By PATRICK SLACK
Some athletes struggle when the spotlight is on them. Some do about the same.
A select few are able to rise to the occasion.
Then there’s Abby Mokhtary.
The senior standout proved clutch one more time, making sure Holdingford’s season, and her career, would continue for one more meet in the Section 6A race at Long Prairie, Oct. 24, placing 12th overall in 16:00 to lead the Huskers to a runner-up finish.
“She ran fantastic,” Holdingford head coach Mark Alcorn said. “Abby has always been a big-meet runner. She responds to pressure situations better than any athlete I’ve ever coached.
“I’ve coached 13 state champs and 73 all-state performers, and none of them have had her capacity to come through to the best of her ability in a big meet,” he said.
Freshman Jo Merten was the next finisher across the line in 16:03, joined in the top 26 by junior Emily Wolter (16:21) and sophomores Rachael Preusser (16:41) and Sunni Ebnet (16:57), with sophomore Alli Ruprecht (17:26) and freshman Angel Rick (17:50) rounding out the Holdingford lineup.
The state meet was scheduled to be held at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Saturday, Nov. 2.
“This trip to the state meet was done with depth,” Alcorn said. “We had our five scorers in places 12-26. Nobody qualified as an individual, but we had the talent and depth to do so as a team.
“Additionally, Alli Ruprecht, who was the No. 1 runner at the start of the year, just came back from an injury and was our No. 6,” he said. “So we qualified without the girl who was our No. 1 runner at the start of the year.”
Even though Mokhtary had led the Huskers to back-to-back state meet berths, and three trips in a row individually, she entered the meet apprehensive about the possibility of sections being her final race.
“I was incredibly nervous,” Mokhtary said. “I had been a nervous wreck the night before and my mom had emailed my coach and within 30 minutes, I found out coaches make house calls.
“Race day was pretty rough,” she said. “I could barely stomach my routine bowl of Cheerios. I was so nervous because I was afraid this would be my last race.”
That fear dwindled as the race wore on, though, as Mokhtary steadily caught and passed opposing runners one by one.
“I only had one thing on my mind and that was being at St. Olaf in nine days,” Mokhtary said. “I remember when I caught up to Emily I thought to myself, ‘This is great, now I can stick with Emily and we can push each other.’ But I kept going and soon after I found Johanna and I thought, ‘I’ll never finish if I keep this crazy pace.’
“But I kept moving, and I can’t imagine why I kept going, but I went mentally numb after I found Johanna,” she said.
By the time she reached the finish line, all of her nerves had dissipated, giving way to the euphoria of realizing the Huskers had clinched a return trip to state.
“There was a lot of physical and mental relief upon crossing that finish line because of how stressful the days leading up to the race had been and this season overall,” Mokhtary said. “After we found out we had qualified I started to laugh. I was hysterical and then I was crying and my team was all around me and I held onto Emily and I just laughed and cried until I couldn’t catch my breath.”
“I am proud of not only myself, but especially my teammates,” she said. “This year has been tough with all of our injuries and they have all been working incredibly hard. I’ve never really come to know people more dedicated than my teammates.”
Mokhtary herself has had to battle with IT band syndrome, an injury that occurs when the ligament that runs down the outside of the thigh from the hip to the shin is inflamed, for the past year and a half. She will have surgery on it the week after the season is over.
“I was not ready to be done because every year I have been in cross country I have been to the state meet,” Mokhtary said. “It would have felt unfinished or an incomplete season without going, although I was incredibly happy and perhaps a little surprised that we had made it.
“I am still very excited to go and it’s almost just as exciting as qualifying the first year,” she said. “Every year brings new experiences … I told a classmate a few days before the race, ‘I want to smell that hotel again and I want to be breathing that Minnesota November weather in as I stare down that big gravel hill and I want to eat my chicken penne that I always have the night before.’ I just want to do it all over again.”
Royals earn 12th, Pierz 14th
Freshman Emma Hoheisel took 35th overall in 17:14 to lead Royalton to 12th place in the meet, with sophomore Madi Rudolph and senior Ciara Kowalczyk finishing back-to-back at 18:00 and freshman Chloe Novak (18:08) and eighth-grader Elise Yates (19:29) also scoring.
“Our girls really have developed into a strong unit,” Royalton head coach Michael Marschel said. “Pack running is a fantastic thing to watch and fun thing to coach. The only place for our girls squad to go next year is up and that makes me very excited.”
Kowalczyk was the lone senior on this year’s roster for Royalton.
Junior Maggie Gruber took 42nd individually in 17:22 to pace the Pierz girls to 14th as a team, trailed by freshman Lilly Guck (18:13), juniors Arre Langer (18:48) and Dana Hennen (18:56) and freshman Taryn Becker (19:28).
The Pioneers will return their entire team next season.