The biggest cross-country news of the young season was delivered at last week’s Titan Invitational in Montgomery. The headline: “Maria Hauger Finishes Second.”
This was newsworthy because the Shakopee senior and three-time Class 2A state cross-country champion had not lost in Minnesota since the state meet of her eighth-grade year. The surprise came via talented Blake junior Clare Flanagan, who finished 18 seconds ahead of Hauger in Thursday’s 4,000-meter race. Flanagan is the defending state champion in Class 1A
As I talked with Hauger after the race, she expressed great respect for Flanagan and a knowledge that the season has barely begun. A year earlier in Montgomery – the only race where the two stars (pictured here; Hauger in red) have competed against each other -- Hauger had finished more than a minute ahead of Flanagan. Hauger’s time Thursday was 14 minutes, 13.3 seconds, her slowest in two years.
“She’s really gotten better,” Hauger said of Flanagan. “Whatever she did over the summer, good job.
“It just motivates me more. I’m not slowing down, right now I’m really in the high-mileage stage. Once I start dropping down I think my times will get better.”
But there is more to this story than who reached the finish line when. There’s no doubt that being a successful athlete is important to Hauger, but her role as a teammate is equally as important. Hauger and fellow seniors Alli Lynch and Winona Rachel have been team leaders for years now, since they were eighth-graders and helped Shakopee finish sixth at the Class 2A state championships. The Sabers have finished eighth, 11th and and fourth at state in the last three years.(Pictured, left to right, are Rachel, Hauger and Lynch.)
“We have three seniors and they’re all fabulous,” said coach Mark Neu. “All three were state entrants, all three were on the team when we went to state the first time, the second time, the third time, the fourth time.”
Hauger is the undisputed star, the rarely beaten runner who gets all the publicity. But beyond the headlines, the story of the Shakopee seniors is very special.
“It’s a team,” Neu said. “Team first. That’s our philosophy. Maria’s job is to get that number one finish. And she tries not for herself but for her team. Winona’s job is to beat the No. 2 on the next team, and that’s how they do this.”
In the 24-team girls varsity race in Montgomery, Shakopee won the team title. Hauger finished second, Winona was sixth, eighth-grader Tess Misgen was 10th, Lynch was 24th and junior Alyson Walker was 50th. The Sabers finished one precious point ahead of second-place Prior Lake, so every last step by every runner was important.
“I get emotional about it, but this is a group of three seniors that has done it together,” Neu said. “I say that all the time but it always comes out ‘Maria this and Maria that’ … because she’s one of the best in the state, ever. But it’s a team. Maria has meant a lot to the school, to the city, she’s meant a lot to me. I have the utmost respect for all three of those girls. They never don’t give their all; practice, school, family, friends. I don’t know how they do it.”
During the 2011-12 school year, the Sabers’ top five runners combined for a grade-point average of 3.98.
“They’re not just running, they do it all,” Neu said. “They have given me more than I give them.”
Misgen, the youngest member of the varsity squad as an eighth-grader, said the older girls were instrumental in her decision to try cross-country. Misgen didn’t know who Hauger was until two years ago.
“I saw her once at a basketball game and I decided I wanted to try it and see how good I would do,” she said. “I didn’t know what it was going to be like. And I love having someone to look up to on my team. She tries so hard to do good and I want to be like her and try just as hard, because she gives it her all.
“I like being able to run with someone like that, too, because not very many people get a chance to run with someone on that high level. She always gives advice, and oftentimes I’ll go up to her for even more.”
People watch Hauger and her teammates run and finish strong, but it’s what happens behind the scenes that is a true testament to the Sabers’ team-first attitude.
One more example: The captains traditionally clean the bus when the team returns to Shakopee from competitions. But Hauger, Lynch and Rachel didn’t need to be named captains to take on that responsibility; they’ve been cleaning the bus since they were in eighth grade.
“Maria, Alli and Winona have cleaned that bus every day since the first race,” Neu said. “Maria wins the state championship, she cleans the bus. That’s the kind of kid she is.”
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 58
*Miles John has driven: 1,609
(*During the 2012-13 school year)
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