Different team, same result
For the fifth year in a row, the Northwestern High School boys cross country team is headed to the Division 2 state tournament as a team.
The Tigers girls aren't far behind, making their fourth trip as a team in five years.
"We have a certain running culture up here at Northwestern that Coach (John) Woodbury set for all those years," said Phil McGrath, in his second season as head coach of the cross country teams. "Kids want to be part of that. They want to do well and they want to work hard."'
"It's just a really positive atmosphere, so I attribute a lot of the team success to the culture that we have at the school, and with the program in particular."
This year's teams both had their work cut out for them.
On the boys side, Northwestern lost four of its seven varsity runners to graduation. The girls lost three seniors, including four-time qualifier Jordan Johnson.
"We lost a lot of our varsity team," McGrath said.
Even losing the core of both teams, the Tigers managed to reload this year, bringing in a strong group of underclassmen that quickly contributed for Northwestern.
"A lot of teams can't put a good team of five together," McGrath said. "We go seven, eight, nine deep and they're competitive with each other."
The Division 2 state cross country meet is Saturday at The Ridges Golf Course in Wisconsin Rapids. The girls race begins at 12:05 p.m. and the boys race begins at 1:50 p.m.
Running for the Tiger boys are seniors Bret Little, Mason Lombard and Josiah Vik; juniors Nathan Johnson and David Rautio; and sophomores Tim Heikkila and Leo Mack.
Representing the Tiger girls are juniors Kelly Erkkila, Mariah Nelson, Carmen Ormston and Michaela Ruhman; sophomores Anna Kalin and Emma Nelson; and freshman Caitlin Johnson.
For the Tigers boys, there was feeling of trepidation at the start of the 2013 season. Many returning runners talked about the burden of replacing the outgoing senior class, which had been the nucleus of the team for years.
"The senior class that graduated last year just had a lot of good runners," Lombard said. "They helped us get the last four (state berths).
"This year we had a lot of underclassmen that really stepped up."
Northwestern got a big boost this year from some of its youngest athletes. Rautio, a junior, said the efforts of the underclassmen pushed the team to live up to its legacy.
"We had two sophomores this year, who were JV last year, that really stepped up," Rautio said. "They dropped their times really significantly to make varsity and help the team out a lot. Without them, I don't think we would have been this solid."
Among the younger runners making an impact for Northwestern is sophomore Tim Heikkila. He qualified as the Tigers' top runner at the sectional meet.
"Timmy Heikkila has stepped up a lot at our No. 1," McGrath said. "He's going to be an elite runner. Mason (Lombard) was ahead of him most of the season, and they were really pushing each other."
At state, the boys hope to finish in at least 10th place.
The Tiger girls have had their minds set on the state meet since the third week in August. McGrath said the girls listed a trip to state as one of their season goals, and they have pursued that goal relentlessly throughout the season.
"I think we surprised a lot of teams," Ormston said. "We even proved our own team wrong thinking we didn't have the talent, but we definitely do."
"As a team, state was a huge motivator," Ruhman said.
The Tiger girls have no seniors on the team this year. The top runner has been sophomore Emma Nelson. She ran with the varsity team last year as a freshman along with her sister Tess Nelson, a 2013 graduate who won three state titles in the 300-meter hurdles.
"You don't want to compare her to Tess because they're two completely different athletes," McGrath said. "But she has that Nelson competitiveness. She hates losing, just like Tess."
Emma Nelson finished 27th in a field of 150 runners at last year's state race.
At this year's meet, the team is hoping for a finish in the top 10.
Rain or shine
As the Tigers prepared for their trip to state Tuesday, a light snow was falling at their practice in Lake Nebagamon.
Lombard said it was the second time the Tigers have run in the snow, but he insisted the athletes like the cold.
It builds character, he said.
"We train in all kinds of adverse condition," McGrath said. "Lots of hill training at the beautiful hills at Brule; today at Norwood (Golf Course) we do our hardest workout where we do repeat miles.
"We never take a day off. If it's raining and cold, we're going to run in it."