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Cross-country: Esko's Rengo runs his best for last

(Jed Carlson/jcarlson@superiortelegram.com) Esko’s Sam Rengo leads partway through the John Woodbury Invitational in Lake Nebagamon, Wis., in October.

Returning home from a work trip in Seattle last weekend, Jerimy Hallsten's flight didn't land in the Twin Cities until near midnight, followed by a darkened southbound drive and almost a 2 a.m. check-in at his hotel.

"I got a little shuteye," quipped the Esko cross-country coach.

That's because the Eskomos' sixth-year man was all eyes on senior Sam Rengo, who the next afternoon, was competing in the Class A state championships Saturday, Nov. 3, in Northfield for a final time.

Rengo, running in his third consecutive state appearance, covered the 5,000-meter course on the campus of St. Olaf College in a career-best 17 minutes, 27.4 seconds — eight seconds better than last November and a dozen seconds quicker than his year before.

"I didn't run my fastest time ever, but it was my fastest time on that course," Rengo said. "It was a great way for me to end."

A three-sport athlete also in basketball and track, the once football-playing Rengo ran his way into cross-country as middle-schooler, getting hooked by his older brother, Matt, ditching his pads for running cleats and never looking back.

Over his half-decade covering distant courses with the Eskomos, Rengo noted it's been the connections he made on and off the trails that will stick with him best.

"Those are the most memorable things — the relationships," Rengo said. "It's about the friendships and bonds you build through running over the years."

"He's a great runner to coach," added Hallsten of Rengo, highlighting the 5-foot-9, 145-pounder's guidance and leadership qualities in every season Hallsten has been at Esko. "For a kid who wanted to play football, I'm really glad he stuck with cross-country. I'm going to miss him."

Like Rengo, Cloquet seniors Blaine Bong and Aidan Ripp raced for their final time together last weekend, crossing the finish line within a second of one another and moments after, shared a hug between the pair of long-running, longtime friends.

"We'll definitely hold onto that one," said Bong, who, like Rengo, forewent his previous sport, soccer, and joined the friendship-laden activity of cross-country.

"I would have liked to join sooner," said Bong, who clocked a 16:49.6 on the overcast day in the mid-40s. "It's most likely the highlight of my high school career, to be with this team and do what I love. I'm overjoyed with what I've been able to do in cross country."

Bong plans to join the U.S. Navy next year, while Ripp, who finished in 16:50.7 last weekend, has been all across the country, as well as Europe, competing in Nordic combined ski racing. In August, he completed his time in the Czech Republic before coming home to cross-country.

While the two likely have adventurous futures lying ahead, the speedy pair brought the Cloquet boys back to St. Olaf, the fourth time in the past six seasons that the Lumberjacks have qualified for state.

If being the smallest school in the Class AA field weren't daunting enough, sickness and injuries plagued Cloquet last weekend, as the Lumberjacks legged 16th place out of the 16 competing teams. Juniors Jordan Allen, Dennis Osvold and sophomore Josh Sanders also scored with Bong and Ripp in the squad's 390 combined points.

In the girls' field, Cloquet's Lauren Cawcutt counted a time of 20:18.3 in the speedy sophomore's third consecutive state trip.

Not one to keep intricate track of records or results over time, Mike Bushey, now in his 20th year leading the Lumberjacks, wasn't concerned about his runners' finishes, but rather their gutsy efforts.

"These are resilient kids," said Bushey, a social studies teacher to many of them at the Cloquet Middle School growing up. "All you can ask for is for them to go down and do as well as they possible can. They did that, and we can't ask for anything more."

"They didn't give up," he added. "They represented this community well."

As did many others from the Northland, with the likes of Virginia's Cameron Stocke (13th), Ely's Luke Olson (seventh) and Mesabi East's Ava Hill (fourth) all finishing in the meet's elite.

Yet, no one was better than Geno Uhrbom, the Greenway/Nashwauk-Keewatin sophomore who as the state's top-ranked runner in Class A, showed exactly why when winning the boys' title in 15:38.

Uhrbom was more than 18 seconds ahead of runner-up Cooper Lennox of Mora, crossing the finish line with a smile and no one in sight.

"That's just a testament to how fast he really is," said Rengo of the talented Titan.

"He manhandled the competition," added Hallsten. "He dominated from the beginning. Within the first mile, he won that race."

Meanwhile, racing his way from the west coast to Northfield within a day was impressive for Hallsten, yet not surprising when wanting to watch Rengo's best run for last.

"When I got home, I crashed pretty hard," Hallsten admitted. "But I'd do it all over again. It was all worth it."