In this May 31, 2019 file photo, Rhinelander’s Anthony Kowalski 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 school records in the 4x100 and 4x200 relays at state and finished in the top six in Division 2 in both events. (Jeremy Mayo/River News)
In this June 1, 2019 file photos, Rhinelander’s Rebecca Lawrences approaches the high jump during the WIAA state track meet at UW-La Crosse. Lawrence cleared 5 feet, 2 inches and was in a three-way jumpoff for the state championship. (Brett LaBore/Lakeland Times)
7/3/2019 7:31:00 AM Team Review: RHS Track & Field
The Rhinelander High School track team showed signs of improvement during 2018, but very few outside the program could have imagined what the Hodags did this season.
The Hodag boys - a squad whose fifth-place showing in 2018 was its best since joining the Great Northern Conference - accomplished the improbable this year and ended Lakeland's nine-year run a top the conference standings.
Early in the season, signs began to appear that this season could be different than most. The Hodags finished runner-up at the GNC Indoor Invite and then ran off a string of first-place finishes entering the GNC Outdoor meet on Lakeland's home track.
By the end of that night, the Hodags had won a conference title in track for the first time since winning the Wisconsin Valley Conference crown in 1967.
"They've worked so hard and they've got to the point they want to be," a jubilant head coach Aaron Kraemer said while his team paraded the conference championship trophy around River Valley Bank Field. "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."
Unreal would be the best way to describe a season in which the Hodags won three big meets, set two school records and finished on the podium three times at the WIAA state meet.
Here are five things to know about the recently completed season.
Quest for conference
The team's first win of the season came at the Ashland Invite April 2. Following a runner-up finish to Northland Pines at the Lakeland Relays, the Hodag boys went on to win six straight meets, including the Otto Bacher Invite in Merrill, considered to be the team's strongest test ahead of conference competition.
In an unusual position of finishing at or near the top of the team standings on a consistent basis, Kraemer had an unwavering message for his team, "stay hungry."
"I can't say enough about how hard our seniors are pushing our underclassmen on both sides, and the young talent we have coming up," Kraemer said after the boys' squad won the Northland Pines Invite. "It's turning heads the way our younger kids are running. I'm just proud of our seniors for pushing those kids to stay hungry."
The win at Otto Bacher established Rhinelander as a legitimate conference championship contender, a fact backed up when a mock of the GNC Outdoor meet had Rhinelander as 20-point favorites.
The Hodags were neck and neck with Medford most of the way during the conference meet, and finally clinched it by placing three athletes in the top six in the long jump - Peyton Erikson, Drake Martin and Josh Francisco.
"It feels great being part of history," Erikson said afterward. "Fifty-two years is a long time. I'm just glad I could be a part of this historic team."
True to the motto of staying hungry, Rhinelander backed up the conference title with a regional championship six days later and advanced 14 entries to sectionals.
Rhinelander already had a strong sprinting core as Francisco, Anthony Kowalski, AJ Kopplin and Nick Kriesel won the 4x100-meter relay at the GNC Outdoor in 2018. This year those four, along with freshman Caleb Olcikas reached new heights.
It started at the Otto Bacher when the group recorded new school records in the 4x100 and 4x200-meter relays. Rhinelander mixed up the lineup a little bit at conference, putting Francisco in the 100 and 200 and Kowalski in all three individual sprint races. The Hodags won the conference titles in both sprints anyway.
The main lineups were back together for regionals and sectionals and, despite some less than flawless races, qualified for the state meet in both events.
The Hodags saved their best for last in La Crosse. Beginning with the 4x200 the Hodag team of Kriesel, Francisco, Olcikas and Kowalski, seeded last of the 16 teams in the field smashed their own school record by 1.35 seconds, going 1:30.98 in the event to qualify for the finals. Later, in the 4x100, Kriesel, Francisco, Kopplin and Kowalski bettered their school record by 0.38 seconds (43.40) to once again qualify for the finals.
"I think we really figured it out," Kowalski said after the preliminary rounds. "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."
The teams were a tick slower the next day in the finals, but placed fifth in the 4x200 and sixth in the 4x100 to finish the season on the podium at state in both events.
"I think it's well earned and well deserved for all of those boys to get there," 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."
The boys' sprint relays always seemed destined for the state meet the way they performed throughout the season. The same couldn't be said for Rebecca Lawrence, whose roller coaster ride through the postseason nearly ended up in a state championship.
For most of the season, Lawrence wasn't even the best jumper in the conference. That honor went to Northland Pines' Jacqueline Smith who won the conference title and outdueled Lawrence at regionals.
Lawrence finished fourth at regionals, clearing 4 feet, 10 inches, but then stepped it up at sectionals going 5-2 and making it to state - or so she thought.
Lawrence was one of three jumpers tied for third at 5-2 at sectionals and meet officials initially told her she had qualified for state, after they incorrectly applied tiebreaker rules. After another coach challenged the results, Lawrence was relegated back to fifth and seemingly out of the state meet.
But Lawrence's 5-2 mark was good enough to earn a special exemption into the state field, because it was one of their eight best marks overall in Division 2. She made the most of her second chance.
Perfect at 4-10, 5-0 and 5-2, Lawrence all of a sudden found herself in a jump off for the state title when no one in the girls' D2 field cleared 5-4. Lawrence couldn't match the school record in the tiebreaker and settled for a tie for second, but was still stunned by what she had accomplished.
"It was pretty still surreal at that point, just standing there looking at how many people were we're seeing what I was doing and seeing all my accomplishments," she said. "I'm happy that I got to be out there on the podium. It just felt amazing to know that I was good enough to be up there."
In addition to the state qualifiers, the Hodag had a number of other standout performers this year.
Erikson and Martin, a pair of juniors, challenged themselves all season long in the jumping events. Erikson was second in both the long and triple jump at conference. Martin and Erikson went 1-2 in the event at regionals, and 2-3 in the triple jump. Martin also qualified for sectionals in the long jump.
Freshman Cole Worrall showed well in the hurdle events. He was the conference runner-up in the 110 hurdles and third in the 300 hurdles. He placed third in both events at regionals to advance to sectionals.
Junior Calvin Schneider finished second at regionals in the high jump with a mark of 6-2. Kopplin also advanced in the high jump with a fourth-place finish and Alex Olson finished fourth in discus to advance to sectionals.
Aside from Lawrence, the highlight for the RHS girls' squad was the performance of the team's young sprinting crew. Freshman Sage Flory finished fourth in the 200 at regionals to advance to sectionals. She was also on the sectional-qualifying 4x100 squad with fellow freshman Megan Brown, junior Isabella Anderson and senior Samantha Siefert.
In the hurdle events, junior Aryssa Zasada, who was a scratch at regionals, finished third in the 100 hurdles at the GNCs to earn all-conference honors.
Things will look a little different for the Hodags next year, especially considering three parts of Rhinelander's sprinting quintet will be gone. Kriesel and Olckias will be the lone holdovers from that group.
However, Rhinelander will have Martin and Erikson in the broad jumping events, virtually all of its throwers back, Calvin Schneider to lead a young and deep group of boys' high jumpers, and several other talented athletes returning.
Lawrence will headline the girls' team next year as she looks to back up her incredible run this year and go after Taylor Wissbrocker's school high jump record. Behind her will be a young squad led by Flory, Brown, Germain and others.
The way Kraemer sees it, the Hodags were not one-hit wonders in 2019. With a promising middle school track team coupled with recent facilities upgrades made by the district, he sees it as only the beginning of a renaissance in RHS track.
"There's something special going on here in Rhinelander and if the community continues to rally around us they way they have at the end of the season here," he said. "I think we've got something special brewing here in Rhinelander, and I just hope it continues."
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at email@example.com.
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