Prep newsmaker: Ava Hill a true Giant for Mesabi East

Mesabi East's Ava Hill pushes to the finish line to win the Section 7A girls cross-country race in an Oct. 25, 2018 file photo last fall at the Cloquet Country Club. (News Tribune file photo)

Mesabi East cross country and track coach Steve Ekman first noticed Ava Hill in eighth grade, and it didn’t take him long to realize she was a special talent.

With a gazelle’s gallop and stamina to boot, Hill soon proved Ekman’s intuition correct, winning the Class A girls 800 meters the following year. After that track season, Ekman suggested Hill should go out for cross country that fall, knowing it would complement track better than swimming, in which Hill was also a state qualifier.

Hill agreed. Now a senior, the ultra-athletic Hill is one of the favorites to win the state Class A girls cross country title after finishing fourth last season. And to think it’s not even her best sport. Yeah, she’s that good.

“It’s incredible if you think about it,” Ekman said. “As good as she is, this is probably getting to the edge of her distance, but you’d never know it.

“She’s just really talented in pretty much everything she does. She’s a great basketball player and a good runner and swimmer. It will be interesting to see what she does in college, if they’re interested in her purely as a runner, or if they will have her pursue something like the heptathlon. I think the sky’s the limit for what she could do. She’s so athletic.”


Hill will be one of the favorites at the 69th annual Swain Invitational on Saturday at Enger Park Golf Course. Class A girls begin at 1:10 p.m., with Class AA girls at 1:50 p.m. Class A boys at 2:30 p.m. and Class AA boys at 2:55 p.m. After runner-up finishes the past two years, Hill is looking to win the Swain this year.

“That’s usually the goal,” Hill said.

Hill is coming off a 61st-place finish in the girls gold division at the prestigious Roy Griak Invitational on Saturday at Les Bolstad Golf Course in Falcon Heights, Minn. Hill covered the challenging 5,000-meter course in 19 minutes, 49.3 seconds. To give an idea of the caliber of the meet, the winning team was from Colorado. Hill was second last year in the maroon division.

“My time was a little slower this year,” Hill said. “I didn’t feel as good. It was just an off day.”

Other than the Roy Griak, Hill is undefeated this season, including a dominating victory at the Milaca Mega Meet the week before.

Hill and the Giants have been going on training runs upwards of an hour but will scale back after the Swain.

“It’s been going pretty well,” Hill said. “I’ve been feeling pretty strong. We’re in a tough part of our training right now so I’m not feeling better at this point, but I’m expecting to feel better when we start to taper off.”

Hill, whose top time for 5,000 meters is 18:11, is the two-time defending Section 7A champion. She helped Mesabi East win the girls team title last fall. Ekman expects Pequot Lakes, new to the section this year, as well as North Shore, to be teams possibly standing in the way of a Giants’ repeat.


While Hill is busy running, she continues to shoot baskets and do dribbling drills each morning and on Sundays. She has the benefit of having a mother who is a science teacher so she has access to the gym every day.

Hill is a two-time News Tribune All-Area selection in basketball who led the Giants to the Class AA state tournament as a sophomore. In track, she has won three straight Class A 800 titles and has a top time of 2:11.91 in the event. Even though she doesn’t train for it specifically, she ran the 1,600 last spring in 5:04 and has run 400 splits on the Giants’ 1,600 relay in 55 seconds.

Ekman, a 1978 Aurora-Hoyt Lakes graduate, was asked if Hill wasn’t just the best runner to come out of Mesabi East, but the Giants’ greatest female athlete.

“There have been a lot of good athletes, but as far as what she does, I don’t think there’s ever been anyone as good as her,” Ekman said. “Athletes like her make your life easy, but at the same time, challenging, because I have to step up my game, as well. I go to a lot of coaching seminars around the country and learn from the best.”

And that's so Ekman can coach the best. Hill plans to run cross country and track at the NCAA Division I level. She had already visited Minnesota and Kansas and just got back from visiting Syracuse on Sunday and Monday. So while she was always a gifted swimmer, running is Hill's true calling.

“I miss my friends in swimming, but I don’t really miss the actual swimming part,” Hill said. “Cross country is very good training for basketball. It’s slightly longer than what I want to run, but I’m getting used to it. I like that it’s an individual sport, but it’s still team-orientated. You try to get ahead of someone to score well for your team, so you think about it more in a team manner than you do with other individual sports.”



Prep status: Mesabi East senior

Age: 17

Sports: cross country, basketball and track

GPA: 4.13

School activities: Youth in Action, National Honor Society, student council, pep club, jazz band and jazz choir

Family: father, Robert; mother, Shannon; brother, Jamie, 16; sister, Maija, 13

Pets: white German Shepherd named Niko

College plans: run track and cross country at the NCAA Division I level; looking at going into pre-med



If I could meet one person — dead or alive — who would it be? George Washington

One thing people don’t know about me: I played snare drum for our marching band, and I play the saxophone.

My ideal vacation: Greece, to visit all the historical places and ruins and swim in the ocean because it looks really pretty.

The toughest athlete I’ve competed against: Tierney Wolfgram (who at age 15 finished sixth in last year’s Twin Cities Marathon in 2 hours, 40 minutes, 3 seconds)

If I had a million dollars, I would: use it to buy things for people who have limited resources and to get them things that they need.

Fear or phobia: being buried alive


Hobby: I like to go hiking and take walks with my dog.

Car I drive: a 2014 Toyota Camry

Favorite home-cooked meal: mom’s lasagna

Favorite book: the Red Queen series by Victoria Aveyard

One thing at the top of my bucket list: skydiving

Favorite musical genre: rap/hip hop

Meet-day superstition: I braid my hair before every meet.

Social media of choice: Snapchat


Favorite celebrity: Usain Bolt

Favorite team: Minnesota Lynx

Dream job: I would like to be a doctor that travels to different countries and helps people; so I’d get to travel and see the world while making people’s lives better

Three people I’d want in a golf foursome: my sister, because she’s funny and I know she’d make the experience a good one, and then probably my friend Izzy Kalb and her mom, Teresa Kalb. They took me golfing a few summers ago and helped me enjoy it. So I’m not really going for quality; I’m going for having a good time.

Ava Hill

Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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