REINBECK - For many runners in the North Iowa Cedar League conference meet field, Saturday showed how drastically things can change in a year, days or mere moments.
With injuries, illness and other unpredictable events taking a toll on athletes, getting to the finish line in one piece proved to be an achievement in itself. And a reminder that adversity can call for a change in plans.
West Marshall's Nathan Bradley altered his racing strategy, BCLUW's Cole Silver switched sports and East Marshall's runner-up squad rallied behind its depth - each finding success on a different path from last October.
Earning all-conference recognition for the fourth time, Bradley made his debut on the first team with a fourth-place finish in 16 minutes, 20 seconds, on a chilly morning at Oak Leaf Country Club.
Ranked 28th in Class 2A, the senior Trojan had a first-team spot in his grasp as a junior, before fading down the final straightaway to eighth. It was a common occurrence for Bradley late in the 2012 season before he altered his diet and transitioned to a negative-splits approach this year to retain more energy for the finish.
"Last year I had some trouble passing out," said Bradley of last year's NICL meet. "I was about fifth or sixth place and in the last 400 meters I couldn't quite finish and actually started walking. I couldn't remember what was happening, I just kind of passed out through meets last year. Finally getting first team all-conference means a lot to me."
Bradley moved his way up from the top-20 in the opening mile to fourth but couldn't quite reel in the front trio led by Denver's Kyle Kehoe, who repeated as the individual champ. The fourth-rated runner in 1A hit the chute in 15:52 - two seconds ahead of Aplington Parkersburg's CJ May, ranked No. 26 in 2A. Dike New-Hartford's John Crew, No. 30 in 2A and NICL runner-up last fall, took third in 16:09.
Kehoe's Cyclones, the top-ranked squad in 1A, also took the team crown with a score of 55 - fending off 2A No. 6 East Marshall by 10 points. 2A No. 15 Waterloo Columbus (129) clipped Dike-New Hartford by four points to claim third.
The Mustangs rallied behind its interchangeable lineup to improve five spots from last year's finish and drop nearly four minutes off its team split. East Marshall's top five runners were separated by a mere 41 seconds - the best out of 14 teams - after having the second-worst split of 4:36 in 2012.
Freshman Nick Meling led the charge with a seventh place tally of 16:35, while Caleb Benzing came through a second behind in ninth - repeating as a second team honoree.
Ben Terrones made his third all-conference appearance in 14th (16:54), while Sam Benzing (17th) and Josh Benzing (18th) each clocked 17:15 to complete the Mustangs' scoring quintet.
Though East Marshall couldn't overcome the Cyclones placing four in the top-12, the Mustangs enter the state qualifier meet Thursday as a much more formidable squad top-to-bottom bred upon a pack mentality in practice.
"Years before we've had different paces for people, but for practices this year our team is so dense that we've been right together," said Caleb Benzing, one of three different runners to serve as the Mustangs' frontrunner this year.
"It makes us better because we're all able to push each other."
Meling, rated No. 29 in 2A, has fed off that competition first hand after simply joining the team as way to prepare for wrestling.
"Wrestling is my main sport and I came out to do better in that," said Meling.
"Caleb and Ben push me and make me want to work my hardest."
BCLUW senior Cole Silver had a different field of focus each fall, before a track injury influenced him to switch from the gridiron to the cross country course.
The 13th-rated runner in 1A pushed the eighth-ranked Comets to a sixth place finish (167), while taking the same place individually in 16:32. Though he may never have laced up the spikes if not for the injury that sidelined his football career.
"At the end of my sophomore year of track, my hip started hurting," said Silver, who still has remnants from the hip surgery that followed.
"I have four screws in it right now so the surgeon told me it would be wise not to do football. ... I had it in the back of my mind that cross country could be a possibility. Then when I had hip surgery, it just helped guide me that way."
The former wide receiver and defensive back guided the Comets with an assist from fellow all-conference seniors Derek Coulter (13th, 16:52) and Ben Kuhl (21st, 17:24).
Coulter, ranked No. 26 in 1A, attained NICL honors for the third time with Saturday marking his second finish among the top-14.
South Hardin's Tim Rose had hopes of becoming a three-time honoree and individual champion after last year's fourth place performance, though a mishap with roughly 800 meters to go prevented him from reaching the finish.
"I've had an ear infection and cold but I was feeling better today," said Rose, who is ranked No. 19 in 2A and defeated Kehoe, May and Crew in Grundy Center last month.
"When I came off the bridge I kind of got shoved into a hole. My (left) ankle popped and I couldn't finish. I felt good otherwise until that happened."
The senior's status is unknown for Thursday, though numerous runners wished the Tiger a speedy recovery following the race.
South Tama County duo Robert Tyynismaa and Blake Keller led the Trojans to seventh (198) with 11th and 15th place finishes respectively. It was Tyynismaa's third top-15 outing as he repeated on the second team. West Marshall was eighth overall with a total of 219, while South Hardin's Zac Farrell narrowly missed all-conference honorable mention by two spots en route to the Tigers' 12th-place outing (318).
Gladbrook-Reinbeck's sole representative, Tyler Bovy, earned honorable mention in 19th, while Espen Cleveland paced Grundy Center's 14th place finish (346), coming through in 53rd.
Denver finished runner-up last season after claiming a title as Denver-Tripoli in 2011. ... Hudson, the 2012 champion, placed fifth Saturday. ... East Marshall, South Hardin, South Tama County and West Marshall will all compete at the Class 2A state qualifier in Ames on the Iowa State University course. Gladbrook-Reinbeck and Grundy Center are headed to a Class 1A site at Eagle Grove. BCLUW travels to Wildwood Park in Ottumwa for a Class 1A qualifier. The top three teams plus 10 individuals advance to the state meet in Fort Dodge on Nov. 2.