‘A surreal experience’

Albert Lea boys’ cross country team heads to state meet


Sophie Hareid

Junior Gavin Hanke leads the pack of runners at the beginning of a race held in Albert Lea. Hanke was named the Section 1AA champion after winning the section race on Oct. 28.

For the first time in 40 years, the Albert Lea boys’ cross country team is going to compete in the state race. 

The team secured their place among the best runners in Minnesota on Oct. 28 when they came in second place at the section meet, which was held in Faribault. The Tigers earned the runner-up title with 88 points, landing just behind the Winona Winhawks with 77 points. 

The boys were led by veteran and two-time All-Conference runner, junior Gavin Hanke, who took first place in the race with a time of 16:57.9. Other runners contributing to the Tigers’ success were sophomore Isaiah McGaffey, junior Pacey Brekke, junior Luke Wangness and senior Henrik Lange. The runners came in 17th, 19th, 22nd and 29th respectively. 

The team’s place in the state race came as a result of hard work and consistency. According to head coach Jim Haney, most of the runners began training during the spring track season and have not let up since. Immediately following the conclusion of the track season in June, the runners began their summer training before beginning official in-season practices in August. They run five to eight miles six days a week, and they add in speed work and hills every other day. 

The runners trained hard from the very beginning, with the dream of going to state always on their minds. This year the competitive sections for cross country were greatly altered: a third class was created, separating teams into classes A, AA and AAA. Previously there had only been two sections, and Albert Lea had found itself competing alongside much more populous schools like Lakeville South and Owatonna. Thanks to the re-sectioning, the Tigers ended up in the AA class with teams from schools of a similar size like Austin and Red Wing. This gave the boys more hope for post-season success. 

“We felt pretty good going into this season,” said Lange, noting that the section change had evened the playing field. “We were definitely hoping for state, but also just looking for the self improvement that’s really a hallmark of our sport.”

According to coach Haney, the runners also held each other to higher standards throughout the season because they had set ambitious goals. 

“Each runner pushed each other to reach team and individual goals,” he said. “With the possibility of going to state, the team looked at each practice and meet as an opportunity to improve.”

Lange added that the possibility of qualifying for the state race as a team kept him going and drove him to work harder. 

“In the past, running cross country always felt like something I did to improve myself,” he said. “It still was, but now I knew I had to work extra hard for the guys on my team counting on me to perform, too.”

The team had a goal to go to state, but individual goals contributed to each runner’s success, too. Hanke’s personal ambitions boosted his morale going into the section race. 

“My goals were to get into the 16 minute 5k,” he said. “I was able to complete that, which gave me the confidence to lead the section.” 

When race day came around, the team was experiencing a variety of emotions. Hanke recalled having some nerves before running but said feeling that way is normal for him.

“I always feel nervous before a race,” he said. “If I am not nervous, I am not ready to run.” 

Lange, on the other hand, felt ready to go when it came time to run. 

“I had definitely been feeling nervous for the week leading up to the race, but on the day itself I actually felt pretty calm,” he said. “Either way, all the hard work of the season was already done, and all we had left to do was to put it to the test.”

After the race, Haney learned that the team had qualified for the state race after being shown the results by the Faribault coach. Upon hearing the news, the team celebrated their victory together. 

“The whole team found out at about the same time, so it was a lot of yelling and hugging.” Lange said. “We had known we had that chance, but to see it actually happen was definitely something that will stick with me for a long time.” 

Hanke echoed Lange’s sentiment. 

“Coming in second felt great,” he said. “We were jumping around and it was a surreal experience.” 

As they look to the state race on Nov. 6 at the St. Olaf College campus in Northfield, the team has once again set high goals for themselves.

“The goal was to go to the state meet,” Haney said. “Now that we have made it to state, the goal is to win a state championship.” 

Both Lange and Hanke have personal goals that they hope to accomplish while at St. Olaf. Lange hopes to cut seconds off of his time and “break into the 17s” during the race. Hanke aims to place in the top ten or fifteen and wants the overall team to place in the top ten. 

The boys will be sent-off by the community at 11:15 a.m. in the ALHS parking lot before they run at 2:30 p.m. in Northfield.