Aaron Thomas chuckled, but he didn’t hesitate. He’s far too modest to bite on such a “hot take” question.
Is his 2023 Gilbert boys’ cross country team the best Class 3A squad since the Iowa High School Athletic Association and Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union adopted a four-class system in 2003?
“I would say no, I think there are other teams that were probably better,” Thomas, the Tigers’ longtime head coach who now boasts four 3A state championships — 2014, 2017, 2018, and 2023 — said. “I would probably have to take a closer look to see how we would stack up.”
No worries, Coach Thomas, I did that for you. And I’m here to tell him and all of you — this year’s group of Tigers has a pretty strong case to sit on that throne.
Before I go any further, let me lay down this disclaimer: This is all in good fun. There are a number of factors that go into any state cross country race, so to definitively say our 2023 boys’ team is the best in 3A over the past 21 seasons is impossible. Does anyone remember the weather conditions at the 2004 state meet? How about 2008? I could go on and on, but I think you get the point. And this is not meant to demean any of the other incredible programs — Pella, Mount Vernon, Dallas Center-Grimes, Dubuque Wahlert, the list goes on and on — that have made 3A such a formidable field year after year.
So, let’s go ahead and have some fun.
Since 2003, only one 3A state champion — Mount Vernon in 2015 — has scored fewer than the 57 points our boys tallied on Saturday to eek out a six-point win over defending state champion Pella. But if you compare Mount Vernon’s five scoring times to our boys, we win that match-up handily by an average of 38.2 seconds at the five positions, if my calculations are correct. In fact, Gilbert wins that head-to-head match-up at each of the five scoring positions.
So there’s that.
Next, I put together a chart of the times of the five scoring runners (minus the tenths and hundredths of a second since that hasn’t been recorded every season going back to 2003) for each of the state champions over the past 21 seasons and then added them together. When you add our five scoring times from Saturday — Logan Bleich at 15:55, Jacob Tallman at 15:59, Carson Squiers at 16:09, Emmett Barber at 16:18, and Zain Mueller at 16:32 — you get a combined time of 80 minutes, 53 seconds.
No other 3A state champion since 2003 has had a combined time of under 81 minutes. Pella’s state championship team in 2011 was the closest at 81:12, followed by Decorah in 2012 at 81:23. Gilbert’s 2014 title team that featured individual state gold medalist Thomas Pollard is fifth on the list at 82:11.
Oh by the way, Pollard’s winning and school-record time of 15:04.50 is the fastest recorded clocking by a 3A runner since the shift to four classes.
To be completely up front, Pella’s runner-up team on Saturday actually had a better combined time than Gilbert at 80:35 thanks to the 15:18 posted by individual champion Canaan Dunham, but the Tigers’ depth was just a smidgen better.
Now let’s take this to the extreme. Since the state cross country meet has been run at Lakeside Golf Course on the outskirts of Fort Dodge throughout this entire scenario, let’s put all of the state championship teams in the same mythical race and score it out. Again, a disclaimer, because not every year was timed out to tenths and hundredths of a second, the results could be skewed by a few points.
And what are the results of that mythical race? Our 2023 team tallies 110 points to win the title by 18 points over the 2012 Decorah Team (128). The 2011 Pella team is third with 156, while 2008 Algona (197) and 2007 Cedar Rapids Xavier (213) round out the top five.
Whew! I’m exhausted.
So, Coach Thomas, does any of this data change your initial opinion?
“Yeah, I still don’t know,” he said when presented with the evidence. “For whatever reason, times as a whole seem to be faster now. At the Ballard meet this year, I looked at the times we ran and thought ‘holy cow,’ because our times were incredibly fast compared to our 2017 and 2018 state championship teams that were really good.”
OK, Coach Thomas, will you at least concede that maybe — just maybe — this 2023 group is the best boys’ team that Gilbert has ever had?
“Yeah, I could probably say that,” he said. “With what this group did, just the tightness of the pack, it was probably closer together than those 2017 and 2018 teams, and we were a lot further up in the race.”
This year’s team beats the previous three Gilbert championship teams at every scoring position except for one — Pollard’s gold-medal run in 2014. To all future Tigers, good luck chasing down that record.
Fun hypotheticals aside, this year’s group was special. It was seven strong with Preston Stensland and Harrison Kraehling providing scoring points in plenty of meets throughout the season. To have four individuals earn all-state status simply doesn’t happen very often, and when you compare the veterans’ times on Saturday to one year earlier, you just say wow.
Squiers improved by 1 minute, 13 seconds from the 2022 state meet. Barber was 1:19 faster. Mueller improved by 1:05. Stensland was 16 seconds better, and Kraehling improved by 29 seconds.
But as I crunched the numbers and marveled, I kept going back to a tweet sent out by a friend of mine Saturday night. Jeff Linder, one of our state’s best prep sports writers for the Cedar Rapids Gazette said this: “Random Saturday-night tweet. Almost without fail, cross country kids are cream-of-the-crop humans.”
I could not agree more, and we’ve got two big rosters that fit that description. Coach Thomas and girls’ head coach Laura Kautman are two of the best in the state at developing state-championship-caliber teams, but they’re even better at teaching our student-athletes how to be respectful, kind, and outstanding individuals. At the end of the day, that means just as much or more than the state trophies they pile up.
We’re very lucky here at Gilbert.
Mythical State Championship of Class 3A State Champions (2003-2023)
- 2023 Gilbert — 110
- 2012 Decorah — 128
- 2011 Pella — 156
- 2008 Algona — 197
- 2007 Cedar Rapids Xavier — 213
- 2022 Pella — 217
- 2017 Gilbert — 240
- 2014 Gilbert — 249
- 2006 Cedar Rapids Xavier — 258
- 2021 Dallas Center-Grimes — 260
- 2013 Boone — 263
- 2020 Dallas Center-Grimes — 266
- 2003 Dubuque Wahlert — 285
- 2018 Gilbert — 291
- 2009 Pella — 295
- 2019 Dallas Center-Grimes — 299
- 2015 Mount Vernon — 319
- 2016 Mount Vernon — 325
- 2004 Dubuque Wahlert — 349
- 2010 Dubuque Wahlert — 372
- 2005 Mount Vernon — 473
Top 8 Combined Scoring Times For 3A State Championship Teams Since 2003
- 2023 Gilbert — 80:53
- 2011 Pella — 81:12
- 2012 Decorah — 81:23
- 2008 Algona — 82:03
- 2014 Gilbert — 82:11
- 2013 Boone — 82:16
- 2022 Pella — 82:29
- 2021 Dallas Center-Grimes — 82:51