Those not close to the West Central Area boys cross country program might have looked at last year’s second straight runner-up finish at the Class A state meet and saw an opportunity to leapfrog the Knights heading into the 2020 season.
After all, WCA’s top-two finishers at St. Olaf last November were two seniors in Jacob Bright and Jack Van Kempen. But this is a program that doesn’t rebuild anymore. The Knights reload with talent ready to step in, and that’s exactly what they are doing this fall after winning a third straight meet on Sept. 11, this time on their home course at the Tipsinah Mounds Golf Course on a cool, windy and rainy evening against Breckenridge-Wahpeton and United North Central.
“Jack and (Jacob) were a huge part of this too,” WCA head coach John Van Kempen said. “It’s nice to reload instead of rebuild every year. The No. 1 ranking, I don’t know how legitimate that is, but we’ll find out (this week). We’ve got Perham and Staples and supposedly we’re first, second and third in the state.”
Those in the know within the cross country community in Minnesota saw the strength of this WCA team. The coaches association rankings on Sept. 6 had the Knights ranked first in Class A, ahead of last year’s state champion, Perham, at No. 2.
It didn’t take long for the Knights to get an opportunity to prove that ranking was no fluke. They opened their season in Perham in late August, where WCA beat the Yellowjackets by eight with 32 team points. Kyle Schill, WCA’s senior captain, led five top-10 finishes for the Knights that day by taking third.
“That was huge. We’ve never beat them,” Van Kempen said. “I don’t even know if they’ve lost to a single A team in three years. Just to be able to run with them is huge. I tell (Perham head coach) Jeff Morris, they’re part of the reason we’re good. We set our standards high, and we want to beat the best teams.”
West Central Area is good because of how deep its roster is year in and year out. Nothing has changed this fall, with the Knights finishing with the perfect cross country score of 15 points for the second straight meet during their home triangular on Friday.
It was junior Kade Runge’s turn to lead the pack. He won the 5-K race in an impressive time of 16:53.2, the only runner to come in under 17 minutes.
“I wasn’t expecting to do as well as I did,” Runge said. “It wasn’t a (personal record), but I thought with all the hills it would be a little tougher. I felt better during the second half. There were a little less hills and more downhills that second half.”
Junior Alex Salwasser, who is ranked eighth in the Class A individual polls, was second on Friday in 17:06.8. Schill overcame a slight ankle injury to finish third in 17:08.8, while Shad Swanson (fourth, 17:56.4) and Reubens Swanson (fifth, 18:12.8) rounded out the team scoring. Sophomore Peyton Hanson was right behind them in sixth (18:25.9) and fellow sophomore Roman Mihailovski (eighth, 18:47.5) finished off the varsity lineup.
“I could never tell you who’s going to win on a given day,” Van Kempen said of the top of his lineup. “It could be a different guy every night. I think when we’ve had good teams in the past, it’s always about their accountability to each other. If you’re our fourth or fifth guy, if you know our No. 1 guy is up front busting his butt, you better reciprocate that and work as hard as you can for them because we’re all the same team.”
Van Kempen has a very modest mindset when it comes to talking about how good this WCA program has become. The 2019 Class A boys coach of the year in Minnesota smiles and shrugs when asked if he feels like the Knights have established themselves as one of the top overall programs in the state.
“I do feel like we’re pretty good,” Van Kempen said. “Another thing about my guys is they’ll compete against anyone, anytime, anywhere. They don’t care. They will race anybody, and we’ve had that for a couple years. I know when the gun goes off, whatever happens, we’re competing. We might not get first, but they’re going to compete to the best of their ability. I’ll take that every time.”
The greatest testament to the strength of a program is when athletes like Jacob Bright and Jack Van Kempen graduate and teams still sit at the top of the field the following year.
“(The No.1 ranking) is cool, but we just need to keep pushing and doing as good as we can,” Runge said. “We definitely needed people to step up and push each other. We have some teammates who have stepped up and done that this year, so that’s been really great.”
Van Kempen challenged his kids to run on Saturday when no official practice was scheduled. He knows they all will. That’s simply the culture within this program.
Guys are self motivated to get better, and they will lean on that as much as ever this season. The postseason is still uncertain due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’ll do good either way,” Runge said of whatever the postseason might hold.
In a normal year, this Knights team would be right there competing for a Class A championship. Until told otherwise, teams are still holding onto hope for that, but Van Kempen knows what he’s going to get from his guys every day, even if there isn’t a state meet to shoot for at the end.
“I think we’re pretty serious about the COVID regulations we need to follow,” Van Kempen said. “I tell them, ‘You need to be the leaders in the school. You need to enforce these rules.’ A lot of them play other sports, and I’m telling them that if we can’t do cross country, your other sports are in jeopardy too. They work hard all the time. I’m hoping there’s a postseason, but they’ll work hard regardless.”