By PATRICK SLACK
Six years ago, a pair of friends joined the Little Falls girls middle school cross country team: the one who wanted to, and the one who would become one of the area’s elite distance athletes.
After having to be persuaded into joining the sport by her friend, a friend that would quit the team after the first practice, Little Falls senior Mattia Hendrickson has developed into a three-sport distance standout and led the Flyers to unprecedented heights this fall.
“When I was in sixth grade my dad started coaching the middle school cross country team and kind of wanted me to join,” Hendrickson said.
“I didn’t really want to but one of my friends was and I decided to try it with her,” she said. “She quit after the first day but I stayed with it and have been in it ever since.”
By the final meet of her sixth-grade year, Hendrickson had risen to first on the team for the Flyers.
“I was pretty excited about that,” Hendrickson said.
After that, she made a rapid ascent up the Little Falls ranks, becoming one of the Flyers’ leading varsity contributors behind teammate and training partner Manon Gammon-Deering.
“Manon Gammon-Deering is one of my really good friends and she was always there a step ahead of me to push me. She was someone to chase, so she was obviously a good training buddy.”
Following Gammon-Deering’s graduation, Hendrickson emerged as the No. 1 runner for the Flyers.
As a junior, Hendrickson led Little Falls to thid place in the inaugural season of the Granite Ridge Conference (GRC), earning eighth individually to garner All-GRC honors.
Heading into her senior year, though, Hendrickson and the Flyers had loftier goals on their minds.
300 miles of summer
For Hendrickson, the road to an award-winning senior season began by … hitting the road.
Like most other cross country starters, Hendrickson had logged considerable miles during past offseasons.
But with only one year left, she implemented an even more stringent program shortly after the end of last spring’s track and field season.
“This summer I put in a lot of miles, about 380,” Hendrickson said. “I just had a very structured schedule that I stuck to every week. A distance day around 10 miles, a speed day, pick-ups and a hill day. I was very dedicated to my schedule.”
“I have always trained hard in the summer, but this summer I tried to do even more than I have before, so I had a strict schedule to make sure I was getting all of the necessary components of being a better runner and improving,” she said.
Being able to hold to such a rigorous training program, particularly during humid summer days, required a strong desire.
“I think I am a very determined person and I am willing to work hard for something that I want, which has helped make me a good runner,” Hendrickson said. “I don’t give up and am really willing to put it all out there.”
“The idea that I could be better motivates me to push to be better,” she said. “I want to have an opportunity to be as successful as possible. I want to work hard in order to give myself that opportunity.”
Hendrickson opened the season strong, finishing sixth at Milaca in 16:20.2, then in third place in Brainerd in 16:07, heading into the first meet of September at Wadena-Deer Creek.
After progressively moving up in the meet in previous seasons, Hendrickson eyed to finish in the front of the pack after rising to third in the race as a junior.
“I had a goal to win the Wadena race,” Hendrickson said. “I wanted to win it because I had slowly progressed, getting closer to first throughout the years, and wanted to win it my senior year.”
“Mattia put on the most miles of all the girls this year, over 300,” Little Falls head coach Jacki DeVine said. “I think that helped her start the season strong and enabled her able to run at the front of the pack.”
Hendrickson managed that just fine, until there was no front pack, as she broke away to beat the runner-up from Perham by 21 seconds in 16:13.
She followed with a runner-up finish at Long Prairie-Grey Eagle (16:25.95), then earned 15th place in the 128-runner field at the Lucky Lindy meet in Little Falls in 15:30.7.
A fourth-place finish at Rocori (15:24) and seventh-place effort at Fergus Falls (15:46) wrapped up September, then Hendrickson took fifth place at Perham in 15:41.3 to open the final month of the fall with one regular season meet remaining.
Matched up with several of the top schools from Northern Minnesota, Hendrickson sped to fifth place at Oak Hill in St. Cloud, entering the postseason coming off of a season-best time of 15:17.1.
“The Oak Hill meet was one highlight of the season,” Hendrickson said. “I broke my time from last year and placed fairly high in the race, so I was pretty happy about that. I wasn’t really thinking I would do as well as I did so that was pretty exciting for me.”
Atop the Granite Ridge
It was then time for the GRC meet at Princeton, with Little Falls hoping to dethrone defending conference and Class A state champion St. Cloud Cathedral, a team that had graduated only two runners from the year before.
Despite a stacked lineup, the chance to square off against the Crusaders for the GRC title was something Hendrickson and the Flyers had been waiting for all season.
“I definitely thought about that,” Hendrickson said. “They have a great distance team for cross country and track. I’ve been around them for awhile and knew they would be pretty tough competition.”
With a pair of junior high reinforcements to combat the Crusaders and provide more depth, it became clear near the finish line that the final result would not be close.
Hendrickson captured individual runner-up honors in 15:38.3, senior All-Area teammate Chelsea Rutz followed in sixth place and the rest of the Flyers’ five runners finished in the top 16, giving Little Falls a margin of victory of 35 points to St. Cloud Cathedral’s 80.
“We were so excited,” Hendrickson said. “We were screaming and running around. It was so overwhelming. What made it even more special is that it was my senior year. It was a highlight being with my team.”
“We weren’t actually thinking we were going to win,” she said. “We knew there was a chance, but never to win by so much. I think we had a lot of girls that were pretty close together in a pretty tight pack in the middle. We moved up some seventh- and eighth-graders. That helped us so we weren’t so spread out.”
“That is one aspect of cross country that is difficult as a coach and a runner,” DeVine said. “You need to train hard, but not so hard you become injured. Cathedral had some trouble with injuries and they were not able to field a team as deep as ours.”
“One or two runners will not give you a championship,” she said. “It takes everyone, all seven girls. We stayed moderately healthy at the varsity level and we raced very well that day. We were also able to have all seven girls finish close to each other. We were very happy to achieve this goal and that our plaque will be on display.”
With the final chapter of her high school cross country closed, Hendrickson will now embark on a quest for more hardware in Nordic skiing and track and field.
The Little Falls girls Nordic ski team has advanced to state every year since 2006, with Hendrickson competing for the Flyers in the past three state meets.
“In Nordic skiing I want to make it to state again as a team and win conference. I’d like to individually get all-conference too. My goals for track are to continue to improve on my times and place. Wherever I go to college, I plan on running cross country for sure and more than likely track as well.”
For the Flyers cross country team, though, it will have to find a way to fill the shoes of its leader.
“She has been a great team leader, not only in the running parts of the sport, but the social aspects as well like the homecoming activities, team dinners,” DeVine said. “The other girls look up to her.”
“Mattia and Chelsea have been close this year at number one and number two,” she said. “They will be missed. Next year we will continue to be strong with many upperclassmen leading us and a promising group of younger girls.”
“We had such a strong team bond and got along so well, we had so much fun,” Hendrickson said. “We were so close that winning together made it even more fun.”
MC Record’s Runner of the Year, meet-by-meet
Milaca: 16:20.2, sixth place
Brainerd: 16:07, third place
Wadena-Deer Creek: 16:13, first place
Long Prairie-Grey Eagle: 16:25.95, second place
Little Falls: 15:30.7, 15th place
Rocori: 15:24, fourth place
Fergus Falls: 15:46, seventh place
Perham: 15:41.3, fifth place
St. Cloud Tech: 15:17.1, fifth place
Granite Ridge Conference meet
Princeton: 15:38.3, second place
Section 8AA meet
Bemidji: 15:33.4, 16th place