Craig runners ready for Wisconsin Rapids
In the 11 years Brian and Jessica Lawton have been co-head coaches, the Cougar girls have qualified nine times. Craig High's boys will be making their fifth straight appearance Saturday at the WIAA Division 1 state meet in Wisconsin Rapids.
But it was the road traveled to state that defined the program this season.
The girls team returned six runners off last year's team that finished third at state in Division 1. The bar was set high, and the girls responded with another outstanding season filled with invitational and tournament titles.
The Craig boys, on the other hand, were a team filled with question marks heading into the season. Only two runners returned from last year's state-qualifying team, and three freshmen were called upon to fill the void.
The Cougars answered all the critics who said they were too young to make it back to state by giving the school its highest finish ever at the prestigious Midwest Invitational (second) and at one time the No. 4 ranking in the state.
"More than anything, I think it was a matter of both teams getting an identity and gaining confidence as the season progressed," Brian Lawton said. "Our girls expected a lot coming in to the season and worked hard to get back to state.
The boys, although talented, were young and inexperienced when we started practice back in August but have really found an identity."
The Cougar girls enter the state meet as the 10th-ranked team in the state coaches' poll but will be a definite threat to again finish in the top five.
Although Whitefish Bay is the favorite in Division 1 girls, Lawton said another top three finish is within reach for the Cougars.
Senior captains Megan Muhs and Regina Griffith have four and three years of state experience, respectively, and will lead a Cougar team that still is relatively young. Junior Rachel Gilmore, along with sophomores Jessie Finnane, Stephanie Perleberg and Katie Bagley, will compete at state for the second straight year. Rounding out the top seven is freshman Teryn Bordwell, and sophomore Danica Reinicke is the alternate.
"The girls are very balanced, and that's what you need when you get to state," Lawton said. "We've had three girls lead us the last three meets, so for the first time in awhile we don't have a clear-cut No. 1 runner.
"It's been an adjustment for me and Jessica without having a No. 1, but it has turned out to be a nice diversion. And our assistant coach, Alex Christiansen, has done a great job of getting both teams ready each and every week."
The Cougar boys have a clear-cut No. 1 in Tommy Meister. The sophomore has a number of top three finishes this season and will lead a Craig team that is ranked seventh in the state.
Senior captain Matt Bordwell is making his fourth straight trip to state, but the team has no runners with state experience after that.
Senior Eric Gudgeon will run on Saturday, along with junior Ryan Fenrick, sophomore Joe Sarow and freshmen Spencer Hrycay and Hunter Salmon. Freshman Eric Paulos will be the alternate.
"When the season started, we knew the boys had their work cut out for them to try and get back to state," Lawton said. "We knew the sectional was going to be tough with (Madison) La Follette and Verona, and with young kids, you never know what to expect.
"The boys' defining moment came at the Midwest Invite. They finished second, which was the highest finish for a Wisconsin team, and really have been competing at a high level since then."
Lawton knows qualifying for state is never easy, and that's why it's so special to get both teams back there again this year.
"They've put in the work, and now it's time to enjoy the moment."
Something the Craig cross country program has grown accustomed to throughout its history.
JUST THE FACTS
What: 97th running of WIAA state cross country meet.
When: Saturday (Girls: Division 3, 11 a.m.; Division 2, 11:40 a.m.; Division 1, 12:20 p.m. Boys: Division 3, 1 p.m.; Division 2, 1:40 p.m.; Division 1, 2:20 p.m.).
Where: Ridges Golf Course, Wisconsin Rapids.
Format: Boys: 5,000 meters. Girls: 4,000 meters.
Area qualifiers: Division 1 boys—Teams: Janesville Craig, Madison La Follette, Madison Memorial, Middleton, Waterford. Individuals: Dan Sullivan, Elkhorn, jr.; Kevin Fallon, Burlington, jr.; Erik Carlsion, Westosha Central, sr.; Gabe Heck, Madison East, sr.; Sam Hacker, Madison West, jr
Division 1 girls—Teams: Janesville Craig, Madison West, Sun Prairie. Individuals: Taylor Bauer, Fort Atkinson, soph.; Nicole Bathe, fr., Becky Burton, jr., Verona; Sarah Baltisberger, sr., Sara Monson, Madison La Follette, jr.; Emma Crawford, Madison Memorial, sr.; Claire Brickson, Madison East, sr.; Hannah Andrekus, Westosha Central, sr.; Emily Hamilton, Wilmot, sr.
Division 2 boys—Teams: Clinton, McFarland. Individuals: Grey Davis, Lakeside Lutheran, soph.; Matt McKenna, sr., Joe McKenna, soph., Madison Edgewood.
Division 2 girls—Individuals: Alyssa Schumacher, sr., Sarah Hackbarth, fr., Lakeside Lutheran; Alex Hein, jr., Denay Hering, sr., Lake Mills; Liz Smits, McFarland, soph.; Emily McClelland, Union Grove, jr.
Division 3 boys—Team: Albany.
Defending team champions: Boys—Stevens Point, Division 1; Tomahawk, Division 2; Webster, Division 3. All are returning.
Girls—Whitefish Bay, Division 1; Mount Horeb/Barneveld, Division 2; Edgar, Division 3. Whitefish Bay and Edgar are returning.
Tickets: $6 (available at the gate).