Cross country is a grueling physical sport, particularly at the state meet.
That much is obvious by watching the many runners that stagger in and collapse after crossing the finish line after completing the 3-mile course at Sugar House Park.
But what is sometimes overlooked is the importance of running smart.
The American Fork girls and boys cross country teams highlighted just how important that is as they swept the 6A competition on Wednesday afternoon.
The Cavemen girls team was up first, coming in as underdogs to nationally-ranked Lone Peak.
The Knights had taken care of business throughout the Region 4 competition this season, but American Fork had a plan.
“Our coaches did a great job with our workouts and had us peaking at the right time,” Caveman senior Lily Nettesheim said. “We knew they were really good and they were going to push the pace, but we just wanted to do it together.”
American Fork had plenty of reason to doubt whether the strategy was working after the first mile of the race, since the group of Cavemen runners were buried a long ways back in the pack.
“At first, it was really scary,” Nettesheim said. “I could see how many girls were in front of us, but I looked to the side of me and there were four or five of my teammates. I thought, we can do this.”
But American Fork stuck to the plan and stayed together as they started passing runners.
“We wanted to keep the first mile down and then let the cards fall where they may,” Cavemen head girls cross country coach Bruno Hunziker said. “We told them it was possible if we ran smart. We saw Timpview win a state title that way.”
Coming down the stretch, the Cavemen entered the stadium at Highland High School as a pack. Six American Fork runners finished between ninth and 24th.
“We told them before the race that there was no pressure,” Hunziker said. “They were going against the No. 5-ranked team in Lone Peak who had been beating us all year. We were going to go hunting like a pack of wolves.”
The top Caveman finisher was freshman Hazel Baird in ninth, but right behind her was that big group of her teammates.
“I felt like I was going to die as I ran the last 100 yards,” Nettesheim said. “But I knew I could do it for the team if I couldn’t do it for myself. Having everyone cheering for us was amazing.”
The American Fork girls had to wait a few agonizing minutes until the final results were tallied.
“Last year, we got our cards and they had a one on them, but it turned out we were second,” Nettesheim said. “I was doubting it but when I found out we won, I couldn’t believe it. I wanted to jump up and down and celebrate, but I felt like I was going to die.”
Hunziker was proud of how his girls pulled off such a big upset to get their fifth overall state championship by working together while Lone Peak ended up second. Westlake senior Abby Jensen was the top local individual finisher as she came in second with a time of 18:15.9.
Meanwhile, the Cavemen boys team was watching the results as they prepared to compete in their 6A state finals race an hour later.
American Fork senior Luke Grundvig said there was a recommitment to running smart.
“After they finished, we talked about how that might be what Davis would try to do,” Grundvig said. “We had to run smart to pull it out.”
Caveman head boys cross country coach Timo Mostert said that is a concept they have worked hard to drill into their runners.
“We came up here almost a month ago and went over the course backward and forward,” Mostert said. “We talked strategy and visualizing passing guys in the last mile. You have to have that plan going into the race.”
The Cavemen also ran cautiously to start the race on the hillier portion of the course.
“We didn’t want to get burned out on the hills,” Grundvig said. “I was happy with my mile split. On this course it gets flat after that, so I did what I thought I needed to and it worked out.”
Grundvig pulled away late in the race to secure the top spot with a time of 15:17.7.
“I think he was hoping to break the 15-minute mark,” Mostert said. “But I’m proud of him. He’s made great strides. He keeps progressing and he has good race smarts.”
His victory gave the American Fork boys team its eighth individual champion in 10 years and also set the stage for the Cavemen to win their ninth team title in 10 years.
American Fork had runners come in eighth, 15th, 17th and 31st, which proved to be enough to hold off Davis for the top spot.
“Our fourth and fifth runners were a ways back in the final mile,” Mostert said. “They had to pass a lot of guys. There was some nervousness halfway through, but they ran hard. That’s what we’ve been preaching and the guys listened.”
It was a special time for the Cavemen runners of both genders who have worked hard together all season.
“It’s really awesome,” Grundvig said. “We were hoping the girls would pull it off and we would too. It’s going to be a great celebration.”