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CEDAR FALLS — Morning showers only added to the excitement level for members of the Cedar Falls boys’ cross country team prior to Thursday afternoon’s Rich Engel Invite on their home course at Birdsall Park.

A little mud was little concern to a Tigers’ squad that met every morning at 6:45 this past offseason and grew together through work on dirt trails.

Cedar Falls attacked the course with a pack mentality, placing all five point-scorers in the top 22 and seven among the top 28 to capture the 21-team Engel championship with a total of 65 points.

Class 4A’s No. 8-ranked Urbandale finished runner-up to third-ranked Cedar Falls with a score of 84. Urbandale’s Payton Marrs won the individual race over Cedar Rapids Kennedy’s Jacob Green with a pass on the final mile, 16:15-16:24.

Decorah’s Brady Hogan more than held his own against the large field, clocking a fourth-place time of 16:55 that led area runners.

Cedar Falls’ championship effort was paced by a sixth-place finish from sophomore Brayden Burnett in 16:58. Classmate Alex Horstman was eighth (17:11), followed by ninth-place junior Michael Goodenbour (17:19). Ethan Kober led the next pack of Tigers with a 20th-place time of 17:39, and Joel Burris crossed 22nd in 17:40.

“I think we’re the best in the state for pack running,” Burnett said. “We’ve got each other.”

Cedar Falls’ talented sophomore pointed to a gradual hill over a mile into the race as a place where members of his team made their move by rising to the challenge. The Tigers’ success came without one of their usual top three runners in Eli Smith, who was battling a Thursday illness.

“We did this for him and I’m glad we did our job on our home course,” Burnett said.

Added Cedar Falls coach Scott Gall, “The awesome thing about these guys is it is a team. When they show up, they show up ready to help each other out and be tough as a unit. We missed Eli, but guys were ready to step up and no one flinched.”

Gall is encouraged by the times his team has put up running on tired legs. Certainly there’s plenty of upside in this group that has just one senior among its top eight.

“There’s a lot of talent, and with the talent they’re also willing to work really hard,” Gall said.

In the girls’ race, Iowa City Liberty sophomore standout Ashlyn Keeney pulled away with a championship time of 18:47. Dubuque Senior ran away with the team race with 42 points.

Aplington-Parkersburg senior Sophia Jungling embraced a change in scenery.

Typically a breakaway winner when competing against smaller schools, Class 1A’s No. 3-ranked individual enjoyed chasing and racing front-runners from larger schools. Jungling led area girls with a fifth-place time of 19:48.

Aplington-Parkersburg was the top small school team finisher, placing 10th in the field of 21. The Falcons defeated five 4A and three 3A schools.

“I take advantage of competitions like this because I don’t get to compete against big schools a lot,” Jungling said. “I learned that I’m a lot stronger than I think I am.

“Sometimes when I’m running by myself in the local meets it’s mentally tough on me. When I’m out here with these schools, the person ahead of me is my mental push. You don’t realize how much that helps until you’re doing it.”

Coming off Class 2A state track titles in the 400 and 800 last spring, Jungling continues to tackle the challenge of 5K races on hilly terrain.

“Cross country is not my favorite, a lot of people don’t know that,” she said. “I’m a track girl, but I come out here and I compete. Just seeing everybody here competing and giving their best, that’s what I love about the atmosphere of cross country.”

There was plenty to celebrate about this current state of cross country on this sunny afternoon in Cedar Falls.

“I think you’re seeing growth in the sport, and you’re seeing growth in this meet,” Gall said. “It’s just super fun. It’s a magical place to be when we have the meet here with the backdrop of the park and all the work that the volunteers put in to get it set up.”

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