Rhinelander High School track coach Aaron Kraemer lifts the Great Northern Conference championship trophy while receiving a hug from senior Josh Francisco following the GNC track meet at River Valley Bank Field in Minocqua Tuesday, May 14. Rhinelander beat Medford by 17 points for the boys’ conference title, the Hodags’ first conference championship in track and field since 1967. (Photos by Jeremy Mayo/River News)
Rhinelander’s Josh Francisco receives a handoff from teammate Nick Kriesel in the 4x100-meter relay during the Great Northern Conference track meet at River Valley Bank Field in Minocqua Tuesday, May 14. The Hodags won both the 4x100 and 4x200 relays on Tuesday.
5/16/2019 7:30:00 AM Oh, what a night RHS boys' track wins GNC, first track conference title since 1967
MINOCQUA - The fastest sprint of the night for the Rhinelander High School track team did not occur in an open event or a relay. It was the mad dash the team made across River Valley Bank Field to coach Aaron Kraemer to grab a trophy and celebrate a moment 52 years in the making.
Rhinelander scored two wins and posted 13 top-three finishes in the boys' division to win the Great Northern Conference championship Tuesday at Lakeland Union High School. The Hodags edged Medford by 17 points for the title, ending two long streaks in the process. Lakeland had won the last nine GNC boys' track titles and the Hodags had not won a conference title in track since taking the Wisconsin Valley Conference back in 1967.
"I'm not going to lie. That's the most amazing feeling ever," said senior sprinter Anthony Kowalski, who placed in the top three in all three of his events. "We've come so far. Freshman year when I first joined this team it was not at all what it is (now). There was no team (mentality). You bring it to this year, my senior year, absolutely amazing the amount of strides we've taken to get to this point."
It's the same Rhinelander boys' track team that finished fifth at conference a year ago and has long been an afterthought behind teams like Lakeland, Medford and Northland Pines with more tradition and/or indoor facilities.
That's changed now as second-year head coach Aaron Kraemer assembled a crew that racked up points in multiple events and willed its way to history.
"They've worked so hard and they've got to the point they want to be," Kraemer said, admitting he felt equal parts joy and relief as his Hodag team paraded the conference championship trophy around the track on a victory lap. "When you have a goal that's set, and any time you make the goal that you've set, you're proud. As a coach, it's unreal."
There were some nervous moments toward the end of the meet, as it was announced that the Hodags held a 12-point lead over Medford with three events remaining to be scored - the long jump, the 3,200-meter run and the 4x400 relay. Medford, seeded first and second in the 3,200, figured to make up most of that gap, but the Hodags held off the Raiders after placing three athletes in the top five of the long jump. Peyton Erikson finished second in the event, Drake Martin finished fourth and senior Josh Francisco, after qualifying ninth in the prelims, came through with a big jump of 18 feet, 3 inches to vault into fifth place, giving Rhinelander a virtually insurmountable 29-point cushion entering the 3,200.
"At that point, we knew we needed somewhere in the 18s to get some points," Kraemer said. "He jumped and he was in sixth place and he jumped again and he got over the 18-mid mark. To me, that was the difference maker. At that point, I started to believe this could happen."
"Jumps have been really good this year and we showed that tonight," Martin said. "We push each other in practice and get excited if one person does good or something. We just cheer each other on and we were pretty successful today."
Rhinelander's depth in the sprinting events was on full display Tuesday night as it stacked its lineup to maximize points in the open events. The Hodags won the 4x100 and 4x200 relays, despite having a couple of new pieces in the lineup. Nick Kriesel, Martin, AJ Kopplin and Caleb Olcikas won the 4x200 with a time of 1 minute, 33.96 seconds. Kriesel, Francisco, Kopplin and Olcikas returned a few minutes later to take the 4x100 (44.55).
"We didn't have enough practice with our handoffs between each other, but we still pulled it off, two firsts for the two relays," Kriesel said. "I'm so happy and so thankful for our teammates to make sure it happened."
The move allowed Rhinelander to rack up even more points in the sprinting events. The Hodags qualified three athletes each for the finals in the 100 and 200. Francisco and Kowalski finished second and third to Northland Pines' Lochlan Siegmeier in the 100. Kowalski edged Francisco for the runner-up spot in the 200 and added another second-place run in the 400.
"When you score a lot of points there, that's where you win meets," Kraemer said. "It takes a village in this sport. We didn't win players of the year in track or in field (awards given to Siegmeier and Lakeland's Vincent Strong, respectively). Because we have depth, we won this conference championship."
Rhinelander racked up a ton of points in the jumping events as well. Erikson and Martin finished second and third in the triple jump, behind Strong. Kopplin and Calvin Schneider took third and fourth in the high jump.
Freshman Cole Worrall added a big night for the Hodags in the hurdle events, placing second in the 110 and third in the 300.
"For Cole Worrall to do what he did in the hurdles, big points for us," Kraemer said. "Our 1, 2 and 4, the seconds, thirds and fourths there kept us hanging around. Then our field events and distance events scored vital points when we needed them."
Alex Olson added a fourth-place showing for the Hodags in the discus, Martin was fifth in the shot put and Rhinelander took fourth in the 4x400 and 4x800 relays. Rhinelander brought in state cross country qualifier Bridger Flory, who has been playing tennis this spring, to run the anchor leg of the 4x800. He picked up one position for the Hodags at the end of the race and said he was impressed with what the track team accomplished this year.
"We've been watching them put in more work than I've seen probably any athlete in the Rhinelander sports program this year," he said. "Every weekend they're out on the track working on their handoffs. They're in the weight room every day. To watch them accomplish this and just to be a guest in it, I'm really proud of everyone. The amount of work they put in is insane."
Tuesday night, the Hodags were able to enjoy the fruits of their labor.
"It feels great being part of history," Erikson said. "Fifty-two years is a long time. I'm just glad I could be a part of this historic team."
Kraemer said Rhinelander could not have done it without a senior class full of leaders, both on the boys' and the girls' side of the program.
"What it takes is a senior group that sets a culture, believes in what we're doing as a coaching staff, buys into it and gets other kids to buy into it," he said. "This is what our senior class deserves and I'm so proud of all them, every single kid that's on our team, boys and girls. It's the culmination of hard work, but also a culture that is set by them. They've done a great job and I'm proud to be their coach."
The team got a much deserved police escort back into Rhinelander Tuesday night and celebrated some more at practice Wednesday, typically a light day with pool workouts. Kraemer said the team will get back to work today as it prepares to head back to Lakeland Monday for WIAA regionals.
"I hope the kids understand what the kids did today, that was their best," he said. "Now we've got to take that best up a notch and do their next best next week."
Hodag girls take seventh
The Rhinelander High School girls' track team had a couple of all-conference performances and finished seventh overall in the team standings at Tuesday's GNC meet.
"The girls did a very good job all season long," Kraemer said. "They're continuing to get better and we haven't see the best of them yet. That's a very young team for the girls, led by a few seniors that are passionate about what they do. I want to shout out to our girls senior group that has been pushing these kids to be better. They've been pushing our boys, too. They're part of this, too."
The Hodags got all-conference performances from junior Aryssa Zasada and sophomore Rebecca Lawrence.
Zasada qualified second in the 100-meter hurdles and placed third in the finals with a time of 18.34 seconds.
"Aryssa continues to get better in that 100-meter (hurdle) race," Kraemer said. "She told me today, 'That 300 is something else and I don't know if I like it.' I told her, 'Well, if your fast enough, you're going to run the 1 and 2 next year plus the hurdles.' I'm just proud of how quickly she gets down off the hurdle and her tenacity at the end of the race to finish with a conference medal."
Lawrence recorded a personal best of 5-2 in the high jump, and lost a tiebreaker for second with Mosinee's Emily Wicklund based on the total number of attempts needed. The two finished an inch behind Northland Pines' Jacqueline Smith.
"Rebecca jumped a PR today and that's all we asked her to do," Kraemer said. "She just continues to improve. Now she's looking at regionals and moving into sectionals. She's looking at that. She wants to get there."
Rhinelander finished fourth in the 4x100 with the team of Isabella Anderson, Sage Flory, Samantha Siefert and Lily Sneller. Flory also qualified for the finals in the 100 and finished seventh.
Freshman Emma Germain finished fifth for the Hodags in the triple jump and eighth in the 400. Delaney Chillemi and Zasada finished sixth and eighth, respectively, in the 300 hurdles, Morgan Johnson was seventh in the 100 hurdles and Megan Brown took seventh in the 400. Rhinelander finished fifth in the 4x800 and sixth in both the 4x200 and 4x400.
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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