When it comes to cross country, the Northwestern Tigers know a thing or two about streaks.
The boys team has been on top of the Heart O’ North Conference since 2009. In 2020, they finished second at sectionals to earn a team berth to the WIAA Division 2 State meet. There, they finished 11 out of 12 teams.
Junior Emmett Johnson and senior Bennett Nelson lead a Tigers squad that lost only one runner from its state qualifying team. Seniors Hunter Follis, Preston Brilla and Ryan Wick; and juniors Ian Kalin and Mark Jarman have all been in the team's top seven, said coach Phil McGrath.
That experience is a strength that will help the Tigers in the long run, McGrath said.
“All these guys have been running together for three years and (we’re) returning all the talent back from last year’s state qualifying team,” he said.
A surprise has been freshman Morgan Martens, the Junior Iditarod champion, whose experience with sled dog racing helps him push himself physically and mentally, McGrath said.
“He’s kind of an interesting guy — just really mentally tough and not afraid to train and make his body hurt a little bit,” he said.
On the girls side, the Tigers haven’t had the same streak of conference titles as the boys, but McGrath said this year’s team of runners have great attitudes and they “are just competitors.”
“A realistic goal (for the girls) is winning conference this year. They haven’t won conference since 2017. We haven’t had a girls team to state since 2016, I believe, so conference is the main goal,” he said.
Senior Autumn Askim is one of the Tigers' top runners. Other veterans on the team include seniors Alayna Pederson and Lyvia Carlson, and sophomore Shayna Wick.
Junior Alison Raboin and sophomore Jenna Hursh switched to cross country from other fall sports, so this is their first year running competitively in high school. Freshman Ashlyn Sutherland has also made an impact in her first year, McGrath said.
At Ashland, Raboin was the top finisher for the Tigers with a time of 23:55.00. Sutherland was the team's No. 2 runner at 24:02.90, and Hursh finished fourth for Tigers at 25:07.20.
Having so many newcomers make varsity on the girls side was a pleasant surprise, McGrath said.
“Between the returning talent and a couple of these freshmen and a couple pickups from other sports, the girls team looks really competitive,” he said.
The big challenge for both teams will be staying healthy, especially for some of the runners who are new to the sport. Sprained ankles and shin splints are injuries the coaches try to help their runners avoid annually, but the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic adds another obstacle the team has to watch for.
“With COVID this year, it’s a big question mark. There’s no restrictions at Northwestern and (at) most of the schools in the conference there’s no restrictions, so we’re just really hoping everyone stays healthy and we complete the season,” McGrath said. “That’s really the main thing we’ve been thinking about.”
Northwood/Solon Springs looks to keep rolling
Similar to the Tigers, the Northwood/Solon Springs team hopes to vie for conference titles after sweeping the Indianhead Conference championships last year.
The boys team has won four of the last five Indianhead Conference championships, while the girls have won two straight, said coach Dale Rajala.
The boys return seniors Ben Dickenson, Ben Fromm, Colby Latvala and Gavin Sellwood; as well as sophomores Dylan Taggart, Tarver Sellwood and Abe Ahlberg.
Taggart is the team’s top runner, and Rajala said he and the four seniors set the tone with the work they put in during the offseason.
“They work extremely hard. They are a very close-knit group of guys. They don’t cut corners ever. They’re just great competitive runners,” he said.
Freshmen Silas Kidder and Isaac Dickenson were the team's No. 2 and No. 3 runners at Ashland, respectively.
The boys face tough competition at sectionals, with Chequamegon, Grantsburg and Phillips all fielding fast teams, Rajala said.
“We usually have to go up against those three and the top two (teams) go to state,” he said. “We are working really hard to stay competitive with them and hopefully when we get to sectionals, we can be one of the top two.”
Sophomore Zoe Smith finished first at Ashland for NSS and 14th overall with a time of 23:55.10.
The team has strong veteran leadership in seniors Allie Nordskog, Peyton Downs, Nona Thompson and Annika Patrick.
Underclassmen Ava Burger (sophomore) and Izzy Golembiewski (sophomore) have been making an impact, as well, Rajala said.
Freshman Emily Adrihan has also been posting varsity times, finishing seventh for NSS at the Bruce Invitational Aug. 31, with a time of 29:20.80.
Having won the last two Indianhead Conference titles, the girls team has their sights set on a third, but Rajala said they'll have to beat a tough South Shore team.
Competitive spirit drives Spartans
Superior has more experience returning for the boys team, but what the girls team lacks in experience they make up for in competitive drive, said coach Lee Sims.
Freshman Taylor McMeekin was the team’s top finisher at the Ashland Invitational Aug. 26, with a time of 20:30.60. She finished second at the meet overall.
“She went out again with no experience, with just this mental toughness and stuck with that lead group of girls,” Sims said. “Girls just kept dropping and she kept staying strong all the way through the finish. It just shows a lot of strength for her as a runner.”
Other newcomers to the varsity squad include sophomores Brynn Kimmes and Alyssa Isackson; and freshman Ava Gudowski.
Sims describes junior Savannah Leopold as the team’s rock. Entering her third year on the team, Leopold works hard in practice and brings consistency and steadiness to the group. She was the team's No. 2 runner at Ashland, posting a time of 24:03.80, good for 16th overall.
Alexis Holden (senior), Madilyn Carey (sophomore) and Grace Lemke (junior) are among the rest of the team's veteran runners.
For the boys, the 1-2 punch of senior Shane Leask and junior Ed Hakanson lead the charge. Leask finished second overall at Ashland and first for the Spartans with a time of 19:06.60, while Hakanson posted a time of 19:42.00, good for eighth overall and second for SHS.
They’re joined by seniors Hayden Wilson and Sam Johansen; junior Connor Krueger, and sophomore Jaden Karren.
Senior Quentyn Fleck is new to the team but was the Spartans' fourth runner at Ashland with a time of 20:59.20.
They face tough competition in the Lake Superior Conference, where Cloquet looks to maintain its status at the top of the heap. But Sims said the Spartan boys hope to finish in the upper half of the conference standings.
The challenge for both teams is staying healthy, particularly for the girls who have more new runners in the program, Sims said.
“When you’re new, you may not have done a whole lot of work over the summer and so trying to get them up to speed running as fast as they can without getting injured with shin splints or knee problems, it’s always kind of flirting with the edge,” he said.
For the boys, the season will be about “having that determination to just lay the hammer down and see what they can accomplish,” Sims said.