PELLA — Prairie City-Monroe junior Kirstin Ives knew the Mustangs had what it took to earn the school’s first-ever state cross country team berth. But she made sure at the start line her team was ready to go.
After a pep talk, the Mustangs put together one of the best performances of their careers and made history with a third-place finish in the Class 2A state qualifier at Central College on Thursday.
Ives clinched an individual spot in next weekend’s state meet before she knew the rest of the team would join her. The Mustangs were 12 points better than 14th ranked Grundy Center/Gladbrook-Reinbeck to grab the final spot.
“Before we ran, we had a pep talk. I tried to get the girls to believe in themselves and know that it’s going to be hard. We were mentally tough today,” Ives said.
“We really wanted to be the first team to make it. We knew it was possible from the beginning.”
PCM had been close the last few years. The Mustangs finally broke through the door Thursday, placing all five scoring runners in the first 24 positions.
Ives was the only individual qualifier, but junior Paytan Schut was 19th and senior Baylee Smith, junior Megan Townley and sophomore Klaire Jungling finished in succession in 21st, 22nd and 23rd, respectively.
The Mustangs’ pack was better than a GCGR squad which placed three in the top 17 and four in the first 21.
“You win by being close together. The pack was great tonight,” PCM cross country coach Eric Karr said. “Our fifth was in before their four and our sixth was in before their fifth. I hadn’t seen any results, but I was jumping up and down and telling them we got it, we got it. But until you see the paper, you just don’t know.
“I am so proud of them. I wanted this so badly for them. And they did it.”
The top three teams and top 15 individuals advanced to next weekend’s state meet in Fort Dodge.
Ives would have made her first state meet appearance regardless of what happened with the team, but she can now enjoy the experience with some of her best friends.
Schut is not all the way back into shape after missing several meets with a cracked rib. Her ultimate goal Thursday was all about doing enough to help the team advance.
“I have been hurt and haven’t ran all that well individually. This was all about the team today,” said Schut, who went as individual as a freshman two seasons ago. “This feels pretty good. Every time I hear that it’s the first team at our school to do it, it makes me feel a little bit better.”
Karr was brutally honest about his team’s situation. He knew the Mustangs weren’t going to beat Class 3A North Polk and Gilbert at the Heart of Iowa Conference meet last week. He went into the state qualifier knowing his squad wasn’t going to beat the No. 1 Golden Hawks.
The Mustangs didn’t have to though. No. 5 Williamsburg (89) was only 16 points better than PCM, which fell out of the rankings after the Schut injury.
PCM (101) finished 12 points ahead of No. 14 GCGR. West Marshall (136) was next in fourth and Roland-Story (159) completed the top five.
“I don’t know what to say. It’s just something I knew we could do. I have known the entire season. It was a matter of everyone being healthy at this time of year,” Karr said. “This girls’ team is probably the most mentally tough team, any gender and any sport, that I have ever worked with. They are just incredible.”
Defending state champion and fourth-ranked Anna Hostetler of Mid Prairie bested her sister and No. 1 Marie Hostetler by 6 seconds to win the individual title. Anna Hostetler finished in 18 minutes, 42.3 seconds. The Golden Hawks went 1-2-3 as Ana Fleming was third overall in 20:23.
Ives came in a little less than a minute later in a career-best time of 21:21. She came into the meet with the 10th best qualifying time but bested two ranked runners from Williamsburg and moved up to sixth.
“It feels amazing. It hasn’t set in yet. I feel like sixth is so crazy to me,” Ives said. “My goal was to get top 10 in every meet this year, and I actually accomplished that except for conference (which had several 3A schools). It’s incredible. I think I got 18th last year.”
Schut was 25 seconds off the final individual qualifying spot. She crossed the finish line in a season-best time of 22:26.7.
Smith was the next runner in 22:42.7 but was less than a second ahead of Townley, who hit the finish line in 22:43.3. Jungling came in 13 seconds later.
“We performed really well tonight,” Smith said. “We have been focusing all year on the team aspect of this sport, and it showed today with our pack. We were all right there with each other.”
Townley admitted her head wasn’t in it before the race. She used the pre-race pep talk with her teammates to get focused and put together a strong performance.
“It feels really good. Right before the race, the team picked me up and got my mind into the game,” Townley said. “We’ve been working hard all year. It was just our time. It was meant for us this year.”
The Mustangs’ qualified for the state meet with just six runners. Senior Ellie Steenhoek missed the meet due to illness. The sixth and final runner was junior Morgan Uhlenhopp, who finished 49th with a time of 25:03.4.
Uhlenhopp gave credit to some of Thursday’s success to former Mustangs who graduated in the past few seasons.
“Ever since I was a freshman, this group has been pushed by the older kids who are no longer here to be great,” Uhlenhopp said. “We have been working for this for the last few years. We have pushed each other, and it just clicked this year. We finally got it.”
This group of Mustangs had an incredibly high amount of motivation this season. The last few years of coming up short helped with that, but Ives said, more than anything, the motivation came from not having a full team just five years ago.
“All of us have trained so hard for this. It kind of felt like a dream,” Ives said. “We had some runners get sick and injured so we weren’t sure how it was going to go. It feels so good to finally do this.”
The Iowa High School State Cross Country Championships takes place at Lakeside Municipal Golf Course in Fort Dodge on Oct. 28. The Class 2A girls race at 1 p.m.