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Four-time state champ cross country recognized for 2007-10 seasons

November 4, 2019
CJ Eilers - Editor (editor@dysartreporter.com) , Dysart Reporter

On a cold October night in La Porte City, a group of young women gathered under the Friday night lights of Union Stadium. For some, it had been years since they had visited their former high school. The last time the members of the 2007 through 2010 Union girls cross country teams had been all together was likely in that last year, as the members of those teams won four consecutive State titles, 19 team titles, two NICL team titles, and three District titles under head coach Andy McQuillen.

That Friday night during Homecoming, the women who made it happen were recognized in the Union Athletic Hall of Fame for their unprecedented success during their time as Knights.

"Those four years will be special to me forever," McQuillen said. "It was unprecedented back then with me being such a young coach and winning four titles at the same school. A lot of work went into it and I only truly realized what was accomplished after I left."

Article Photos

Members of the 2007-10 girls cross country team and coach Andy McQuillen braved the cold to be recognized in the Union Hall of Fame during Homecoming on October 18.

Union was McQuillen's first job after graduating from the University of Northern Iowa in 2005. McQuillen had student taught at Gladbrook-Reinbeck before taking his first position, so the young educator knew the area well. He immediately began coaching cross country alongside Justin Parson in 2005. After Parson left to teach at Wapsie Valley for several years. McQuillen took over head coaching duties himself in 2006. However, it was 2007 when things became interesting. Erin (Sears) Hyde was starting her sophomore year as the team welcomed her sister, Paige Sears and friend Ashley Frush to the high school team.

"Coming into my freshman year, cross country was my first activity," Frush said. All of the girls were close-knit group and on the bus we'd sing songs on our ways to meets. With Paige and I were coming into the program, the upperclassmen were really encouraging to us. They pushed us to do our best and it was a big family even outside of cross country. The Sears girls were like sisters to me."

Frush and Sears had run alongside the high schoolers throughout middle school, learning the ropes of the program and creating that "close knit group" early.

"We had no idea what it looked like to make the State meet," Sears said. "It was always easygoing, focused and we worked hard in practice that year. No one talked about State or making it as a team after Districts."

State was far from everyone's mind, including their own coach.

"That first year had a young core around senior Megan Leeper, who was great for those younger kids at the time," McQuillen said. "We never got over the hump during the regular season, so to speak. We were constantly in the top three or four placings at meets, but it wasn't until Districts that was our big step forward."

Frush, Hyde and Sears had finished All-Conference in the NICL meet only a week before Districts in Monticello. Still, the expectations qualify as a team weren't there. The three girls knew they had a chance to make it individually to Fort Dodge for State.

"I remember it was cold; not the nicest weather," Sears said. "Individually, I was really focused and knew I could make it to State on my own. When it came time for the team announcements, I remember how excited everyone, including Megan Leeper, was at that moment."

Union had squeezed into the State Meet as a team as the third place team at the qualifying meet at Monticello. Yet the best was to come as Frush led the Knights with a seventh place finish, followed by Hyde in 10th and Sears in 14th, to a State team title.

"Megan Leeper called me as I was running across the course in Fort Dodge and told me 'we won,'" McQuillen said. "Won what?, I had asked her. The state title. I knew we were in the top three, but I had no idea we won the state title. It was a shock."

One might think someone on the team had that gut feeling the Knights would come from barely qualifying as a team to winning the State title over Tipton. Someone like Hyde or maybe a senior leader in Leeper.

"Absolutely not," Hyde said. "We were just happy to get to the State meet that season. Megan Leeper was a senior that season and really kept us grounded. Our motto that season had been 'Hakuna Matata," or no worries, we are here to have fun. None of us thought it was real until it happened, truthfully."

Yet it did happen, and suddenly the Knights were a team to beat as 2008 came around. Union added Brittany Frush, Ashley's sister, as a freshman and the team was posed for a memorable regular season.

"We always had variations year to year around that same core of girls," McQuillen said. "We were young in 2008, but they were gritty and wanted to win big. At the end of the race, they were friends with everybody. We had great battles with Hudson and Denver in our conference."

The Knights captured six team titles during the 2008 regular season, including the NICL Conference title with five All-Conference runners that included the Frush and Sears sisters.

"Our 2008 season was knowing we had a target on our back," Hyde said. "We had something to prove that season, which was a different mindset than my sophomore year. We wanted to be on top of our game and prove we were that good."

Hakuna Matata. It means no worries, and it became even more relevant to the girls as they progressed through a season with expectations. They worried less about rankings or scorings and more about what they could control: themselves.

"We knew what we could do that season because we had so much back," Sears added. "Coach told us getting to State was the easy part. Going back would the hard part. That's when Hakuna Matata really became our motto."

Union returned to the State meet once again, where Paige and Erin took third and fourth respectively, Brittany and Ashley fifth and seventh respectively. Once again, the Knights were champions.

"That second title was special because it was the four of us-Eryn, Ashley, Brittany and myself-and we became very close," Sears said. "I was really confident after Districts that the title was ours."

More than ever in 2009, Union had become the standard to reach in Class 2A cross country. Programs such as Denver and Hudson chased after the Sears and Frush sisters before and during that 2009 season. One of those runners was current North Tama cross country coach Katey (Johnson) Holbach from Hudson, who was in the same class as Sears and Ashley Frush were. Sears and Holbach would develop a friendship as they competed against one another at nearly every single regular season meet in their careers.

"Running against Union was awesome," Holbach said. "They were really strong competitors, but so were we, so it gave both teams a challenge at every meet we went to. It was also nice because we knew each other personally. We would hang out outside of cross country, and we were friends. On the course though it was nice to know who you were running against and who you should be looking for. We knew who we needed to beat/run with and who could pace us. Overall, it was a great experience to have in high school."

In 2009, Union achieved a "perfect" season as they won every single meet they competed from start to winning their third-straight State title tightly over powerhouse Pekin.

"Ironically, I tried for 2009 not to be a perfect season," McQuillen said. "We went to Grinell and ran in a meet with biggers schools like Pella, Oskaloosa and beat all of them. I didn't think of it much at the time, but we were really talented with runners 1-7. They went into each meet on a mission: to not only win, but win by as much as they could. My assistant as the time figured out we would have won all four classes that season with our times and where we stood at State. That says something about the quality of our team."

Ashley Frush won the individual title at State, followed by her sister in 3rd, Sears in sixth and Hyde 10th in her final season as a Knight.

"I've never looked into it, but not many people can say they've had a perfect season in cross country," Hyde said. "We were very fortunate the girls that were part of that '07 team were with us for '08 and '09. We were very competitive and wanted to continuously stay on top. My class had meetings with the team to buy them into a goal of winning State again. They were all very dedicated."

Four years of dedication had beared numerous honors and countless memories for Hyde, yet her fondest memories of cross country surround her coach. Or to better put it, picking on her coach.

"Poor Mr. McQuillen," Hyde laughed. "My favorite memories revolve around picking on him, us all singing to him during practice while we passed him. He probably thought we weren't being serious, but we wanted to have fun with this while accomplishing our goals."

The 2010 season wasn't all laughs for the Knights. Not only had one of their most important pieces of their three state teams graduated, but health issues came for several runners.

"For me, 2009 was when my health problems came out," Sears said. "They said it was runner's asthma. I was under a different mindset because I was trying to figure out myself. We had the same team from the previous year and we were super close. We pushed each other in the Hakuna Matata way where it was no worries."

Sears had more medical issues in her senior year and would need her gall bladder removed. She insisted on waiting until after the season. Ashley was dealing with a meniscus issue "like a champ" according to Sears and would later require surgery after the season.

"It looked bleak, there was no doubt about that," McQuillen said. "There was a part of me wondered what could happen that year. Like I said before, they were tough, gritty kids. The Frush and Sears girls and their teammates, they were all out for other sports. They were all competitors and hated losing so much that it drove them."

When District time came, the Knights were healthy enough to compete and won the meet in West Union. Their fourth state meet was another tight battle for first, yet Union came out on top of Unity Christian. Brittany Frush finished fourth overall, followed by her sister in seventh and Paige in ninth.

"It was a very frustrating season for Ashley and I because we wanted to be four-time champions, but our younger teammates weren't as focused," Sears said. "I wasn't afraid to speak my mind and before Districts, I told them to have fun but also not ruin our chances. They performed well and helped us win that fourth title."

With that fourth State team championship, the Knights entered Iowa athletic history with 19 team titles, two NICL team Titles, and three Regional Titles. Individually from 2007-2010, Union had 17 All-Conference runners, 11 individual state qualifiers, and six All-State runners.

"That first title was a shock, but the last title in 2010 was probably the most fulfilling because we were able to overcome so many obstacles and get to the pinnacle with that squad," McQuillen said.

McQuillen left Union in 2011 to teach and coach at Gladbrook-Reinbeck, eventually became principal of the high school. Hyde went on to become a Human Resource manager for a pork producer, her sister a K-5 PE teacher at Clear Creek-Amana and coaching cross country and track at the middle school while starting as an assistant coach for the high school girls cross country team this year, and Frush went on to play soccer at Wartburg and currently works in Muscatine as a physical therapist. The former teammates kept in touch over the year, which eventually led to them discovering they were to be inducted into the Union Hall of Fame in 2019.

"It caught me off guard when I first learned about it," Frush said. "My sister saw a tweet from the AD and asked me if I knew about it. We joked it would have been nice to have known sooner. It was really an honor and we were happy to know people were proud of our accomplishments. We were just happy to do what we did."

McQuillen and his former student athletes were presented an honorary plague by Wayne Slack, current Athletic Director at Union and were photographed with their State title trophies in front of hundreds of Union fans.

"It was a ton of fun to catch up with them and other people at Union I hadn't seen for awhile," McQuillen said. "Being there brought up memories from my time at Union. One fun part about reuniting with these girls is many have become teachers or coaches now."

But according to Hyde, some things still haven't changed.

"When we were at Homecoming, he gave us a serious look and talked about the plan for the ceremony," Hyde said. "Everyone just looked at each other and realized nothing has changed in ten years. He even laughed because he realized he can't boss us around anymore."

Sears hadn't been back to Union since high school. Now, both her and her sister's faces portraits hang inside the walls of the school, recognizing their efforts in cross country and other sports they participated in as Union Knights.

"This recognition was extremely rewarding," Sears said. "Back then, we weren't aware of what we were doing. It was cool at the time, but as I've grown older it's settled in. To have the school recognize it all these years later is very meaningful."

In a sports landscape dominated by football and volleyball in the fall season, knowing that their efforts meant enough to commemorate in the Hall of Fame was a pleasant surprise to Frush as she walked out onto the track that October night with her teammates back together.

"It's a good feeling to know we're considered the best of the best," Frush said. "We weren't always the most talented group at a meet, but we were the hardest working. We want athletes to take away the team chemistry part we had enjoyed so much. It was always so much fun to be a part of that group of girls."

More photos of the Union Athletic Hall of Fame induction are available through the Union Football vs Vinton-Shellsburg album on Flickr. For assistance with photos, contact Editor CJ Eilers at editor@dysartreporter.com.

 
 

 

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