Rhinelander’s Anthony Kowalski, center, races toward the finish line in the prelims of the 4x100-meter relay at the WIAA state track meet at UW-La Crosse Friday, May 31. The Hodags set a school record of 43.40 seconds in the prelims and finished sixth overall in the event. (Photos by Jeremy Mayo/River News)
Josh Francisco prepares to hand the baton to Caleb Olcikas in the prelims of the 4x200-meter relay at the WIAA state track meet at UW-La Crosse Friday, May 31. The Hodags set a school record in the event of 1 minute, 30.98 seconds in the prelims and finished fifth overall in the event.
6/4/2019 7:34:00 AM Hodags break school records, place 5th & 6th in sprint relays at state
The sprinters on the Rhinelander High School boys' track team already had a phenomenal season, but they saved their best for last this past weekend.
The Hodags smashed their own school records in the 4x100- and 4x200-meter relays in Friday's preliminaries at the WIAA state track meet in La Crosse and followed that up Saturday with near-record performances in both events to place on the podium in Division 2 competition.
The squad of junior Nick Kriesel, senior Josh Francisco, freshman Caleb Olckias and senior Anthony Kowalski finished fifth in the 4x200, while Kriesel, Francisco, senior AJ Kopplin and Kowalski took sixth in the 4x100.
"That's right where we need to be and for both of those teams to end up on the podium, I think it's well earned and well deserved for all of those boys to get there," coach Aaron Kraemer said. "It's been our aim all season long, again, to get on the podium. It's been our goal and they accomplished it today."
With the temperature soaring to 90 degrees on the UW-La Crosse campus Friday, the Hodags came out flying. Kriesel, Francisco, Olcikas and Kowalski were seeded last in the 16-team field, but posted a blistering time of 1 minute, 30.98 seconds in the second heat of the race - smashing the school record the quartet set four weeks earlier at the Otto Bacher Invitational by 1.35 seconds. Rhinelander placed fifth in its heat, but was sixth overall, easily making the top 10 that qualified for Saturday's main event.
It was a similar story for the Hodags an hour later in the 4x100 prelims as Kriesel, Francisco, Kopplin and Kowalski posted a time of 43.40, beating their own record by 0.38 seconds. Rhinelander placed fourth in its heat and qualified sixth overall.
"I think we really figured it out," Kowalski said of Friday's performance. "I mean we kind of worked out every little mistake that could possibly happen - because we've kind of done them all. To get to state, we knew that we had to run fast. It was nice, beautiful weather and I mean it all just kind of aligned and work out perfectly."
"It was hot but everyone was so warm and fast and loose that helped everyone's times, I think," Kraemer added. "(Friday's) times were unbelievable, not just ours and all the teams that running. We talked about it all year, you get the state championship all you need to do is break your PR and, if you can do that, then you're looking pretty good."
It was roughly 20 degrees cooler Saturday, but the Hodags still put down fast times to validate their qualifying efforts.
Though they were a tenth of a second slower (1:31.08), the Hodagd picked up a spot in Saturday's finals of the 4x200, finishing 0.04 seconds ahead of Lodi for fifth. Freedom ran away from the field with a winning time of 1:27.52, followed by Whitewater (1:29.27), Milwaukee Lutheran (1:30.58) and Mount Horeb (1:30.65).
Later in the 4x100, the Hodags went 43.71 to finish sixth. Top-seeded Rice Lake (42.64) won the event. Freedom (43.07), Catholic Memorial (43.10), Whitewater (43.35) and Lakeside Lutheran (43.59) rounded out the top five.
Both Francisco and Kowalski, two of the three seniors on the state squads, admitted to having plenty of nerves before their races.
"I had to calm myself down a lot, tell myself it's just another race, just another relay race," Francisco said.
"At state, it's a whole other ballgame," Kowalski added. "These guys are fast and some of them are able to catch up to me faster than I've ever had to deal with all year long. It was scary. It was very nerve-racking having that kind of athletes next to me."
For the three seniors, their final memory of high school track will be standing on the podium in La Crosse.
"It was great. It's a great way to end my high school career. It's an unbelievable, unforgettable memory that I'll have," Francisco said.
Heading away from the track to check out of the UW-La Crosse dormitories, where the teams were housed, and hearing the athletes medals clank together was a perfect way to end a phenomenal season, Kraemer said.
"It all started with a group of seniors who wanted to change something, wanted to do something different and wanted to hold everybody else to a higher standard, and hold themselves to a higher standard," he said. "Our seniors led us to this and it's very fitting that those boys got a chance to get on the podium. It just shows you how much determination and desire that they and all of the other seniors, girls included, have led with all season - a great culmination to great year."
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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