Running is inherently individual.
Most runners set specific goals for themselves. Perhaps it’s running a certain distance or covering a specific distance in a certain amount of time.
Training might include putting on miles with friends, but come race day it’s up to each runner to achieve his or her goals.
Not so much in high school cross country. And certainly not in the minds of the Janesville Craig girls team, which will run at the WIAA Division 1 state meet Saturday in Wisconsin Rapids for the first time since 2009.
“We push each other,” said Cougars sophomore Lauren Shanks, who was the team’s second-best finisher at the Beloit Sectional on Saturday, taking 16th to help the team finish second behind top-ranked Sun Prairie and earn its spot in the state field. “We make each other want to do better so we can do things like go to state as a team.
“We’ve just learned to care about each other. We have to get along, or it would not be a good bond.”
The group is young, with senior Peyton Sippy leading the charge for a lineup typically littered with all sophomores and freshmen otherwise.
But they’ve gone through some of the growing pains often needed to forge team bonds. At sectionals a year ago, three varsity runners fell victim to an early-race pileup.
Craig wound up third as a team, one spot shy of a state berth by just 10 points behind second-place Kettle Moraine.
“This was kind of like a redemption thing after being so close to going last year,” said sophomore Ellie Lorenz, one of the three runners caught in the fray. “We knew we were good enough to go, so that was enough to push us to train harder and make sure we got there this year.”
It’s impossible to know if the falls kept the Cougars from state, particularly because so many runners from so many schools were involved.
But it has served as motivation for the Cougars nonetheless.
“We all were just really motivated to work harder and make it to state,” sophomore Gabby Petruzzello said. “As an individual, you can do well. But as a team, you’re able to push each other and do better.
“In some of the races, we’ve ran in a pack and helped push each other up places. That helped us win a lot of our invites.”
Craig’s girls team never lost a regular-season invite all season. It finished second to Sun Prairie at both the Big Eight Conference and sectional meets.
Sun Prairie, which claimed five of the top six spots at sectionals—Sippy took second—will be the clear favorite once again on the state course. But the Cougars hope they can vie for the second spot on the state team podium.
“I’m really hoping we podium,” sophomore Ivy White said. “That would be the best.”
She’ll be at state for the fourth time in her high school career, so she’s been able to give her teammates a little pre-race advice.
“I can definitely tell them it’s a fun experience,” she said. “I just want to do my best, get a good time and help the team out. There’s a lot of stress, because you want to do your best your senior year and accomplish everything you wanted. It’s your last chance.”
Sippy took fourth at state as a junior a year ago, following 42nd- and ninth-place finishes as a sophomore and freshman, respectively.
On Saturday, she’ll relish being able to warm up alongside her Craig teammates before her final high school cross country race.
“Everything has always been by myself at the cross country state meet,” Sippy said. “To be able to be with them when the gun goes off, I think the nerves will be a lot less. They’re like my family.
“I’ve never gotten to warm up on the state line with my team, so to be able to do it with these girls on Saturday means the world to me.”
There’s an ‘I’ in running.
But there’s no ‘I’ in Cougars cross country.