First there was Mankato East’s Megan Lundgren. Then came Mankato West’s Laura Hughes. Now there’s Mankato Loyola’s Dani Stack.

Mankato has had its share of standout cross country runners over the years. It wasn’t long ago the Mankato West boys were perennial state contenders. And before that Mankato East’s Josh Dobell and West’s Jon Ortloff had a pretty good intra-city rivalry going.

But while the talent has ebbed and flowed from year to year, the 2005 cross country season finds Mankato in a unique situation. The city has three of the top girls cross country runners in the state — and all three run for different teams.

Up until this season, Mankato East junior Megan Lundgren was considered in a class by herself when it came to Mankato running. Nobody on her own team, or on West or Loyola, had been offering much competition.

That changed this fall when Mankato West eighth-grader Laura Hughes blossomed into a quality runner. She has finished ahead of Lundgren in three of five head-to-head matchups this year and is currently ranked ninth in Class AA.

Lundgren won the most recent head-to-head race, capturing the Big Nine Conference Championships last Saturday with Hughes finishing third. Lundgren is rated 13th in Class AA.

“Megan has been training hard as always,” East coach Neal Paarmann said. “Her mileage is probably up a little bit from last year. She’s healthy and she’s running pretty aggressively and that’s the key.”

West head coach Scott Carlson says Hughes is just beginning to tap into her potential.

“She’s just a very gifted runner with a real high natural aerobic ability,” he said. “Last year, as a seventh-grader, she just went out and ran. This year’s she’s learning how to run races.

“She’s matured physically, too, and that makes her stronger. We don’t want her to over-analyze her runs but she’s obviously putting more thought into them than she was a year ago.”

Adding to the fun has been Mankato Loyola ninth-grader Dani Stack. Loyola reinstated its cross country program after a six-year absence this season and Stack has emerged as a bonafide state contender.

Stack finished second to Lundgren in an early season triangular and won the Gopher Valley Conference Meet on Saturday. She is currently ranked 10th in the state in Class A.

“Dani is one of those kids that does whatever it takes to be better at what she wants to do.” Loyola coach Dale Compton said. “She has great dedication, works hard, she’ll run on her own, she’s just a great leader for us.

“She ran a little bit as a seventh-grader when she was living in Sponner (Wis.) but, other than that, she has no real experience. It’s pretty amazing how well she’s done in her first full varsity season.”

Lundgren says having three first-rate runners in town is a good thing.

“I like it a lot,” she said. “It’s better that Laura and I can push each other. And now (Dani) is here and she’s good, too.”

Stack agrees, but says winning is the primary objective.

“I like running when people are pushing me because I like seeing how I handle it,” she said. “But it’s nice to run in front by myself, too, because that means I’m winning.”

All three girls will participate in section meets today. Lundgren and Hughes will compete in the Section 2AA competition at Waconia and Hughes will run in the Section 2A race at Blue Earth.

“This is it,” Hughes said. “This is what we’ve been training for this whole year — for a chance to go to state.”

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