Morrison County Record’s Boys Cross Country Runner of the Year: Royalton sophomore Zach Carlson
By PATRICK SLACK
Royalton cross country fans were treated to a new sight at the finish line this season.
For the past decade, a blaze of blonde could be spotted as the lead pack approached the final stretch, with the Royals led annually by a member of the Borash family.
Sophomore Zach Carlson stepped into the leading role for Royalton, picking up where the 2011 Record Boys Runner of the Year Daniel Borash left off, showing that, despite the small size of the school, its pipeline of elite distance runners doesn’t appear to be coming to an end anytime soon.
“It was fortunate for Zach to step into that leader role,” Royalton head coach Michael Marschel said. “He really leads by humble example, like Daniel did. I’m hopeful that having some success will encourage other students at Royalton to give cross country a try to strengthen our program.”
“It’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?” he said. “I feel we are definitely on the smaller size of Class A schools, at least the percent of the student body out for cross country.”
“I believe the Borashs are a rare dedicated family that does the same sport and supports each other,” he said. “Zach has really become a part of that family in a way. There are other runners on our team that have the desire to work hard and improve. I hope we find some more diamonds out there.”
A distance runner is born
Carlson’s start in distance running was a blend of genetics and circumstance.
With parents that were both runners, as well as an older sister who competed in track, “I guess it just fell on me that I should run too,” Carlson said.
In sixth grade, he began running so that he would be prepared for track at the start of middle school.
“When track finally came around, I realized I didn’t know what to do,” Carlson said. “I tried sprinting and liked it, but I decided to give distance a try as well.”
“There was something different about distance,” he said. “It just felt right. Throughout the season I grew to like distance even more, especially the team. The whole distance team was just so easy to get along with and eventually they got me to switch in my football cleats for cross country spikes.”
“I can’t even imagine how I would be doing if I hadn’t gotten the chance to run with Daniel,” he said. “He was the most inspirational leader you could think of. Dan not only helped and pushed me to be my best that I could in running, but also how to have great sportsmanship and attitude toward the whole sport. I truly believe that without good teammates, no runner would be able to reach their best, and that is why I am glad to have such a fun, supportive team.”
Taking the reins
Coming off a freshman season in which he finished as the Central Minnesota Conference (CMC) individual runner-up behind Borash and qualified for state, Carlson was set for what appeared would be a seamless transition into the top role.
However, that move hit a bit of a false start, with an offseason injury derailing his running program for a month.
“The whole time that I had this injury, all that I could do was bike,” Carlson said. “During that time I biked so much to make up for my lack of running. When I was finally able to start running again I knew better than to start hard and get harder.”
“I started my runs easy, like the first day of practice, and eventually worked back toward my normal running style,” he said. “From there I made sure to work my hardest so that I could improve in my running as much as possible.”
It didn’t take him long to get up to speed, taking third place in Royalton’s first two meets of the season at Maple Lake (17:12) and Holdingford (17:16.6).
He proceeded to win back-to-back races at Long Prairie-Grey Eagle (17:34.44) and Royalton (17:21), then eclipsed the 17-minute mark at Pierz (16:53.2) and the Milaca Mega Meet (16:47.6).
“To start this season off I knew that I had to do my best so that I could improve from last year,” he said. “I knew that my main goals were to return to state and reach a time of sub-17, so that meant I must work harder than last year in every practice, workout and race.”
Carlson followed by winning the St. John’s Prep meet in 17:25, then closed the regular season with a fourth-place finish at Sauk Centre in 17:19.
He followed with a narrow runner-up performance at the CMC meet in 17:08.3, before qualifying for state once again by earning fourth in the Section 6A race at New London-Spicer (17:03).
Even though he had been there once before, competing against the best the state had to offer was still exhilarating for Carlson.
“Man, the experience at state was overwhelming,” Carlson said. “Even though it was my second year going, the nerves still found a way to get to me. I was just honored that I was given the chance to run with all these exceptional runners. It is a great feeling when you have something to show for all your hard work and I was just happy that I could still put a good name in for myself, the team and the school.”
“Throughout this whole year our team has made memories with each other,” he said. “From the first day of practice to all the practices and meets that followed the season itself was a highlight.”
“I was really proud of Zach this year at state,” Marschel said. “He handled the atmosphere so well. So much of this sport has to do with confidence. I had confidence in Zach. The true key was, did Zach have confidence in himself? It was surely proven as the results came.”
Carlson turned in a 37th-place finish in the 175-runner Class A field, crossing the line in a season-best time of 16:47.4, topping his 52nd-place performance from the year before.
“Zach and I talked about goals for state and he met them,” Marschel said. “That will prove to be a great motivator for future races. It takes a strong will and character to rise when we fail to meet our goals. Zach is a very hard worker. He is very dedicated to doing his best. Zach has a lot of natural ability and he has worked hard to improve that. I’m thankful that he stayed injury-free this year as well.”
“Zach can be vocal if he needs to be,” he said. “To be honest his ‘lead by example’ speaks a louder volume to the kids on our team and other teams we compete against.”
“I do believe he will only gain more confidence in making decisions and just being the leader he is already for the next two years,” he said. “He’s just a great all-around athlete.”
“Dan used to be not only the lead runner but also a very good leader for the guys team,” Carlson said. “I tried to be as good as a leader as he was in keeping the team strong, physically and mentally.”
Two down, two to go
With two trips to state and a pair of CMC runner-up finishes already under his belt, Carlson still has two years remaining along with a strong young contingent of Royals.
Despite a solid fourth-place showing in the CMC this fall, Royalton believes it can do even better, including perhaps matching the 2011 conference champion squad.
“There’s no doubt in my mind,” Carlson said. “Sure, we may be short in numbers, but each of our guys gives everything in the practices and meets. This year alone our two junior high guys contributed so much by running on our varsity team and I know that if we keep working like we have been, our team has a successful future ahead of us.”
“I believe if our team stays healthy, we train well, and maybe recruit a few more here and there, our cross country program will remain strong in the conference,” Marschel said. “There are many factors involved in being a successful runner one might not think about. To be a good runner, one needs a strong, internal motivation.”
“Zach will only improve in my mind,” Marschel said. “He has such a positive attitude that trickles down into our team and he has his priorities right. I hope he has his goals set high for himself for the next couple years to place high at state.”
And after knocking on the door of the state meet with a third-place section finish a year ago, the Royals hope to make a run at even loftier heights.
“Man, it would be awesome to get a girls and/or boys team to the state meet,” Marschel said. “It’s never been done at Royalton. With the right training and mind set, I believe it can be done. Let’s look to improve at the section meet first.”
“My goal is mainly to continue improving in any way possible,” Carlson said. “As a team, we just want to be able to improve and hopefully continue to grow as much as possible by bringing in more bright runners.”
“Hopefully I get the chance to return to state again,” he said. “And this time we’re planning on bringing more than just one Royalton guy.”
MC Record’s Runner of the Year, meet-by-meet
Maple Lake: 17:12, third place
Holdingford: 17:16.6, third place
Long Prairie-Grey Eagle: 17:34.44, first place
Royalton: 17:21, first place
Pierz: 16:53.2, fourth place
Milaca: 16:47.6, fourth place
St. John’s Prep: 17:25, first place
Sauk Centre: 17:19, fourth place
Prairie Conference meet
Pierz: 17:08.3, second place
Section 6A meet
New London-Spicer: 17:03, fourth place
Class A state meet
Northfield: 16:47.4, 37th place