WEST SALEM — Maybe Alli Thomas had to push herself too hard on Thursday, but the bottom line was that she got the job done.
The first two years of her Onalaska High School cross country career were spent becoming a better runner, but she didn't have much besides times to show for it.
Thomas has been thrust into the spotlight after running with what coach Darin Shepardson called "a team of giants" and she responded by winning an individual MVC championship at Maple Grove Venues in West Salem.
Thomas crossed the finish line in 20 minutes, 22.2 seconds to edge Holmen sophomore Anabella Filips (20:23.23) to complete an elevation from No. 8 runner on her team as a sophomore to conference champ as a junior.
But there was no stopping Filips' Vikings from winning their first conference team title since the MVC formed in 1989. Holmen had three of the top five individuals and seven of the top 12 on the way to a score of 28 that easily took care of the pack.
Onalaska (69) was second, Logan (82) third, Central (84) fourth and Aquinas (126) fifth. Sparta ran to a team score of 131 and Tomah to a 177.
"It's all about pack running, it's about team running," Holmen coach Steve Mally said. "It's about getting together and believing in each other, and they bought into it."
People are also reading…
Filips, who set a goal of running with Thomas, led that effort, but sophomore Sydney Valiska and freshman Bailey Sommerville weren't far behind.
Valiska was third with a time of 20:57.3, and Sommerville fifth (21:14.1) while finishing behind Logan senior Ellie Haverland (21:08.2). Seniors Grace Filips (eighth, 21:22.5) and Elle Stussy (10th, 21:45) rounded out Holmen's scoring runners.
"I was shooting for a place," Anabella Filips said of choosing Thomas as her chase throughout the race. "When I focus on my time when I run, my time is worse.
"So I focused on first and second place, and I got close (to winning)."
Thomas and Filips separated from the front group about halfway through the race and dealt with each other the rest of the way. Filips had a strong middle mile that kept her with Thomas, and Thomas had the necessary kick to win at the end.
"She's so cautious, and she doesn't really get out when she needs to, but her form is so solid, and she is getting stronger," Mally said of Filips. "She told me today, 'I'm learning,' and she is.
"She got out there knew what the pace had to be."
The performance is the culmination of a jump in the program last season. Holmen placed third as a team in a WIAA sectional meet and used the performance as motivation for a new fall season.
"When we were isolated for COVID(-19), and I had to coach virtually for three or four weeks, and our third meet was the subsectional," said Mally, who took over the program in 2007 and has twice coached the Vikings to second place. "We got our team to the sectional and two runners to state.
"All I could do was tell them what to do. The kids had to do the work, and they did a good job then and just continued it."
Thomas also spent Thursday continuing what she started a long time ago. It took a lot of work to beat Filips, and it showed during a recovery process that lasted more than 30 minutes before Thomas was able to walk around by herself.
"I always try to get off the line pretty quick, and the first mile usually goes pretty well for me," said Thomas, also a conference champion in the 300-meter hurdles last spring. "I had to hold steady and really fight that middle mile.
"I felt (Filips) on my shoulder, and that really helps motivate me. I like running with people more than being out in front of everyone. It's also the first conference race I've run as a member of the varsity, so (winning) feels pretty good."
Shepardson said the junior's ability to lead has had a great impact on the Hilltoppers this fall after applying the things she learned while working with talented runners that qualified for the Division 1 state meet in both of her previous seasons.
"Alli stepped into that No. 1 role, and her first two years as a freshman and sophomore, that wasn't a lot of margin for racing," Shepardson said. "You are just trying to get used to the workouts. For her, her body started to come underneath here, she had a great track season and, as an extension, a nice summer of training.
"She cracked 20 minutes last weekend. Today, she wasn't feeling well and had to gut through this race. This was not her fastest race or her prettiest, but it was her gutsiest."