Just moments before Emmett Swartzentruber hit the finish line last Saturday, joyously pumping his arms to begin a Mid-Prairie party celebrating cross country history, seven Golden …
Just moments before Emmett Swartzentruber hit the finish line last Saturday, joyously pumping his arms to begin a Mid-Prairie party celebrating cross country history, seven Golden Hawk girls huddled in tears at precisely the same spot in the finishing area.
Danielle Hostetler, a three-time state champion and an untouchable for most of her races over a four-year high school career, hugged her teammates after a fifth-place finish.
Annika Poll, a senior, embraced Phoebe Shetler, another senior.
Tears rolled down the face of freshman Kendal Landstrum as Hostetler hugged her.
Seniors Abby Fleming and Greta Sieren, along with freshman Brooklyn Stutzman, joined the huddle.
Hostetler, who first came to Fort Dodge’s Kennedy Park for the state championship meet when she was just 8 years old and older sister Anna was competing for the first time, clearly understood the emotional gravity of the moment in chilling temperatures with snow flurries in the air.
It wasn’t the fact that Hostetler didn’t win a rare fourth consecutive state title that has only been accomplished once in state history. And it wasn’t the failure to win a third team state title in four years. It was something else.
“We’re pretty emotional because it’s our last time,” Hostetler said. “The freshmen are emotional because they’re going to miss us. We have a really good team atmosphere.”
Then, Swartzentruber changed all that emotion.
Deciding halfway through the boys 2A race that now was the time, Swartzentruber, a junior, charged to the front of the field, Hostetler style, and spent the rest of the race bolting toward the finish with a career-best time of 15 minutes, 51 seconds, becoming the first Mid-Prairie guy to win a state title and the first recent state champ not named Hostetler.
He pumped his arms.
He jumped into a hug along the fence with rookie head coach Jeremy Meyers.
Hostetler ran over with a warm-up blanket.
“I can’t put it into words,” Swartzentruber said. “I still can’t believe it. Still can’t believe it. It’s crazy.”
Swartzentruber’s amazing run extended a Mid-Prairie streak of individual state championships to eight consecutive years. And the person who started that streak in 2016, Anna Hostetler, was there to see it.
Suddenly, just like that, Swartzentruber’s victory had swiftly bundled everything together for a cross country program that has established itself as one of the best in the state. The standard. Mid-Prairie’s girls have finished in the top five eight straight years, including Saturday’s fourth-place team finish, winning a state title five times in those eight years. Before that, the boys won a state team title in 2016, the same year that Anna Hostetler won her individual championship as a junior.
There were tears Saturday.
And there were tears at the team meeting the night before at a hotel.
“I told the kids last night (at the hotel),” Meyers said, “literally every day I have a moment of awe that I’m lucky enough to get to spend every day with them. Every time that hits me, I’m thankful for that. Like I realize how lucky I am to be able to coach them this year.”
Every race begins with a huddle. Their commitment begins not in the middle of August with official team practices, but in June and July with early morning sunrise runs. If you wake up at 6 in the morning on a summer’s day, you’ll see them out there on the streets of Wellman, pounding pavement.
If one runner succumbs to the heat on a hot race day, you’ll see bunches of teammates running for ice and just comforting their teammate. Nobody is ever alone.
“I’ve never been around a group of kids that care for each other as much as these guys do and love each other as much as these guys do,” Meyers said. “I’m just proud of them.”
“We just love each other,” Swartzentruber said. “It’s just a super fantastic thing.”
In the midst of that is Danielle Hostetler, whose older sisters Anna and Marie won four consecutive state titles before Danielle won her first as a freshman in 2020 to help the Golden Hawks win their fourth of five consecutive team state titles.
Championship day in Fort Dodge has turned into an annual family trek.
“It means so much,” Danielle Hostetler said. “First of all, I’ve been coming here since I was little and I was watching my sisters. I was so excited to run someday. The past four years, a lot of injuries, a lot of heartbreak, but a lot of really good things. Fond memories of my teammates. Wins and losses, all of it.”
Until this year, Mark Hostetler, a goat and dairy farmer in Parnell and the father of Danielle, Marie and Anna, coached the team. Not only cross country, but also some years in track. When he stepped away this year, the replacement was Meyers, an eighth-grade math teacher at Mid-Prairie Middle School in Kalona who fully realized the history and traditions of a program that dominated Iowa cross country.
“I mean, expectations are high when you take over for a guy like Mark,” Meyers said. “He’s a living legend. The kids have done a whole lot to make it easy on me. Obviously, there’s that internal pressure of trying to live up to all of that and knowing full well that I never could because of all that he’s accomplished. But just trying to do the best I can for the kids.”
“There are definitely times where it was like, ‘Man, this is really heavy, this is a lot,’” he said, his voice breaking with emotion. “But really, most of the time, it was just like, ‘Man, I’m so thankful for this opportunity.’”
He already knew the kids.
“I knew them all in middle school,” he said. “I coached all of them in middle school. I knew them. I was actually more nervous at the beginning-of-the-season parents meeting.”
Eventually, all of this led to a team championship by the Mid-Prairie girls at the 2A state qualifier in Williamsburg, a third-place finish by the boys, and individual titles by both Hostetler and Swartzentruber. Three Golden Hawks placed among the top 5 finishers and all seven were in the top 18. The girls also won the River Valley Conference title.
“I’m just so proud of those girls,” Meyers said.