In this Oct. 28, 2017 file photo, Rhinelander’s Alayna Franson (71) leaves the starting line of the WIAA Division 2 state championship cross country race at the Ridges in Wisconsin Rapids. Franson finished 11th, capping off a four-year career that included three state meet appearances. (Photos by Jeremy Mayo/River News)
In this Oct. 21, 2017 file photo, Rhinelander’s Bridger Flory leads a pack of runners during a WIAA Division 2 sectional race at Waupaca High School. Flory, a junior, returned for the final two races after missing much of the season with a lower leg injury.
11/10/2017 7:32:00 AM Team review: RHS cross country Franson's road to state highlights Hodag harriers' year
Rhinelander High School cross country coach M.J. Laggis took a moment to soak up the scenery and the atmosphere last month at the WIAA state meet, the last high school race for senior standout Alayna Franson.
"This state meet has been a blast to be at as a coach," he said afterward. "She gave us a chance to be here and (is) just a great competitor. As excited as we are to have been here three times, it's sad to know that she's gone. She's done now. She's going to go on to bigger and better and she's going to run in college and we're awfully happy about that. We're excited to follow her progress and we've got to go about trying to get more kids here in the next years."
As a freshman, Franson broke an 11-year state qualifying drought for the Hodags. She went on to race in Wisconsin Rapids three times in her high school career.
But she, and a handful of other experienced seniors are bidding farewell, leaving behind a number of underclassmen to try to fill the void in 2018 and beyond.
Here are five storylines from the recently-completed Hodag harriers' season:
Franson's state run
Franson's season and high school career culminated with her best performance at the WIAA state meet. She finished 11th in the Division 2 race Oct. 28 at The Ridges in Wisconsin Rapids, one spot off the podium.
A slow start had Franson hovering around 20th position in the first kilometer of the race. She moved up to 12th by the time the runners got to 3,000 meters and was briefly inside the top 10 in the last kilometer before being passed by Martin Luther's Jordan Koepke for the final podium spot.
"Even though I wasn't on the podium, I thought I had a really good race," an emotional Franson said after the race.
For as successful as Franson was this season, there was one thing missing from her resume - a victory.
Franson finished second six times during the season, including three times to Lakeland's Ashley Peterson, who took this year's conference title.
Then there was what transpired Oct. 3 at the Northland Pines Invite.
Franson was in position for her first win of the year. She had a slight lead on Three Lakes' Kortnie Volk just past the two-mile mark before the race was abruptly canceled due to thunderstorms in the vicinity.
"I was honestly so surprised," a still-stunned Franson said afterward. "It was going to be a good fight to the finish. I'm disappointed that I can't see how it ends now. I don't know, it's just disappointing."
The Hodag boys finished sixth out of seven teams at the Great Northern Conference meet and last in a field of 15 at sectionals.
Rhinelander had close to its full lineup toward the end of the year but, in most races, ran with a skeleton crew.
A preseason injury to last year's No. 1 runner, Bridger Flory, was a setback from the get-go. Flory was not able to return until the GNC meet, where he placed 17th, and followed that with a 40th-place finish at sectionals.
"I shudder to think what he could have done if he had run the whole year. I'm really proud of Bridger and he's got another big year in front of him," Laggis said.
Senior Markus Johnson was Rhinelander's No. 1 runner much of the year, and the team's undisputed leader off the course. Daniel Ritchie, who split time between the boys' soccer and cross country teams, ran in four races and was the team's fastest runner in three of them.
Beyond that a number of underclassmen - including Jacob Weddle, Abe Laggis, JC Adams, Tristan Fuss, Levi Smith and Konnor Kennedy - battled for varsity positions along with senior Matt Herman, a first-year runner who worked into the Hodags' top seven by season's end.
Franson and fellow senior Anna Sturzl led the way for the Hodags much of the season as the team took fifth at conference and 10th of 14 teams at sectionals.
Sturzl was Rhinelander's No. 2 runner virtually all year, but struggled to a 16th-place finish at the GNC meet and failed to make the all-conference team after earning first-team honors as a junior. She bounced back with a 17th-place run at sectionals, and was the seventh-fastest GNC runner in the field.
Like the boys' team, youth dominated the rest of the RHS girls' squad. Freshman Abbie Henrichs emerged from the pack and established herself as the team's third scorer.
"From Day 1 to the end of the year, it was an unbelievable change, not just in how she was running but her confidence level," Laggis said earlier this month when Henrichs received the team's most improved runner award.
Allie Fugle, Valerie Dalka, Claire Bowman, Jenna Younker and Houston Mathwig jockeyed to round out the Hodag varsity.
The Hodags will be a much younger squad next year without Franson, Sturzl and Johnson.
Expect Flory and Ritchie to lead a relatively young boys' squad while the Hodag girls' will be looking for a new leader.
After last month's sectional race, Laggis said the 10 returning athletes who competed in the meet could use the race as motivation for the future.
"I think they learned what it means to compete," Laggis said following the race. "I think, above and beyond anything, if you want to be good at this, you've got to be able to compete. That's what we take away. There's a whole other level out there and that's what you've got to work for."
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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