SARATOGA SPRINGS — The Saratoga Springs varsity girls cross country team waited a long time for this opportunity, and they made the most of it.
The Blue Streaks, racing as Kinetic Running Club, won the national championship at the Nike Cross Nationals in Portland, Oregon, finishing first out of 22 teams from around the country. In total, the team won five championship races in a five-week span, beginning with the Section 2 Championships in Queensbury and ending with the Cross Nationals in Portland.
“It felt really good,” said Sheridan Wheeler of winning nationals. “We all wanted to win again, that was one of our goals for the past three years, since we haven’t had nationals.”
The 2020 and 2021 Cross Nationals were both canceled due to COVID-19, making this year’s event the first since Saratoga captured the 2019 championship.
“This being my senior year, I’m so grateful to be able to finish off this undefeated cross country season with these girls here,” added McKinley Wheeler. “It was really memorable, and I’ll never forget it.”
The team finished with 81 points as a team at the Cross Nationals, finishing ahead of the second-place team from Niwot, Colorado (109 points). Emily Bush placed 30th (17:52.3), while McKinley Wheeler was 33rd (17:57.3). Alycia Hart (18:04.9) finished 42nd, Sheridan Wheeler (18:06.5) placed 46th, and Anya Belisle (18:15.3) was 59th. Eighth-graders Heidi Berglund and Natalie Wilding finished 113th and 161st, respectively.
“We have a really close team,” Bush said. “Seeing each other grow, seeing each other through our ups and downs, we’ve built a really strong bond through that. At the end of the day, we’re always just doing what we can to get our team to where we know we can be, and working hard for these girls. It’s definitely a very close environment, a really close group of girls, and it’s really special to be a part of.”
McKinley Wheeler said that while the team was focused on their goal, they also made sure to enjoy the experience.
“We tried not to be too serious,” said Wheeler. “That would just lead to you kind of stressing out more, instead of also enjoying the experience while you were there. … Together, we still made it fun, and just experienced it all together. And then when it was time to get serious, we got serious.”
The team’s string of championship wins began on Nov. 5 at the Section 2 Class A Championship meet at Queensbury High School. Each of the top four runners were from Saratoga, with Bush in first, Sheridan Wheeler in second, Belisle in third, and McKinley Wheeler in fourth. Wilding also finished ninth, with Hart 11th, Katie Turner 12th, and Berglund in 14th.
A week later, the Blue Streaks captured the NYSPHSAA Class A State Championship, with a team score of 23 points well ahead of second-place Jamesville-DeWitt (Section III).
“It was just a great feeling to come out on top again. Super rewarding,” said Bush of the state title. “We were finally getting to see our hard work pay off, after so many years of not having these big meets. It was very exciting.”
On Nov. 19, Saratoga kept it rolling at the New York State Federation Championships in Wappingers Falls, placing five runners in the top seven finishers. The Blue Streaks’ team score of 20 points was well ahead of second-place Bethlehem (117 points).
The following week, the team returned to Wappingers Falls for the Nike Cross Regionals, and punched their ticket to Cross Nationals, with three of the top four runners coming from Saratoga. McKinley Wheeler was second, Sheridan Wheeler was third, and Belisle was fourth, with Bush placing eighth and Hart 20th.
Berglund said it was exciting to be able to experience the large meets.
“It was really exciting, because I’ve never been to big meets like this,” said Berglund of nationals. “It was exciting to see the new competition, and how it changes.”
The team echoed Bush’s comments about the bond between the runners, with Sheridan Wheeler saying they were “especially close” this season.
“When it gets to the end of the season, we’re just really close together,” said Sheridan Wheeler. “We see each other when we’re racing, and we just hook onto each other.”
“It was nice to feel that when we run, we still can work together, stay in that close pack with each other with a bigger group of girls,” added McKinley Wheeler.
Wilding, one of the team’s eighth-grade runners, said her teammates were “so kind and welcoming.”
“It was nice to have everyone welcome you and teach you how to do it, and what it takes to do well,” said Wilding. “I was just proud I was able to do as well as I was.”
McKinley Wheeler, who is a senior along with her sister Sheridan, said “it really meant a lot” to be a part of the Blue Streaks team.
“All the effort and work Mr. and Mrs. Kranick put into this program, and our training, and our success, is just really moving,” said McKinley Wheeler. “They’re really great coaches, and just overall great people. Going through these years, and being able to go to these meets and experience what we did, I’m just really grateful.”
“Sometimes I don’t even know what I would do without running and my coaches,” added Sheridan Wheeler. “I’m really grateful for everything that I’ve done in my high school career in running and academics. And all my lovely teammates. I love them all so much, and I’m really sad to leave them at the end of this year. But I’ll be watching and cheering them on.”
The runners gave plenty of credit to coaches Art and Linda Kranick, who have led the cross country team for over 30 years.
“They’ve seen what works, they see what doesn’t work, not just with us, but with other teams,” said McKinley Wheeler. “They always say that you need to work hard to get what you want. They put everything into this team and us and our success.”
“They’ve taught us a lot, and I’m grateful to have them as my coaches,” Sheridan Wheeler said. “We’ve accomplished so much in our career here, so I’m just very grateful for them and my teammates.”
Bush added that the runners competing for each other also helps push the team to success.
“We’re doing it for more than ourselves, we’re doing it for our team. That’s the best type of motivation,” said Bush. “I think it’s just a good mix of good coaching, hard work, and just a really close bond between these girls that gets us to where we have been.”
The team said the season seemed to fly by, with Sheridan Wheeler saying it “was over so quick.”
“Honestly, it’s been pretty great,” said Sheridan Wheeler of the season. “It’s been a really long time, and I’m glad, at least for my sister and I, our senior year, we were able to have a whole season again. I missed it so much.”
“I’m really happy. It was so rewarding,” added McKinley Wheeler. “That went by really fast. I’m just so glad how this season went, and I couldn’t have been more grateful to do it with the group of girls we have here.”
And while the Wheelers will graduate in the spring, the returning runners are already looking forward to next season.
“I think we’re not done yet,” Bush said. “We have a lot more to show, a lot more to give, and I’m really excited to see how the season plays out, especially with these younger ones right here, to see what else they’re capable of. … I’m super excited to see what else is to come, because I know that we have a lot of potential on this team.”