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Cross country: 40th Lions "Meet of Champions" tomorrow at Arrowwood

Runners lined up for the start of a recent boys' cross country meet. Alexandria will host the 40th annual Lions "Meet of Champions" cross country race tomorrow, Saturday, in an event that brings in much of the top talent in the state. (Contributed)

In 1973, no one knew how big the cross country Lions Meet of Champions would become in Alexandria.

Fewer than 10 boys' high school teams lined up that day as Fargo South won the inaugural race. Now, 40 years later, more than 1,500 runners representing 24 teams will ascend on Arrowwood Resort in Alexandria on Saturday morning.

"When you host a meet like this, the negative is there's a lot of responsibility on the coaches and administration and the grounds crew," Alexandria head coach Mark Nelsen said. "The Lions Club coordinates all that. There's time and a lot of energy put into it. But when you see the meet come off and you see those teams show up...I don't know if we have another high school event that brings that many kids into town with one event. It's exciting to be a part of it."

Nelsen has seen it grow from those beginning stages as much as anyone over the years. Since 1980, he has been at the helm of plenty of successful Alexandria cross country teams. He was an assistant for the Cardinals before that. In all, it adds up to more than 30 years of watching it become what many consider a top-five cross country event in Minnesota.

"There's four or five meets that have been long established," Nelsen said. "The Lions is one of those. The meet in Duluth, the Swain, the [Roy] Griak [Invitational] is fairly young, 15-18 years old, but that's big; one in Princeton. But the Alex Lions Meet of Champions goes down as one of the top five."

Not only because of the depth of the field but because of the strength of the runners on hand. The women's varsity race will feature 10 girls ranked in the top 12 of the Minnesota State Coaches Association polls. Included in that are Alexandria's Megan and Bethany Hasz, who are ranked fourth and fifth, respectively.

The boys' race is headlined by defending Class AA state champion Stillwater. The Ponies won the Milaca Mega Meet and are ranked No. 1 in the state and 16th nationally behind a deep and talented lineup. Eight runners overall will come to Alexandria ranked inside the top 12 in the individual boys' polls.

Seeing that talent at one venue is what it's all about for the members of the local Lions Club that help put the meet together every year. Doing that for an event this big takes a lot of commitment from those members before and on the day of the event. But once it all comes together, it has proven to be well worth it over the last 40 years.

"That in itself is why we keep doing it," Lions Club member Jerry Hansen said. "It brings, really, some of the best cross country teams in from across the state. What's really kind of a thrill is to see the effort that these young people put into this and the hard work that they've had to do to get to this point...what really is satisfying is to see all the parents, grandparents, friends, relatives, that come and support the kids and to see the presentation of awards afterwards and the thrill on their faces."

That thrill for the athlete comes from knowing how hard it is to get on the podium. Alexandria knows all about that team-wise. The Cardinals' last win in its home meet came in 1999 when the girls took the team title. The boys last won the Lions Invite in 1981.

Things won't be any easier this year for either the boys or the girls. Monticello is back on the girls' side, trying to capture its third straight team title. The Stillwater boys are going for their fourth straight Lions Invite championship.

"It's a tough one to get on the podium," Nelsen said.

The junior high division will kick off the meet on Saturday at 10:30 a.m. The junior varsity boys and girls teams will follow that before the varsity girls line up around 12:15. The boys' varsity will then round out the races with a 12:45 start time.

For the Cardinals, their focus with both varsity teams is on getting better against a talented field. It's the final tune-up for Alexandria before championship meets start with the Central Lakes Conference meet in Fergus Falls on October 16.

"We put a lot of emphasis on running to continue to improve week to week," Nelsen said of his team's goals on Saturday. "For some kids that's improving in their times, for some it's correcting errors that they made, like getting out to faster starts or challenging themselves in the middle of a race. This is truly championship time. It's the Lions and then conference is next, so this should be the best race of the season now for a lot of our runners."

Eric Morken

Eric Morken is the sports and outdoor editor at the Echo Press and Osakis Review newspapers in Douglas County, MN. Follow him on Twitter at echo_sports.

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