Edina's girls' cross-country team practiced early Friday at the Edina Community Center. The team finished third in the Class 2A state meet in 2012. [Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune photo]
For as long as she can remember, Bridgit Loeffelholz has loved to run. But passion only took her and her Edina cross-country teammates so far. Talent was evident, desire bubbling under the surface.
But results? Nothing to speak of.
Enter Matt Gabrielson. After six years as an assistant coach on the boys’ cross-country team, Gabrielson took over as the girls’ coach in 2011. A Division I runner at Drake and a training wonk, Gabrielson immediately saw what had been lacking.
“There was always talent here,” Gabrielson said. “I just think it needed to be developed. There needed to be change.”
With Gabrielson monitoring workouts and instituting a long-range plan, the Hornets reached the Class 2A tournament in 2011, their first appearance in more than decade. A summer running program with mileage goals was started. Under his plan, runners ran together, forging a team mentality. With the addition of former soccer player Shannon Spalding, the Edina runners felt something they hadn’t before: hope.
“It’s such a big difference with Matt here,” said Loeffelholz, now a senior in her fifth year with the team. “Before, we didn’t have tactics. Now you can see there’s a plan. There’s an overall intensity. You can see us getting better and Matt is the big reason why.”
Edina shocked even itself with a third-place finish in the state meet last fall. Spalding, then a sophomore, led the way, finishing 19th overall. Any doubts about Gabrielson’s methods vanished when the Hornets held their state meet trophy.
“There is a rhyme and a reason to what Matt says that makes sense,” Spalding said. “I didn’t know anything about running before last year. But I had success so quickly because Matt is one of the best coaches I’ve ever had. I haven’t missed a day of running in two years, and it’s because of him.”
Gabrielson gives much of the credit to his wife, Julie, who ran at the University of Minnesota, saying, “She really relates to the girls.” He acknowledged that much of Edina’s success has been his ability to get his runners to see their potential.
“For some reason, I’ve been able to figure out what needs to be said and present it to them in ways that motivate them,” he said. “It’s all about getting them to believe.”
Gabrielson’s message of hard work and persistent training has filtered down to younger ears. Edina has more than 100 girls out for the cross-country team, including talented ninth-graders poised to keep the Hornets at or near the top of the Class 2A pecking order for a few years.
Tate Sweeney and Amanda Mosburg are top freshmen who competed for the Hornets in 2012. Sweeney said the team’s recent success has inspired many of the younger runners.
“Last summer, I only ran 100 miles all summer,” Sweeney said. “I didn’t work as hard as I could have. But I saw how dedicated Matt is as a coach and I did 300 this summer. He knows just how much to push us so we get better without wearing us out. We never had that before.”
The prospect of improving on last year has the Edina runners more determined than ever before. Gabrielson doesn’t expect his team to unseat defending Class 2A champion Wayzata, but he sees them getting closer.
“Everyone has bought into it,” he said. “Can we beat Wayzata? On a perfect day, if we’re firing on all cylinders and Wayzata isn’t, absolutely. My job is to create an atmosphere in which everyone can believe.”
Loeffelholz, having experienced Edina’s rapid improvement, put it simply: “This is the most fun I’ve ever had in cross-country. Everyone is enjoying themselves.”