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Column: In the front row

It didn’t matter that graduation had taken a chunk out of their section championship roster.It didn’t matter that injuries kept two of their top returning runners out of the lineup.It didn’t even matter that sweltering heat made conditions less than ideal.Difficult obstacles? More like minimal disturbances to Ely’s high school girls cross country team, which won a five-team meet at Babbitt - surprising their opponents as well as their coach.Jayne Dusich, who’s led the program since its inception in 1995, didn’t expect her squad to race to victory in Thursday’s event.Not with top varsity runners Carolyn Freeman and Mary Anderson on the sidelines.But win the Wolves did, with experienced hands Casey Sovil (third place overall) and Jenna Klein (fourth) leading the way, and backed by four other runners who by-and-large exceeded expectations.“This was exciting,” Dusich said after the meet. “I thought it was very good for these girls. I didn’t know where they would be, but they were ahead of a lot of other girls from the other towns.”Taryn Cunningham finished ninth and Jen Zupancich was 11th, and teammates Sarah Markwardt and Mary Bruels stepped into the varsity lineup and contributed to a win in a meet that featured Section 7A opponents such as International Falls and Hermantown.And Ely only figures to get better as the season wears on.The Wolves should build upon their performance at Babbitt and their depth will only improve once Freeman and Anderson return.The victory has Dusich thinking that her team can be a contender again.“Looking at what Jenna and Casey did, they did really well,” said Dusich. “We have a chance to do something, even as a team once we get everybody back.”• Ely has had quite a run in girls athletics the last two years and core members of the cross country team have played a pivotal role.Most of the cross country runners are also part of the Ely Nordic ski team that won the section title and placed third in the single-class state meet in February.Klein and Sovil were both part of a track relay team that advanced to state competition during the spring, while Freeman just missed out on a state bid in track.• Tower-Soudan has already attracted attention from those who rate the state’s top prep volleyball teams.The Golden Eagles, section runners-up last fall, have been placed in the top-10 in Class A.Seniors Whitney Johnson, Patricia Roy and Katie Zavodnik, and juniors Katie Jamnick and Nova Abrahamson are among the top players for the Golden Eagles.T-S improved to 3-0 by sweeping Orr last Wednesday.• Ely’s high school football team showed plenty of promise during an Aug. 28 scrimmage at Esko.The Wolves dominated Carlton, their Sept. 17 opponent, and had good moments in matchups with Esko and Hermantown.A less rugged schedule, prompted by the Wolves’ move into the Polar Conference Class A Division, should give Ely a legitimate shot at a .500 or better campaign.It shouldn’t be long before Ely, one of the smallest AA schools around, is moved to Class A for football.• The football team’s depth took a hit early last week when lineman Ryan Bagnal broke a bone in his hand at practice.• The return of their top skill players, including NCAA Division I hockey recruit Matt Niskanen, Dan Lanari and Zach Rowe, make Mt. Iron-Buhl a heavy favorite to repeat as the section champion in prep 9-man football.Tower-Soudan has good numbers and good size but the Golden Eagles are hurt by the defection of star running back Brennan Poderzay, who transferred to Hibbing to play hockey. Babbitt-Embarrass went 9-1 last fall but is rebuilding after the loss of several seniors, including top backs Josh Flug and Josh Mathson.• Ely graduate Dustin Schaper is on the football team at Hibbing Community College.The 6-4, 220-pound freshman is a defensive end for the Cardinals. He was one of Ely’s top defenders last fall, recording 25 solo tackles, 35 assisted stops and a pair of quarterback sacks.“He has a super work ethic and is learning everyday,” said Hibbing Head Coach Kurt Zuidmulder. “He has a great deal of potential and will play quite a lot this year for a freshman.”’Hibbing went 5-5 a year ago and plays at Vermilion Oct. 14.• Little known fact: While many golfers, both from northeastern Minnesota and beyond, are enjoying the new Wilderness course at Fortune Bay Resort and Casino near Tower, it’s not the first major golf course to be built near Lake Vermilion.Historic photos show that a major course was operating there in the 1920s, before the Depression forced it out of business.• Coaching carousel: former Ely resident Rick Pierce is the new volleyball coach at Babbitt-Embarrass.• Road warriors: By Oct. 2, Ely’s high school girls swimming and diving team will be in action nine times. All but two of the meets are away from home.

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