BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – Four area high school runners will put their heads in maybe a pretty chilly wind on Saturday in Fort Dodge and try to come home with medals at the state cross country meet.
Seniors Aaron Steffensmeier, Sierra Howardson, and Brett Schneider will run for Fort Madison on Saturday, while sophomore Matt Hellige will run for Holy Trinity Catholic.
The meet is held annually at the Lakeside Municipal Golf Course in Fort Dodge. Howardson and Schneider will take off on the 5K run at noon with the Class 3A girls meet. Steffensmeier will race at 12:30 with the Class 3A boys and Hellige runs at 2:30 in Class 1A boys.
The three runners from Fort Madison are all looking to medal, or place in the top 15 in the meet. Hellige on the other hand, being just a sophomore, says if he can finish in the top 30, that would be success for him.
“I barely missed (qualifying) last year,” he said. “Hopefully to be a top 30 would be a good goal.”
Hellige said the colder weather won’t bother him.
“Once I get to the start line I’ll take off my warm-up clothes off and just run in my uniform. I’d rather run in the cold than the heat,” he said.
With state less than two weeks away from districts, Hellige said he didn’t do a whole lot in the way of additional training.
“Well, we ran fewer miles the past couple of weeks so I could be fresher for state, but the training really has been pretty much the same.”
He said a top 30 finish would springboard him hopefully into the top 20 as a junior and top 10 as a senior.
Senior Brett Schneider of Holy Trinity, usually finished behind Howardson in meets this year by 30 to 45 seconds, but in the qualifying meet at Solon, Schneider closed the gap and finished just :13 behind her teammate.
Schneider, who has never placed at state, says her focus isn’t on winning the run, but running well and placing. As a sophomore she finished in 20th place with a time of 19:48.7. The IGHSAU website link for 2016 results wasn’t accessible on Friday.
“I would say for me – at this point – I’m going to state,” she said with a chuckle. “I’m more worried about placing and getting in that top 15 which I haven’t done yet. In the end, yeah, I’ll look at my time. I’m just hoping to run really well and place well. Doing that against the best runners in the state would be great my senior year,” Schneider said.
She said she prefers running in the colder weather, but in the end all the girls have to run in the same elements.
“Personally, I like running in the colder weather. It takes more of a toll on my body but it kind of numbs everything out, too, and that helps me run better,” she said. “I’d rather have it cold and snowy than hot. The 45-degree weather is better for running, but it is what it is. The other thing is that all my opponents will run in it, too, so everyone will be affected the same, then it comes down to how you run in the cold, and like I said, I prefer that to heat.”
Schneider has qualified for state each year of high school, the first of which was with Holy Trinity in Class 1A and then the last two were with Fort Madison in Class 3A.
Howardson will also be running in her fourth state competition, but not all were run at Fort Dodge.
“This will be my third year at Fort Dodge, but I ran state at Tennessee my freshman year,” she said.
“Howardson moved into the Fort Madison school district in the middle of her freshman year. She said this year her focus is on running well and placing because in the past three years, although she qualified for state, she has never placed. As a junior last year, Howardson didn’t finish the race.
“I was running third and then I passed out because I hadn’t eaten enough for breakfast,” she said. “So I’ve never really placed. This year I’m going to do everything right so I can place my senior year. That’s what I’m focusing on.”
She said head coach Brian Mendez had the girls do speed workouts Monday and Tuesday and then Wednesday through Friday they do shake out runs, which is a little different training than regular workouts during the year.
The website OpenWeatherMap.com is predicting a slight chance of snow possible on Friday, but clear skies and cold temperatures on Saturday with highs near 37 degrees.
The Girls 3A run begins at noon so temperatures should be near 30-35 degrees at that time. Howardson said the Iowa High School Girls Athletic Union has ruled to allow runners to wear tights and arm sleeves due to the colder temperatures. Howardson said she prefers to run in milder temperatures, but likes a breeze so the colder temperatures shouldn’t be that much of a problem.
Mendez said despite rankings and the fact that Fort Madison runs in a tough district, he thinks all his runners are top 30 competitors.
“They played with rankings all year in and out of the top 30 and there’s no doubt in my mind they’re in the top 30 in the state. I think arguably were in one of the toughest districts and I think that gives us potential going into state. I’ve got a great group of kids, they’re gritty and we’re going to go up there and give it our all,” Mendez said.
HTC head coach Mohrfeld said state is a different dynamic for runners and Hellige will be in for a different run than he’s seen this year.
“You’re going to a kid who’s been second or third all year and finished 8th at districts, which is still top the class, to a large group of kids. Matthew’s going up there and gonna run in the middle of the pack for a while,” Mohrfeld said. “We’ve talked all year about running your own race and not getting boxed in. It comes down to running a smart race strategically and I think Matthew’s up to the challenge. The statue’s built, you just don’t want it fall apart.”
Aaron Steffensmeier is going to his second state meet after qualifying as a sophomore. He didn’t make it out of districts as a freshman or junior, but Mendez said Aaron’s been running for six years and he’s a runner that can complete and place on Saturday.
“My goal is to medal and be in the top 15,” Steffensmeier said. “I’m looking forward to the weather and maybe getting an edge on some of the runners.”
He said the training he’s been through with Mendez over the past years has prepared him for this final cross country run.
“I think coach Mendez does a good job getting us in big meets so we know what we’re up against.”