Mesabi East senior track athlete Ava Hill happened to be on social media Thursday afternoon when she noticed friends posting the dreadful news.
The Minnesota State High School League canceled the spring sports season following Gov. Tim Walz’s latest executive order announcing distance learning will remain in place for the rest of the school year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
While some may have seen this as a foregone conclusion given everything else that has transpired over the past six-plus weeks, Hill, the three-time defending Class A girls 800-meter champion, held out hope she would be able to go for a nearly unprecedented fourth straight title. It wasn’t just Hill, either. Mesabi East’s team was loaded with talent.
“I was kind of keeping it in my mind that it might be canceled, so that it wouldn’t hit me too hard, but it still hit me pretty hard — not great,” Hill said Thursday a couple hours after the announcement. “I haven’t heard much from my teammates yet. I think everybody is still a little shocked. I’ll probably reach out ... to see how everyone is doing.”
Wait 'til next year
Hill isn’t alone. Across the Iron Range, Greenway/Nashwauk-Keewatin junior Geno Uhrbom was hoping to accomplish something almost as rare, repeating as the Class A cross country, 1,600 and 3,200 champion, distance running’s “Triple Crown.” Uhrbom already had accomplished the first leg of a repeat by cruising to the Class A cross-country title in November, back when life was normal.
“I knew when they were canceling school that this was probably next, so it really wasn’t much of a surprise,” Uhrbom said. “I was keeping an open mind as far as what would happen, obviously training and doing my stuff, but it’s canceled now, so you can’t really have an open mind about that. I’m disappointed, but I try not to get upset over it.”
Uhrbom is known for being insanely disciplined, and he said he will have no problem staying motivated as he prepares for (hopefully) a fall cross-country season.
“I don’t have a hard time staying focused. It’s part of my life at this point,” Uhrbom said. “I’m hoping for the best. Hopefully next year things will be back to normal.
“I can’t do anything about it, so I’m not going to be mad. There will always be some disappointment, but I’m going to keep on being myself. I’ll just have to get it next year.”
At least he has another year. Hill doesn’t.
A true Giant
Hill, who will run cross country and track for the University of Minnesota, leaves a legacy as one of the greatest girls athletes the Northland has produced.
Hill was a state-qualifying swimmer before running cross country starting her sophomore year. She finished eighth at the Class A state meet that first season followed by back-to-back fourth-place finishes.
In basketball, the guard was a three-time News Tribune All-Area selection who led the Giants to their first state tournament in 20 years as a sophomore. She is the all-time leading scorer for Mesabi East, boys or girls, with 2,581 points.
In track, Hill holds the Giants’ school record in the 800 with a time of 2 minutes, 12.11 seconds, as well as anchoring school records in the 800 and 1,600 relays. Even though she hardly ran these events, she also has school records in the 400 (58.34) and 1,600 (5:04.12). In Junior Olympics competition, she has clocked a blazing 56.89 in the 400 and 2:11.91 in the 800. There’s a reason she’s going to Minnesota.
“I couldn’t have had a better person to coach,” said Steve Ekman, who coaches the Giants with Kari Hunt. “Ava took her leadership role on the team seriously. She is so humble. She worried more about how she could better help the team than her own individual event.
“I have witnessed, countless times, her eagerness to mentor younger students. A lot of our younger athletes say that they want to be the next Ava. To me, this is what an inspiring and successful person is. It was an honor for Kari and I to coach her.”
Ekman said some athletes have asked him to continue sending workouts, just a little something to keep a little sense of normalcy in their lives.
Hill has been running mainly near her home on Wynne Lake near Giants Ridge in Biwabik, using her GPS watch to keep track of distance and time. Occasionally she’ll take a drive and find a highway or dirt road farther away “just to get some new scenery.”
So just how rare was Hill’s accomplishment? Since the state track meet was split into two classes in 1976, only three girls have won three straight Class A 800 titles: Hill, Roseau’s Ada Anderson (1999-2001) and Blooming Prairie’s Jeanne Kruckeberg, who won five straight (1982-1986).
“It was definitely the goal to go for four straight; that’s what I was planning on doing,” Hill said. “I’ve been feeling stronger than I did last year. I think I would have been able to break my records.”
Instead, she was denied, not by an opponent, but something historic.
Hunt was the first person to reach out to Hill on Thursday, and she echoed Ekman’s sentiments.
“She said how it was awesome to coach me and get to know me, so that was nice to hear,” Hill said. “It’s hard, it’s hard to deal with, but it’s OK. Hopefully I’ll be able to redeem myself in college and run even faster.”
Ely at a loss
While Hill and Uhrbom were sensational at last year’s state meet, they weren’t the only Northland athletes to take home the gold.
Ely upstart Luke Olson, a University of South Dakota recruit, captured the Class A boys 800 title in his first year running track and planned to do it again as a senior this season.
“Luke was training very hard in the hopes of defending his title — completely ready to go,” Ely coach Will Helms said. “It has been a tough twenty-four hours. My heart is still a bit heavy.”
Helm sent a note to his athletes on Thursday night calling the news “heartbreaking” but telling the seniors they should feel proud of the mark they left on the program.