If there is a Section 8AA meet to run in early October then Thursday’s triangular in Alexandria featured two of the favorites in that field.

Willmar and Alexandria are both top-10 ranked teams in state in the Sept. 14 coaches association poll, with Willmar coming in at seventh in the Class AA rankings and Alexandria at ninth. Given the chance to prove they are still the team to beat in the section, Alexandria rose to the challenge by winning with 24 points. Willmar had 37, and Bemidji was third with 78 points.

“(Willmar) is really good, and we just ended up being better today,” Alexandria head coach Travis Hochhalter said. “We still have a few more weeks, but I was really impressed how they grinded out there. They had those girls to compete against and they reacted and ran really well.”

Hochhalter figured that would be the response he would get from his girls. This is a group that loves the chance to prove itself against other top competition.

“They push us so much,” Alexandria junior Emma Ecker said of Willmar. “They’re one of our top competitors in our section. They’ve always been our top competitors, and it’s always fun to race against them because we know it’s going to be so close. The last two meets we’ve had good competition, but this race was really fun because we’re so close to the Willmar team.”

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Alexandria junior Aleah Miller grabs a lead midway through the race on her way to winning Thursday's triangular against Willmar and Bemidji. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)
Alexandria junior Aleah Miller grabs a lead midway through the race on her way to winning Thursday's triangular against Willmar and Bemidji. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)

Alexandria junior Aleah Miller was a good runner early in her career for the Cardinals, and she continues to take impressive steps. Miller ran at another level down the stretch on Thursday as she won the race in a time of 19:05.5. Willmar’s Lauren Eilers (19:14.8) and Erin Eilers (19:15.1) were second and third behind her.

“She always has impressed me, but she doesn’t waste anything,” Hochalter said of Miller. “She’s always talking about how to get better. The track season, we weren’t together, but she was talking to her coaches, communicating with us and trying to get better. She put on summer miles. She did all the little things, so she deserves to pull away from those girls. Those are two very talented girls that she pulled away from. Our whole girls team is top in the state.”

Senior Taelor Dummer was Alexandria’s second runner as she finished fourth overall in 19:22.7. The Cardinals know Miller and Dummer are going to finish right near the front of the pack almost every meet now, but it’s the depth that carries them to wins against other good teams.

Alexandria's Taelor Dummer (left) finished fourth overall in 19:22.7 and teammate Aleah Miller (third from left) finished first in 19:05.5, while Willmar's Lauren Eilers (second from left) was second in 19:14.8 and Erin Eilers (right) was third in 19:15.1. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)
Alexandria's Taelor Dummer (left) finished fourth overall in 19:22.7 and teammate Aleah Miller (third from left) finished first in 19:05.5, while Willmar's Lauren Eilers (second from left) was second in 19:14.8 and Erin Eilers (right) was third in 19:15.1. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)

All five of Alexandria’s team scorers finished in the top eight. Freshman Jaelyn Miller (19:52.2) was fifth, Ecker was sixth (19:53.3) and senior first-year runner Mataya Hoelscher was eighth in a time of 20:05.1.

“Our next couple runners behind Aleah and Taelor, we’re definitely the ones who have to push a little bit,” Ecker said. “I see it in all of us. I know we can do it. I saw it last year, and now that we have Mataya, which I’m so glad she came out because she is amazing. All of us behind them have what it takes to get up there.”

Sophomores Giselle Jahner (10th, 20:09.2), Brynn Kosters (11th, 20:36.2) and Elena Fuglestad (16th, 21:36.4) finished off the varsity lineup.

“We’re very fortunate to coach these girls,” Hochhalter said. “They step up. They want to compete. We take every single day as an opportunity and we’re excited to race. You could see that today. They were out there battling. It was a race against each girl out there, but when they’re done they’re a special team.”

Ecker and Jaelyn Miller walked over to the Bemidji runners after the varsity race was over to congratulate them and thank them for coming. A couple of the Lumberjacks commented on how impressive the Cardinals are as a group and how they push them to run at their best.

Alexandria freshman Jaelyn Miller runs to a fifth-place overall finish in a time of 19:52.2 on Thursday. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)
Alexandria freshman Jaelyn Miller runs to a fifth-place overall finish in a time of 19:52.2 on Thursday. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)

That’s the kind of recognition Alexandria has within the conference and section right now. The Cardinals’ hope is to have a chance to run at Central Lakes Conference and section championship meets to see exactly where they stand after finishing fourth at state a year ago.

Teams should find out soon what a postseason looks like. After Thursday, Alexandria seems poised and ready for whatever opportunity arises in early October.

“We’re still hopeful that maybe we’re going to have sections and maybe state,” Ecker said. “We just don’t know, but that’s why we’re trying to give it our best at every meet because you don’t know when it’s going to be the last. We’re just really trying to push and give it our best.”