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Runners build success with turtle power

Sara Schield finishes at the Swain Meet. LaReesa Sandretsky1 / 2
The boys at the beginning of the Polar Conference race on the Pincushion Mountain trails in Grand Marais. Cook County News-Herald2 / 2

Optimus Prime, the Cook County-Two Harbors Cross Country team mascot has returned.

A few years ago, runners from the Vikings team found the old turtle, still connected to a spring from its days as a playground toy, abandoned in the woods. They named it Optimus Prime and deemed it their mascot. The Proctor and Hibbing teams admired the turtle from afar, ultimately planning and executing an undercover operation to steal the mascot. The thefts went back and forth a few times before the coaches intervened.

"As coaches, we didn't want this to get out of hand so we decided that it would become a traveling trophy and have to be earned," head coach April Wahlstrom wrote in an email to the Lake County News-Chronicle.

Now, Optimus is passed between the Hibbing team and the Vikings based on the finish-times of varsity runners . At the Hibbing Invitational Meet on Sept. 27, the Vikings won the mascot, thanks in part to a strong fifth-place finish by the girls, including Two Harbors runners Sara Schield and Abi Seipke.

At the Polar League meet on Oct. 10 on the Vikings' home turf of Pincushion Mountain, the girls' and boys' varsity teams placed second--evidence of all the hard work the runners have put in since last season.

On Oct. 16, the runners headed to Proctor for their last regular meet of the season. Three of the seven Two Harbors runners placed in the top ten in their events. Drew Christensen pulled off a fifth-place finish in the boys' junior varsity race, Jake Paron medaled with a third place in the 7 and 8 grade boys' race and Ruby Walsberg finished fifth in the girls' junior varsity race. Everett Homes was just behind Christensen in the boys' JV race, helping secure a second-place finish in the team standings. Owen Cruikshank finished 57 overall, helping the boys finish fourth out of 10 teams.

The varsity girls finished fifth out of nine teams. Cook County girls, Sarissa Falk and Maya McHugh led the Vikings team, but Seipke came in 31 and third for the team. Schield finished 35 and fourth for the team, leading a pack of Vikings runners.

Beth Schield, coach for the Two Harbors runners and Sara's mother, said she's been astounded by the progress her runners have made since last year. Almost every runner has improved his or her time from last year--sometimes by minutes. No small feat in races that are only 15-20 minutes long.

"They put in the extra miles this summer and they came into the season with a really strong base...there's a lot of depth in the girls," said Schield.

The boys have seen less consistent results on race days, but are showing improvements as well. Since none of the Two Harbors boys are graduating this spring, Schield said she expects to see their training efforts pay off next year.

The team has strong runners, but there are also those at the back or the middle of the pack who are just running to train for another sport or to improve their fitness level.

"We take kids of all abilities with all kinds of goals. We just want them to love running and be fit," said Schield.

The co-op has existed for nine years and Schield has coached throughout that time.

"We're really thankful for the school administration and board for allowing the co-op," she said.

The team races in the Section 7A finals at Cloquet on Oct. 25. Sara Schield and Seipke will run on the varsity team. Walsberg is an alternate. The boys team hasn't been finalized due to injuries, but coach Schield said she suspects one or two Two Harbors runners will serve as alternates.

LaReesa Sandretsky
LaReesa Sandretsky is a Two Harbors High School graduate and Duluth native who began working at the News-Chronicle in 2012 as a reporter. She took over as editor in 2014. She covers County Board, including the Lake County broadband project.
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