NORTHFIELD – When senior Jack Van Kempen came down the home stretch in front of thousands of spectators at the state cross country meet on Saturday, he was smiling ear to ear.

In the final race of his West Central Area high school career, he finished as the ninth-fastest runner in Class A with a time of 16:16.2 at St. Olaf College.

“This was the best I’ve ever done,” Van Kempen said. “It means the world to me. The first time I ran here I was in eighth grade. Through the first mile, I was probably second to last. I kept thinking to myself that this sport sucks. But I stuck it out, and I’m amazed at where I am and where this program is now.”

The Knights finished second as a team – eight points behind powerhouse Perham. Head coach John Van Kempen was emotional after his team’s performance.

“I don’t know what to say right now,” he said. “All of them can look back on this day and be proud of what they accomplished. I look at the seniors, who have been a big part of this team for some time, and I think they can appreciate what they were able to do. It’s incredible, and I’m so proud.”

Coach Van Kempen celebrated his 25th wedding anniversary in Northfield on Saturday. He had his wife and his two daughters there watching his son, Jack, run the best race of his life.

“I thought it would be a good day if he finished in the top 25,” the coach said. “Ninth is something I didn’t expect. What a day. Our whole family is here for this, and it’s just something, isn’t it?”

Senior Jacob Bright was the fastest WCA runner with a time of 15:43.38, good for third in the field. Sophomore Alex Salwasser finished in 19th place in 6:31.5.

Kade Runge (16:54.3) and Kyle Schill (17:02.3) took 45th and 53rd, respectively. The Knights had a team score of 83, which earned them their second state runner-up trophy in as many years.

“It was a good day for all of us,” Jack Van Kempen said. “I can look back at the last five years and be proud of everything that we’ve done. Our coaches have done such a good job preparing us every day. My teammates have been amazing, and I can’t thank them enough.”

Jacob Bright (20) leads the pack of Knights at the start of the Class A state tournament race. WCA finished in second place for the second striaght year at St. Olaf College on Saturday. (Jared Rubado / Echo Press)
Jacob Bright (20) leads the pack of Knights at the start of the Class A state tournament race. WCA finished in second place for the second striaght year at St. Olaf College on Saturday. (Jared Rubado / Echo Press)

Greenway-Nashwauk-Keewatin junior Geno Uhrbomb finished first overall with a time of 15:27.6. It was 15 seconds faster than second-place finisher Emmet Anderson (15:42.6) of Staples-Motley.

Kyle Schill, Bright and Van Kempen have run at St. Olaf for the last five years. Not only has WCA consistently sent a team to state, but it has also yet to finish outside the top eight. Even though the team is losing two key seniors, the Knights are set up for success in years to come.

“Jake and Jack are going to be missed, but guys like Kyle, Kade, Alex, Reubens (Swanson) and Shad (Swanson) are going to step up,” coach Van Kempen said. “The seniors have shown them what it takes to be great in this sport.”

Nelson and Bright run fourth straight

WCA senior Teagan Nelson and sophomore Lexi Bright qualified for the state Class A girls race out of Section 6A. It was the fourth consecutive year both girls ran at St. Olaf.

Nelson finished in 91st place with a time of 20:33.5. Bright wasn’t too far behind with a 117th-place finish (21:14.7). Through the first month of the season, it was uncertain if Bright would be able to bounce back to state-meet form after a foot injury.

“For her to get herself into a position to make the state meet is a credit to her work ethic and commitment,” coach Van Kempen said.

Just like the boys team, the girls are losing an essential piece of the puzzle. Nelson has been the backbone of the girls program over the last year.

“It was a bittersweet day for the coaches,” coach Van Kempen said. “Each senior brought a special personality to practice every day over the years. Teagan has always been the Energizer Bunny for this girls team. We have been so fortunate to have these kids leading our program over the years. When the starting gun fires, they compete.”

CLASS A BOYS RESULTS

TEAM- 1- Perham 75, 2- West Central Area 83, 3- St. James, 4- Lac qui Parle Valley-Dawson-Boyd 182, 5- Staples-Motley 184, 6- Nova Classical Academy 200, 7- Minnehaha Academy 220, 8- Lake City 228, 9- Greenway-Nashwauk-Keewatin 235, 10- East Grand Forks 239, 11- St. Cloud Cathedral 264, 12- Ely 271, 13- Mankato Loyola-Cleveland 282, 14- Heritage Christian 287, 15- Lewiston-Altura-Rushford-Peterson 321, 16- Redwood Valley 352;

WEST CENTRAL AREA INDIVIDUAL SCORES- 3rd- Jacob Bright 15:43.8; 9th- Jack Van Kempen 16:16.2; 19th Alex Salwasser 16:31.5; 45th- Kade Runge 16:54.3; 53rd- Kyle Schill 17:02.3; 131st- Reubens Swanson 17:58.9; 143rd Shad Swanson 18:18.1