In these River News file photos, Rhinelander High School sprinters, from left, Anthony Kowalski, Josh Francisco, Nick Kriesel and AJ Kopplin, compete in the Great Northern Conference meet at Lakeland Union High School in Minocqua Tuesday, May 14 and the Otto Bacher Invitational in Merrill Friday, May 3. Rhinelander’s sprinters have set school records in the 4x100 and 4x200 meter relays and have led the Hodags’ resurgence as a track program this year. Now, the sprinters have their sights set on the WIAA state meet. (Photos by Jeremy Mayo/River News)
In this Tuesday, May 14 file photo, Rhinelander’s AJ Kopplin, right, hands off to Caleb Olcikas during the Great Northern Conference meet at Lakeland Union High School in Minocqua. Olcikas, a freshman, has bolstered the Hodags’ sprinting core, running a leg of the team’s 4x200-meter relay, along with the 200-meter dash.
5/21/2019 7:30:00 AM Catch them if you can Sprint crew leading Hodag track to new heights
The difference in this year's Rhinelander's High School track team is easy to see if you look closely enough.
Don't blink, though, otherwise you may miss it.
A group of senior sprinters has helped lead the Hodags to new heights this season. They have already taken down the school's 4x100- and 4x200-meter relay records and helped Rhinelander claim its first track conference championship in 52 years.
The squad, led by Anthony Kowalski, Josh Francisco and AJ Kopplin, among others, now has its sights set on bigger goals - namely qualifying for the WIAA state track meet - all driven by the will to win.
"That's what got us to where we are now, not wanting to lose," Kowalski said earlier this month during the Hodag Invitational at Mike Webster Stadium. "It's pushed us to perfect our handoffs, perfect our relays and take it all the way to state, hopefully."
The road to the state meet in La Crosse began yesterday with a regional meet at Lakeland Union High School in Minocqua. The top four finishers in each event moved on to Thursday's sectional round in Mosinee where, once again, the top four finishers will advance to state.
Talk to the team, and you will get several different answers as to why this year has been such a breakout season for the Hodag boys - who won all of their outdoor meets heading into Monday's regional competition. Coach Aaron Kraemer said it begins with building speed and explosiveness throughout the program, which is a key to success in virtually every event, aside from the distance races.
"I always tell the kids in the sprints and the jumps, you're looking at the large majority of the meet, when you can win those events," he said. "We build a sprint base. Our kids don't jump at the start of the year, they sprint. We want them to be fast. That's where we build our base. When you score a lot of points there, you can win meets."
Rhinelander started to see the results of that speed training pay off last year. The Hodags won a GNC title in the boys' 4x100, Francisco qualified for sectionals in the 100-meter dash and the team had success in the long, triple and high jump. This year, Rhinelander's taken that speed and cranked it up to 11.
Francisco and Kowalski were both part of Rhinelander's record-setting relays back on May 3 at the Otto Bacher Invitational in Merrill, and finished 2-3 in both the 100 and 200 meters last Tuesday at the GNC Meet. Many others have had a hand in the success. Junior Nick Kriesel was on both record-setting relays and helped the Hodags take titles in the 4x100 and 4x200 at the GNCs. Freshman Caleb Olcikas is part of the 4x200 crew while senior AJ Kopplin splits time between the 4x100 and the high jump - where he placed third in the GNC.
Francisco said he could tell this year would be different right from the onset of practice, partly because of how hard the team worked since last year's track campaign.
"Coach (Kraemer) says we've got to be intentional with our work in all of our practices. It's come to its true form this season," he said.
That has meant putting in the time, both during and after practice, to be successful.
"For a lot of us, it's been the extra days," Kowalski said. "We don't take the five days, Monday-Friday. It the Monday-Friday plus Saturday and Sunday. It's taking the extra half hour to put in an extra workout, get our Volt (training) finished, get our workouts finished, come in on the weekend to work on out starts, work on our handoffs, perfecting everything as close as we can. That's what's done it."
Others have taken note of that dedication.
"We've been watching them put in more work than I've seen probably any athlete in the Rhinelander sports program this year," said senior Bridger Flory, who has split time between tennis and running distance this spring. "Every weekend they're out on the track working on their handoffs. They're in the weight room every day ... The amount of work they put in is insane."
Kopplin said the group pushes each other to get better every single day.
"We push each other a lot," he said. "Anthony's always keeping us motivated, telling us we need to run faster. He just pushes out here."
Why push so hard? Because the team hates losing, and no one more so than Kowalski, the leader of the pack.
His teammates all say he's the most competitive of the bunch and it was on display at the Otto Bacher. Despite having set two school records in relays that night, Kowalski was visibly upset following the meet after a couple of hiccups dropped him to fourth place in his final event of the night, the 200 meters.
"I was pretty salty," Kowalski said. "I took first in the prelims without my (personal record), come out in the finals and I stumbled twice. It didn't feel good, didn't feel like I deserved any real celebration after not performing."
Kraemer said it's on him to channel Kowalski's drive and temper it with some perspective.
"That's just the type of competitor he is," he said. "He wants to win in every single thing he's a part of. That's commendable, but I'll tell him you've also got to enjoy the small victories because that's part of the process."
That desire not to lose has kept the team hungry all season .
"We've got to stay hungry every time," Francisco said. "That's always been drilled in my mind every day a practice. That's my motivation, to always stay hungry."
Not only are the sprinters hungry, they're an inclusive group, including the team's high and broad jump squads, underclassmen who want to have the spotlight some day and even seniors who are out for the sport for the first time.
"I come in and not only do I see an amazing group of athletes, but I came into an amazing group of people," Adam Bloom said. "These people have been encouraging everyone since the beginning and, as you can see here, it's just been hands to each other, encouragement all the way. This a a group of people that not only are you going to be seeing running out here amazing on the track and they're just a solid group of people that has your back. It's wonderful."
Now the Hodags have their sights set on the biggest goal of all, making it to the WIAA state meet. The sprint relays represent Rhinelander's best shot. According to Athletic.net, the Hodags had the fastest time in both the 4x100 and 4x200 during the regular season among the 34 teams in the Mosinee sectional.
Kowalski admitted the road is about to get tougher for the Hodags.
"We haven't really seen real competition yet," he said. "It's been us pushing ourselves and it's hard when it's just you against the clock. The only time we get pushed is in our open events. It's going to be a big change coming deeper (in the playoffs), seeing those guys right next to us, keeping our composure and seeing those good competitors up there."
The WIAA state track meet begins Friday, May 31 - which is also the last day of class for Rhinelander High School seniors. Francisco said he could think of no better ending to his high school career.
"State sendoff for last day as seniors, that (would) be exciting," he said.
Added Kramer, "They can have the best possible ending to their high school career by continuing to strive for what they're looking for."
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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