The Alexandria girls cross country team has run near the top of the field in every race it has been in this fall, and its annual home invite at the Lions Meet of Champions would really give the Cardinals a good idea of where they stand.

This year’s 47th annual running of the Lions Meet featured six girls teams in the top 12 of the state rankings. Alexandria is one of those at No. 10, but the Cardinals placed better than that ranking among other programs in the polls as they finished third of all 18 programs total with 88 points.

“I think it shows we have strength in numbers and that we’re getting to where we should be peaking at the end of the season,” Alexandria head coach Travis Hochhalter said. “I think we still have better races to come.”

The only teams to beat Alexandria were top-ranked Stillwater with 40 points, and sixth-ranked St. Paul Highland Park with 75. Four of the Cardinals’ runners who counted toward the team score finished in the top 20.

“Our girls team raced amazing,” one of the seniors of the team, Caitlin Bright said. “At the start of this meet, I told the girls, ‘We’re great. Let’s be great.’ We raced tough, got out in that 400, and we were just not going to back down. A lot of the girls pushed it, and I’m super proud of how we did.”

Sophomore Aleah Miller paced the group with a ninth-place finish in 19:11.7. Her younger sister, eighth-grader Jaelyn Miller, was next in 12th place (19:16.1) before Emma Ecker (17th, 19:25.7), Giselle Jahner (18th, 19:26.4) and senior Bethany Miller (32nd, 19:49.1) rounded out the scoring.

Alexandria's Giselle Jahner runs in the rain during the beginning stages of the Lions Meet of Champions on Saturday. Jahner finished 18th overall in a time of 19:26.4. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)
Alexandria's Giselle Jahner runs in the rain during the beginning stages of the Lions Meet of Champions on Saturday. Jahner finished 18th overall in a time of 19:26.4. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)

“It’s a team that runs as a pack,” Hochhalter said. “We have seven girls who get to run varsity, but we have nine girls who any one of them can run well. It makes it fun when you have a big group. Aleah today stepped up, which was nice. It bounces around so much. It bodes well for us to run well as a team, and if we can do a few little things in the next couple weeks, we’ll be sitting pretty good.”

Bright has led Alexandria at times this fall, but said she didn’t run her best race on Saturday. She finished 34th in a time of 19:53.2, while Taelor Dummer (44th, 20:10.1) finished off the varsity lineup.

All the girls varsity runners had to deal with the cool temperatures and heavy rains at the start of their race. The fact that Bright didn’t figure into the scoring and the Cardinals still finished third in a talented field is a testament to their depth.

“My race didn’t go as great as I planned,” Bright said. “You’re going to have those days, and it’s just a matter of pushing through them. I was just so grateful that we have such a strong team to be able to make up for it. We’re all going to have good days and bad days, so I’m so blessed to be part of a team where we can pick each other up.”

Bright said this group of girls is always pushing each other. The fact that they are also so closely bunched together makes every day competitive and brings out the best in each athlete.

Alexandria's Caitlin Bright (front) and Bethany Miller run at the Lions Meet of Champions on Saturday. Miller finished 32nd in a time of 19:49.1 and Bright was 34th in 19:53.2. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)
Alexandria's Caitlin Bright (front) and Bethany Miller run at the Lions Meet of Champions on Saturday. Miller finished 32nd in a time of 19:49.1 and Bright was 34th in 19:53.2. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)

“One of the biggest things is we all train together,” Bright said. “We run the meets together, we run practices together, we run workouts together. I can tell you for a fact that if I didn’t have the girls we have on this team now, I don’t know if I’d be able to push myself the way I have this season. It’s just created such a cool dynamic within the team.”

It’s why this year’s team feels entirely capable of adding to a long history for this program by competing for another section title.

The Cardinals are back at Arrowwood Resort and Conference Center on Oct. 15 for the Central Lakes Conference championship before going to the River Oaks Golf Course near Cold Spring for the Section 8AA meet on Oct. 24.

A top-two finish there would put the Cardinals back at the state meet on Nov. 2, a year after they finished eighth at St. Olaf College in 2018.

“Sure,” Hochhalter said of expectations being to win the 8AA meet. “That’s every year. If you’re out for cross country, it’s fun and you challenge yourself personally, but as a team, the rich history and tradition is there. Why not go for it? Why would we stop at being mediocre? We’re always striving for that, always working in the workouts. The goal is there, but we have a tough section. If we get out of our section, we’ll be down there and do the best we can.”

LIONS MEET OF CHAMPIONS

GIRLS VARSITY TEAM SCORES - Stillwater - 40; St. Paul Highland Park - 75; Alexandria - 88; Minnetonka - 108; Willmar - 113; White Bear Lake - 133; Marshall - 182; Mounds View - 233; Sartell - 258; Roseville - 269; Sioux Falls Washington - 295; Chanhassen - 298; Becker - 359; Buffalo - 373; Monticello - 429; Chaska - 499; St. Cloud Apollo - 515; Benilde-St. Margaret - 563

TOP-FIVE INDIVIDUALS - Molly Moening, St. Paul Highland Park - 18:25.1; Ana Weaver, Stillwater - 18:26.4; Ellie Abraham, Brookings - 18:48.7; Brooke Elfert, Stillwater - 18:53.3; Ella Graham, Minnetonka - 18:56.7