Nick Ackley had a solid career with the Grand Forks Central High School cross country team, earning all-conference honors as a senior. However, the 2013 graduate’s biggest impact to the Knights program may have been as a recruiter.
During his junior season, Ackley showed up at opening practice with his younger sister. Then-seventh grader Karly Ackley arrived onto the running scene with some reluctance.
“Nick told me I should try it,” Karly said. “I didn’t think I’d like it. I’d never run before. Ever. I was pretty nonchalant about trying it.
“Now, running is pretty much my whole life.”
The sophomore will attempt to become the first Central athlete to win the title in the North Dakota Class A girls state high school cross country meet when it is held Saturday in Minot.
Ackley is ranked second in the latest Class A state poll behind defending champion Jordan Jacob of Bismarck Century. The two flip-flopped between the top two spots in the state coaches’ poll all season. State will be the first time this season they’ve run against each other.
“Karly very well could be our best ever girls runner,” said Central coach Sean Allan. “We’ve had boys win state titles, but Central has never had a girl win at state. Win or lose, it will be exciting to see how fast she runs at state. She and Jordan will really push each other. It wouldn’t surprise me if they both broke the 14-minute mark. That doesn’t happen very often.
“Karly wants PRs (personal records). But she loves to win, no doubt about it. You can see the smile when she crosses the finish line in first. She’s very competitive.”
Ackley isn’t hard to find on race day. With her 5-foot-11 height, “Karly usually is the tallest girl at the starting line. You can always pick her out,” Allan said.
And she’s been easy to find at the end of races, as she’s always been first across the finish line this season. Ackley is undefeated this season; she usually has had at least a 100-meter cushion between herself and the closest opponent.
“I’ve gotten to the point where I know I have to push myself,” Ackley said. “It would be nice to have somebody right there next to me to push me. I’m excited for that at state. I know it will be a tough race, that anything can happen. There will be good competition.”
The sophomore already has two top-10 finishes at state. She was sixth as an eighth-grader and third last season. As a freshman, Ackley became the first Central athlete win the EDC girls cross country title. She repeated this season. Ackley set a school record for fastest time last season and has re-set that mark three times this season.
The progression to a dominant runner was quick for Ackley, who didn’t finish in the top 100 at the state meet as a seventh grader.
“Karly was just average as a seventh-grader,” Allan said. “But she matured physically and started working harder. She’s put in a lot of miles and runs year round. And she has the perfect mentality. She stays focused. The 4K is a long race, but she pushes herself the whole way.”
Allan says that with Ackley’s combination of height, athleticism and work ethic, she would be good at any sport - a claim that draws a laugh from the sophomore.
“I played basketball when I was younger,” she said. “I was not very good at it. I’m not very coordinated. Running is the only sport I’m very good at.
“To win state, that would mean the world to me, to be the best in the state. And if I could be the first to do something at Central, I can’t put into words how much that would mean.”
Ackley isn’t looking at state as just an individual competition. The Knights could challenge for a state team title. Alexis Roehl, Mandy Williamson, Rachel Torrey, Rachel Cox and Grace Roehl all were top-15 finishers at the EDC meet. “It would be really nice to be on the first Central team to win state,” Ackley said.
For all this success in running, father - in this case, Roger Ackley - knows best.
“My first year out, my dad said I’d break the school record some day,” Ackley said. “I told him he was crazy. Now he’ll tell me, ‘I told you that you’d be up there. I’m always right.’ ’’