WEST SALEM — Iowa–Grant’s Nick Connolly saved his best for last.
The IG senior went toe-to-toe with the best runners in the state Saturday and placed third out 114 runners in the boys’ WIAA Cross Country Division 3 State Championships at Maple Grove Venues in West Salem with a time of 16:22.83.
"I was very pleased with the third-place finish," said Connolly. "It was definitely different only being against 38 runners in a session instead of the usual 150 or so at state. I think that it probably affected how some people ran but for me I was used to it enough that I didn't really notice.
"This season was pretty different with the smaller and divided races format but it was a gift just to have a season so I'm thankful for that. I'm proud of what I have achieved over my four years in IGXC. I've had a lot of support from the coaches, teammates, and fans that have helped me along the way. I think I got done what I wanted to do over my cross country career and I'm happy that it ended well."
This year’s state championships were held at three different locations across the state for each of the three divisions to reduce the total number of participants and spectators due to COVID concerns.
A revised race format was also designed during the COVID-19 pandemic. There were three sessions including team and individual participants for each gender. Times from each session was combined to determine the overall placements.“
The D3 boys’ championship field consisted of 12 teams and 30 individual state qualifiers split into three equal sessions of four teams and 10 individuals; 38 total runners in each, with boys’ races at 10:10 a.m., 1:10 p.m. and 4:10 p.m.
Connolly raced in the Group A race at 10:15 a.m. but had the opportunity to race alongside D3 individual state champion Parker Schneider (16:05.78), a junior from Durand, and runner-up senior Jarret Carpenter (16:07.41) of Cashton in the fastest heat.
Schneider really got out aggressively and led the entire race, except for maybe a second with about 200 meters to go when Carpenter tried to make his move.
About 1,000 meters into the race, the top four really distanced themselves from the rest of the pack, and Connolly moved solidly into that third place spot around the midway point, passing New Lisbon senior Owen Jones (5th place, 16:45.35).
From there, Schneider and Carpenter pulled away a bit, but Connolly maintained a comfortably ahead of 4th place.
Connolly had to put together a strong finish, because while he was in third during his session, but there were still two more races to follow. His time of 16:22.83 held up for third-place overall, which was the best state finish by any Panther in school history.
“Nick’s goals for the meet were to be top three in his race, the top five in the state, and run a sub-16:30, and he nailed all three of those goals,” said IG head coach Jake Winkler.
Saturday’s race capped an amazing cross country career for Connolly that consists of back-to-back individual SWAL titles the past two seasons, four straight first-team All-SWAL seasons and four straight state meet appearances. Connolly improved his state place, each of those years starting with 87th place as a freshman, 35th as a sophomore, 14th as a junior a year ago, and now third as a senior.
Connolly was also instrumental in leading the Iowa–Grant boys team to a team state berth last year, ulitmatly placing 10th.
“Nick has been a great leader, especially the last couple of years,” said Winkler. “He’s really set the standard for the team, and his success has drawn in more runners to this sport. It’s been a joy getting to coach Nick the past four years.
“We had a chance to reminisce on the drive up to West Salem on Saturday morning, which was a lot of fun. We took the same route that we took a lot of Saturday mornings and fall evenings through Fennimore, Boscobel, North Crawford, Kickapoo and Cashton; these places all hold special memories. They really mark Nick’s growth as an athlete and person.
“His journey from that tiny freshman that was beating a lot of guys, to being the guy that the kids all look up to has been awesome to see. There have been so many milestones along the way, but being a two-time conference champ, and first in I-G history, along with being a key piece of the team qualifying come to mind. I can’t say enough about Nick. I am so proud of him, and I will miss him, certainly as a runner, a teammate, a leader, and perhaps just as important as all of those, a remarkable frisbee player.”
WIAA Division 3 State Championships
(from Saturday, Oct. 31 @ West Salem)
(Girls, 5,000 meters)
Team scores: 1.Lancaster 93, 2.Ozaukee 103, 3.Kickapoo/La Farge 125, 4.Gillett 132, 5.Sevastopol 160, 6.Durand 167, 7.Burlington Catholic Central 171, 8.Auburndale 171, 9.Wisconsin Rapids Assumption 184, 10.Cochrane–Fountain City 197, 11.Chtek-Weyerhaeuser 209, 12.Cameron 237.
Top individuals: 1.Brooklyn Luebke (Manitowoc Lutheran) 18:55.53, 2.Halle Van Horn (Random Lake) 19:04.04, 3.Anelise Egge (Kickapoo/La Farge) 19:17.48, 4.Molly Heidorn (Colfax) 19:18.58, 5.Brynlee Nelson (Fennimore) 19:28.87.
(Boys, 5,000 meters)
Team scores: 1.Sheboyan Lutheran 56, 2.Brookwood 121, 3.Stevens Point Pacelli 138, 4.Grantsburg 139, 5.Darlington 150, 6.Manitowoc Lutheran 158, 7.Saint Mary Catholic 172, 8.Chippewa Falls McDonell Centrall 173, 9.The Prairie School 179, 10.Spring Valley 184, 11.LadySmith 208, 12.Kenosha St. Joe’s 210.
Top individuals: 1.Parker Schneider (Durand) 16:05.78, 2.Jarret Carpenter (Cashton) 16:07.31, 3.Nick Connolly (Iowa–Grant) 16:22.83, 3.Derek Hanson (Gillett) 16:44.37, 5.Owen Jones (New Lisbon) 16:45.35.
Iowa–Grant: 2.Nick Connolly 16:22.83.