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Emily Kram

For the Superior Telegram

Yes, they’ve heard it before; and no, they’re not related.

“We just share a last name,” said Kennedy Nelson, a sophomore at Northwestern High School.

She and Abby Nelson, a junior at NHS, have been working to dispel the rumor of a familial connection as they prepare for the WIAA Division 2 State Cross Country Championships.

Their race results, however, are working against them. The two runners finished close together in every race of the regular season and continued the trend at the Hayward sectional meet. Kennedy placed fourth in 22 minutes, 22.4 seconds, and Abby took fifth in 22:25.1.

“We’ve been back and forth the whole season,” Kennedy said. “She would beat me one week at a meet, and then I would beat her. We pace each other and we push each other a lot.”

“It was nice to have someone on the team this year that pushes me,” Abby said.

On Saturday, Abby and Kennedy Nelson will compete as individuals at the state meet at Ridges Golf Course in Wisconsin Rapids. Kennedy will be running in her first state meet. Abby will be competing in her third state cross country meet, and she is also a two-time state qualifier in track and field.

“Abby brings experience to the table,” said Jenny Forsythe, head coach of the Tiger girls cross country team. “She’s a Nelson. It’s in her blood — track and cross country.”

Forsythe added that Kennedy, though no relation to Abby, has also proven to be a natural.

The sophomore joined the cross country team with no expectation of success. She took up the sport to get in shape for the basketball season, but she quickly came to appreciate running for its own sake.

“I really had no intentions of doing good in cross country, but I just pushed myself with my teammates every day,” Kennedy said

“I think I’ve met my best friends on this team. I kind of joined wondering who I would hang out with. … But they’re super welcoming and I felt like I fit in right away. They’re amazing people.”

“We all encourage each other and we all push each other,” Abby said. “We support each other. Everybody works together really well, and at the end of every race we’re always there for each other to pick each other up.”

The Tigers’ camaraderie was on display Tuesday when Abby and Kennedy tuned up for the state meet at Norwood Golf Course in Lake Nebagamon. They are the only Tigers with a race left to run this season, but more than 20 of their teammates ran alongside them.

“We had the full team here,” Forsythe said. “That speaks to the strength of the team. Their team is being represented at the state meet and they want to help them get ready.”

In the past two seasons, the Tiger girls advanced to the WIAA Division 2 State Cross Country Championships as a team. Each year, they had one runner in the top 10 at the sectional meet.

This year, the Tigers placed three runners in the top 10. Yet in spite of that fact, Northwestern finished fourth in the team standings to miss out on a sixth consecutive state berth.

“We’ve never had three girls in the top 10. The last few years we were lucky to even get one person in the top 10,” said Abby, who finished in the top 10 last year and was joined this year by Kennedy Nelson and Emma Smykalski.

Forsythe said the Tiger girls ran an impressive race, and their fourth-place finish speaks to the strength of the sectional.

“I’m really excited for the teams that are going. They did a great job,” Forsythe said. “Our kids too; we talked about it and they didn’t have any regrets. They gave everything that they could.”

Northwestern finished 26 points behind sectional champion St. Croix Central and 13 points behind runner-up Hayward. For the Hurricanes this marks their first trip to state as a team since 2007.

The Tiger girls advanced as a team in 2009 and 2010 and then had a streak of five state appearances from 2012 to 2016.

The Division 2 girls race is scheduled to begin at 1:20 p.m. Saturday.

A state sendoff for Abby and Kennedy is planned for today at the start of school. The ceremony will be held at NHS and is open to the public.

“I’m very excited that both of them are still underclassmen,” Forsythe said. “They recognize that this sport is more than just competition — that it’s the relationships you build and the team bonding that you have. I’m excited that it’s not done with these guys.”

TIGER TALES: The Tiger boys and girls both won Heart O’ North Conference titles this season. It was the ninth straight conference title for the boys and the sixth straight for the girls. … In junior varsity action, the boys team earned a perfect score at the conference meet, and the girls were one point from perfect. “It really speaks to the depth of this team, not just at the varsity level but at the JV level,” Forsythe said. “It’s been incredibly competitive, but also it’s just been a ton of fun.” … With their conference title this year, the NHS boys need just one more win to tie the all-time cross country record of 10 consecutive titles set by the Chetek girls (1986-1995). Northwestern already holds the HON record for boys teams.

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