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CROSS COUNTRY: Inside the clutch performances that powered Bemidji’s state berth

Competing at the Section 8-3A meet for a chance to make it to state, the Lumberjacks lost key runner Ashton Niemi midway through the race. That forced Isaac Schouten and Sam Gifford to rise to the occasion and help close out the team score.

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The Bemidji High School boys cross country team will compete in the Class 3A meet on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022, at St. Olaf College in Northfield. In the back row, from left, are Sam Gifford, Sidney Kingbird-Haugen, Will Termont and Ashton Niemi. In the front row are Moses Son, Carson Maish and Isaac Schouten. Not pictured are Adam Allery and Brett Kurschner.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer
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BEMIDJI – Cross country is a sport of pacing.

Runners set goals for times, train at specific cadences and chart how quickly they should reach each checkpoint on a course. But sometimes, that plan has to be modified – rapidly.

That was the case for the Bemidji High School boys cross country team last Thursday at Greenwood Golf Course. Competing at the Section 8-3A meet for a chance to make it to state, the Lumberjacks lost key runner Ashton Niemi midway through the race. That forced Isaac Schouten and Sam Gifford to rise to the occasion and help close out the team score, and those two powered BHS into the Class 3A state meet with a second-place team finish.

“We were in the race,” Schouten said. “I saw (Niemi) a little bit ahead of me through the first mile. And I saw a lot of spots between us that I had to make up. We were kind of just going through, and I saw him start to fall back a bit. I started getting closer to him, and then I passed him at one point. So then I kind of knew I had to step up there.”

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Bemidji junior Isaac Schouten nears the finish line during the Section 8-3A meet on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022, at Greenwood Golf Course.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer

Schouten summoned a performance that surpassed expectations, helping thrust Bemidji into Saturday’s state meet in Northfield. But it might not have mattered if Gifford wasn’t also right behind him.

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“I figured out that Ashton was down around a half-mile left,” Gifford said. “I saw him on the ground, and it was really worrying, because we were told that we have a really good chance if our top five hit (certain marks). And I didn't think I was a part of that plan. I thought I’d just kind of be the guy who was out there and maybe taking a couple spots from a couple of teams to make our lead bigger.

“But knowing that Ashton was down and I was in front of Sidney (Kingbird-Haugen), I knew that I was number five. So I really had to step up, and I was fighting with this one kid. But seeing that really pushed me that whole last half-mile, and I really left everything out there up until the end.”

For head coach Ryan Aylesworth, Schouten and Gifford’s performances were the payoff for all the dedication they had invested in improving their times this season.

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Bemidji senior Sam Gifford (4011) runs in the Section 8-3A meet on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022, at Greenwood Golf Course.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer

“When Ashton was unable to finish, he's typically our number four,” Aylesworth said. “Isaac, he really had to step up his game to move from the fifth spot to the fourth spot. Before the meet, we set a target range for where he should be as our number five. He hit that target and did a really nice job for us.

“And then Sam Gifford, who's been typically our number seven or eight all year, got the nod to be on the team as the seventh man, and he ended up being the kid that was our fifth score. He did well enough and moved up to get in a spot where he helped us score low enough to move on.”

For Gifford especially, the payoff of showcasing the growth he made in his senior year – with a personal record, no less – validated the sacrifices he had made to ensure the Jacks got a chance to compete at state.

“I've run this thing since freshman year,” Gifford said of the course at Greenwood. “So that was knowing that that was my last half-mile ever. … It was huge. I've never felt so full. I've been putting in all this work over the summers and school years in the past, and I've really just been doing it for me. But now I’ve finally been able to put all my work towards something to bring these guys who are also great to a higher spot, and it feels awesome.”

Hoffmann, DeWitt pushing each other in preparation

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Bemidji's Mia Hoffmann, left, and Regan DeWitt will compete in the Class 3A cross country meet on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022, at St. Olaf College in Northfield.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer

The Bemidji girls team finished fourth at the section meet, which meant the group did not advance to state. But Mia Hoffmann and Regan DeWitt each qualified as individuals by virtue of their top-tier finishes.

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As the pair prepares to head down to Northfield, they’ve supported and taxed each other in training this week, leaning on their bond to maximize their practice sessions.

“Those two are typically with each other during the workouts and running together most of the time, and that's continuing right now as they're getting ready for state,” Aylesworth said. “It's (always) really good to feed off each other and have that person that can push you to be better. The days you're not wanting to go and the other one is, and vice versa, (they) just prop each other up, push each other to be better.”

The Lumberjacks face the Class 3A field on Saturday, Nov. 5, at St. Olaf College in Northfield. The girls competition starts at 9:30 a.m., and the boys get underway at 10:30 a.m.

Christian Babcock is a sports reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer. He trekked to Bemidji from his hometown of Campbell, Calif., after graduating from the Cronkite School at Arizona State University in 2021. Follow him on Twitter at @CB_Journalist for updates on the Lumberjacks and Beavers or to suggest your favorite local restaurant.
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