In this Oct. 13, 2018 file photo, runner, from left, Audrey Schiek, Sage Flory and Ella Schiek race together for the Rhinelander High School girls’ cross country team during the Great Northern Conference meet in Rhinelander. The Hodags have a young, but experienced squad entering the 2019 season. Twelve runners return from last year’s squad and 11 — including the three pictured — are underclassmen. (Photos by Jeremy Mayo/River News)
In this Oct. 13, 2018 file photo, Jacob Weddle sprints to the finish line during the Great Northern Conference meet in Rhinelander. The Hodag boys’ squad graduated state qualifier Bridger Flory. Weddle, a junior, was the team’s second-best finisher at sectionals a year ago.
Date Event Time
8/29 HODAG INVITE 10 a.m.
9/3 Mosinee Invite 4:30 p.m.
9/10 Wittenberg-Birnamwood Invite 5 p.m.
9/17 Stratford Invite 5 p.m.
9/21 Bill Smiley Invite at Wausau TBD
9/24 Antigo Invite 4 p.m.
9/26 Three Lakes Invite 4 p.m.
10/3 Waupaca Invite 4:30 p.m.
10/8 Northland Pines Invite 4 p.m.
10/12 Tomahawk Invite 10 a.m.
10/19 GNC Meet at Antigo 10 a.m.
10/26 WIAA Sectionals at Tomahawk 11 a.m.
HOME MEET IN CAPS
8/29/2019 7:30:00 AM Team preview: RHS cross country
With young but experienced roster, Hodag harriers have pack mentality
Rhinelander High School cross country coach M.J. Laggis does not yet know who will lead the pack for the Hodag harriers this fall, but he knows one thing about his squad.
"I think we're going be really competitive," he said.
The dynamic on the team has changed over the last two seasons following the graduation of three-time state qualifier Alayna Franson and 2018 state meet participant Bridger Flory over the last two seasons. There might not be a clear-cut No. 1 runner on either side of the ledger this year, rather a number of runners of similar ability who will be pushing each other to establish a pecking order.
"We've had a nice run where we've gotten a couple of runners to state," he said. "I think we're maybe in a little lull where we don't necessarily have the Bridger Flory, or Alayna Franson, but I think we've got a lot of runners that can run way better as a group."
The good news for Rhinelander is it returns 12 of the 14 runners who competed in last year's WIAA Division 2 sectional meet in Freedom but for the Hodags to challenge the heavyweights of the GNC - including Division 2 girls' state champion Medford - those returning athletes will need to make a jump in the standings.
The core nucleus of last year's girls squad returns and is still a relatively young outfit. Abbey Henrichs had the best finish of the bunch last year at sectionals, placing 39th in a field of 95 runners. Sage Flory (45th) and Ella Schiek (48th) were also in the top half of the field. They all return and they are all still underclassmen. In fact, Rhinelander's six returning runners on the girls' side are all underclassmen. Henrichs, Ella Schiek and Allison DeNamur are juniors, while Sage Flory, Emma Germain and Audrey Schiek are back as sophomores.
"On the girls' side, you've got the Schiek sisters and Sage Flory and Abbey Henrichs," Laggis said. "I think we have some very competitive girls and some other ones that are kind of unknowns yet that we're going to find out about as we get to the first meet."
The loss of Bridger Flory was a big hit to a Hodag boys' side that finished fifth the GNC last season. Junior Jacob Weddle had the best finish at sectionals among Rhinelander's returning athletes, placing 66th in a field of 100. Other returning athletes from last year's squad include sophomore Cal Laggis, junior Daniel Goldsworthy, junior JC Adams sophomore Jaden Beske and the lone returning senior who ran varsity at the end of last season - Levi Smith.
"Weddle looks really good and then we've got a bunch of guys right there that are ready to compete," coach Laggis said. "I've been really impressed with how Daniel Goldsworthy has looked and a number of other kids. It's going to be really competitive."
While that's how the returning athletes ran last year, there's no guarantee that is where they will run this year. Laggis said it's basically an open competition for the varsity spots, and the stopwatch will ultimately determine the Hodags' varsity roster.
"It's not like it's a lock for who's running No. 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. There's going to be a ton of competition there and I think that's going to (make) kids work even harder," he said. "The really cool thing about the early meets is that everyone runs together - all the boys run together, all the girls run together. There's no JV/varsity distinction. That first month really lets you kind of sort things out and see where people fall in."
The first of those meets takes place today as the team hosts the 12-team Hodag Invitational in front of Rhinelander High School.
It will also be Rhinelander first chance to see some of its competition in the Great Northern Conference.
Four of the seven GNC schools are scheduled to be in attendance. Medford figures to be the strongest team in the conference, after winning both the boys' and girls' conference titles last year, but Laggis said there's still plenty of strong competition at the top.
"Medford's a very good program that's had some very good runners. I would assume that they will be very good," he said. "I know Lakeland's reloading, but Lakeland's always a formidable opponent and we'll see what they'll bring to the table. I think Mosinee's going to be a pretty tough customer as well. They always are. That team they had last year improved a lot throughout the season. Tomahawk will play. They'll be a major factor in the conference before its over. They always are."
Tomahawk will be firmly on Rhinelander's mind all season. That's because the Hatchets will host this year's Division 2 sectional meet at Edgewater Golf Course in mid-October.
It's a trail the Hodags are familiar with, as annual participants in the Hatchet Invite, held two weeks before sectionals.
"It's great to run their course. It's on a golf course. It's fun to run. It's an easy on the body type of course. It's just a nice layout. It's great to be able to run a course that you know the ins and out of," Laggis said. "At sectionals, wouldn't it be nice to get to the point where we can get a team through (to state)? But we've got a ways to go yet. We've got to keep dropping."
This year's GNC meet will be hosted by Antigo at the Gartzke Flowage Oct. 19.
Rhinelander will have a chance to preview the course in an invitational Sept. 24.
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at email@example.com.
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