by Suburban East Conference champion East Ridge.

Last year the Rangers entered the meet ranked 11th and took fourth.

The Rangers will race out of the gate at 10 a.m.