FORT DODGE – The Audubon girls’ cross country team didn’t have a complete squad when they competed at the Western Iowa Conference meet.

Teamwise, the Wheelers finished seventh at the Iowa Class 1A state qualifying meet.

That didn’t stop coach Pete Dammel’s two top stars – Grace Slater and Hannah Thygesen – from finishing their sophomore careers in a flourish at the Class 1A state meet over the weekend at Lakeside Golf Course.

Slater, the sophomore who continues to be a rising star in Iowa small-school cross country, came home with a 20th-place showing. She came in at 20:11.4, and bettered her 2018 finish of 74th place by more than two minutes.

She was just 10 seconds off a 15th-place finish and – in addition to an all-state honor – a spot on the deck of the Lakeside clubhouse when team and individual honors were announced.

Joining Slater this year was Wheeler classmate Hannah Thygesen, who was 108th, clocking a 22:35.5.

Dammel was pleased with how well his duo competed.

“(Grace’s) goal ... she wanted to do better than last year and we just talked about how much better and where should she set those goals,” he said. “She wanted to be top 20 and she finished 19th. She’s super-stoked and she should be. You set a goal and have a plan and then be willing to carry that plan out. On race day you’ve got to show up and be able to deliver the merchandise and she sure did.”

“I definitely had a better race this year,” Slater said. “I think the fact that I got the feel for the state competition last year helped, going in I knew how the start goes, I still got boxed in, so I’ll have to work on that. I got two years left so it’s time now to set my goals even higher and shoot for the podium next year and the year after.”

Slater came in fourth at the WIC meet at the Avoca Golf Course, and was sixth at the state qualifying meet. There was a feeling she didn’t quite run to her expectations at those meets.

So, Dammel said, some things had to be ironed out with pre-meet preparation, including diet.

Slater followed the advice and, when he saw her on the course about a third of the way through, it seemed like she was going to have a good day.

“She had a big grin on her face and she knew she was right where she needed to be and having a good race,” said Dammel. “That was super-fun to see and she had good pace and tempo and strength throughout the race.”

Next year, getting on the deck will be a goal Slater.

“Grace has always been real determined that way and she knows that the sky can be the limit,” the coach said.

Same with Thygesen, who was competing in Fort Dodge after just missing out on state a year ago. She placed 16th at the Class 1A state qualifying meet last year.

This year she qualified for state comfortably, coming in 12th at the meet in Mount Ayr. On race day nine days and 145 miles later, the Wheeler sophomore competed well.

“It was a really fun atmosphere,” Thygesen said. “I’m really thankful I got the opportunity to go this year. It was nice to have Grace there as well, having a teammate beside me made the experience even better. Now I’m looking to just keep working and hopefully that will get me two more trips to state, and higher finishes.”

“She’s a kid whose got a really great set of wheels ... to just go out there and set the world on fire,” said Dammel. “She’s coming around to running more miles each summer and looking forward to what she’ll do with serious summer miles under her belt.”

Thygesen was a state qualifier at the state track meet this past spring, competing in the 800 and several distance-related relays, so it’s different. But she adapted well, said Dammel, and overcame a tweaked hamstring and commitments with FFA.

“She’s a competitor. Cross country’s a different animal ... and her half was 2:20 so she’s got that good, good speed,” he said. “She’s a competitor ... and probably ran that race basically on adrenaline. I think the last two weeks she just came up to the meet as a competitor and as a hard-nosed person and was just going on adrenaline in that race, so I was excited to see her run as well as she did.”

Dammel, finishing his sixth season at Audubon, said he’s excited for the program’s future, as it enters probably its most successful stretch in recent memory. The corner hasn’t been turned, but several of the younger athletes are starting to understand what it takes to be successful, he said.

“That’s a fun, rewarding thing to see where it goes,” he said.

Note: Advocate Journal sports writer Austin Heinen contributed to this report.