Prep cross-country: Tigers make their own path, reach state despite obstacles
Led by Emmett Johnson, Northwestern advances a team to state for the sixth time since 2012.
Phil McGrath’s first year as head cross-country coach at Northwestern was in 2012, and he and his runners were having some fun kicking around ideas for added motivation.
Somebody suggested McGrath get a tattoo should the Tigers advance to the state meet. McGrath agreed, and sure enough, the team advanced and the idea stuck.
Now, McGrath is due for some new ink.
The Northwestern boys will compete at 10:10 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 31, at the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association Division 2 state meet at Colby High School alongside Osceola, Poynette and Winneconne.
The meet is being held in waves this year due to COVID-19 guidelines.
“We’re just so thrilled to even have a season. We thought it’d get canceled,” said McGrath, who coaches the Tiger boys and girls teams along with Jennifer Forsythe. “We weren’t sure what the WIAA was going to do, so we treated every practice, every meet, like it could be our last and really enjoyed our time with the kids. We asked them to work hard every single day because we never knew if that’d be it.
“So to be able to win another conference title, to have a sectional and now make it to state, it’s unbelievable. We’re so thrilled and fortunate to be able to do that.”
This is the sixth time since 2012 that Northwestern has qualified either its boys or girls team for the state meet, meaning McGrath could eventually run out of real estate on his left calf if this keeps up. These weren’t his first tattoos — he also has a family crest — but that was it.
“I’m a pretty clean-cut looking guy,” McGrath said, laughing.
Northwestern is led by sophomore Emmett Johnson, who has emerged as a force this fall.
Johnson led the Tigers with a fifth-place individual finish at last week’s Division 2 sectional meet in Barron, a place that would have qualified him individually even if Northwestern hadn’t advanced as a team with its second-place finish.
RELATED: Northwestern boys advance to state meet
RELATED: Tigers and Eagles advance boys teams to sectionals
Last year, Johnson wasn’t even in the stratosphere of being a state-qualifier.
Johnson’s career-best five-kilometer time of 17:13.1 last week was nearly two minutes better than his best time last season, an incredible improvement in the span of just one year. Coming into the season, Johnson increased his summer workload to 400 miles, up 100 from the previous year, but that’s not enough to count for the difference.
Johnson said he has been as surprised as anybody.
“I won our first meet, but I probably didn’t realize (my improvement) until our second meet,” Johnson said. “I didn’t think much after that first one, but then I did it again and started realizing I’m a lot faster.”
And the future is bright. Really bright.
Northwestern has a storied cross-country history that goes well beyond McGrath’s tenure, of course.
McGrath, a 2000 Northwestern grad, learned under his mentor, the legendary John Woodbury, a Wisconsin Cross Country Coaches Association Hall of Famer.
McGrath said the emphasis is simple: focus on developing the athletes’ character first, and worry about results last. That way, McGrath said, everything takes care of itself.
“We believe that character drives the process, and the process drives results,” McGrath said. “Working on the athletes’ minds and hearts has really led to a lot of success for us.”
That has been quite apparent this year as the Tigers have gone from a bit of an underdog to another state trip.
Jacob Kephart, who was 22nd at sectionals last week, is the team’s lone senior.
“I’m extremely surprised,” Kephart said. “At the start of the year, we were out of shape, ranked third in our conference, and to be honest, I don’t even think state was a possibility. We didn’t even know if we were going to have a season.
“As a senior, this means a whole lot. I’m so proud of this team. I couldn’t have better teammates. They’ve worked their hearts out all season. It’s been amazing.”
While nobody has improved more than Johnson since last season, nobody has improved more this fall than junior Bennett Nelson, who was 10th at sectionals in 17:31.0.
Nelson started out the year barely breaking 20 minutes, but now, he has returned to last year’s form. Nelson collapsed in the Tigers’ first race of the season, passing out due to a heart issue, and he had to take it easy for a few weeks while he waited for clearance to return.
“I’m impressed with how I recovered,” Nelson said. “It took about three weeks to get back into normal running shape. I feel great now.
“I’m really impressed with our coaching staff. They didn’t know what was going to happen this year, but they just went with the flow. We’ve faced a lot of different obstacles, but we took them head-on, and now here we are at the state meet.”
Perhaps nobody is enjoying this more than McGrath.
McGrath, 38, likes to run with his athletes, especially early in the season. He said at the beginning of the season he would have been fourth on the team; by now, he’d be mopping up for JV, that’s how much his runners have improved through hard work and dedication.
McGrath missed subsectionals because his wife, Jen, was in labor. Jen gave birth to the couple’s first child, Gianna Rose, on Oct. 21, but Phil was back with his team for sectionals just three days later.
“It was a big week for the McGraths,” Phil McGrath said.
And it was a big week for Northwestern.
A season that at one time appeared lost has been found. Now, all that’s remaining is one more meet, and one more tat.
“I know this year, when we found out we could make state, everybody just wanted to make it so we could get a tattoo on his leg,” Johnson said of his coach. “That was everybody’s main motivation going in.”
Hey, whatever works. McGrath isn’t out of calf space just yet.
Burchfield makes state meet
Solon Springs/Northwood senior Noland Burchfield will compete in the Division 3 boys state cross country meet at 1:10 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 31, at Maple Grove Venues in West Salem.
The Division 3 field will be divided in three waves for both boys and girls. Burchfield will run with individuals and a handful of teams in the middle heat.
RELATED: Eagles sweep Indianhead Conference titles
Burchfield qualified with a sixth-place finish at sectionals Saturday, Oct. 24, in Cameron, covering five kilometers in 17:48.9.
This will be the fourth straight year the Eagles have qualified a team or individual for the state meet.
“Noland is one hungry kid,” said Tim Wright, an old friend of coach Dale Rajala who helps report results for the team. “He missed qualifying by just a little bit last year and was extremely motivated to qualify this year. I am happy to see him qualify, and I’m just glad the WIAA relented and gave these kids a chance to participate in a state meet this year.”
Rajala said Burchfield comes from a great family. Burchfield’s dad is a supervisor for CN railroad and his mother works in the school system with the support staff. The family moved up to this area from Mississippi Noland’s freshman year, looking at Northwestern, Superior and Minong.
“We were lucky enough to have Noland’s family choose to live in Solon Springs,” Rajala said. “He has been a big part of our team ever since.”
Burchfield is considering running in college at Wisconsin-Superior but is getting attention from other schools as well. While he has been at Solon Springs long, he has certainly made his mark.
“To say he is competitive is an understatement,” Rajala said. “He brings that to every race. We are very proud of him and know he will represent our school and program very well.”
The Eagles were the 2020 Indianhead Conference boys and girls team champions. These eight runners earned all-conference honors: Burchfield, juniors Allie Nordskog, Nina Thompson, Annika Patrick, Ben Fromm and Ben Dickenson and freshmen Dylan Taggart and Tarver Sellwood.
Local State Cross Country Qualifiers
Wisconsin Division 2
Northwestern: Emmett Johnson, Bennett Nelson, Jacob Kephart, Ryan Wick, Cole Lahti, Preston Brilla, Ian Kalin.
Wisconsin Division 3
Solon Springs/Northwood: Noland Burchfield