Panthers send girls and boys teams to state (photos added)

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For the first time in school history, both St. Croix Central cross country teams have qualified for the WIAA state championships.

The Panthers produced this unprecedented level of success on Friday, Oct. 20 at the Hayward Division 2 sectional meet. Central's girls advanced for the second straight year, this year as sectional champions. The Panther boys reached state with their second place finish at the sectional meet.

Central's girls went into the sectional meet considered one of the favorites and they showed just why they were regarded so highly. With Panther senior Liv Moll winning the sectional individual championship, every girl in the Central lineup gave an impressive performance.

Central's boys knew Osceola would be impossible to catch for the sectional title, but the Panthers knew that Northwestern would be their primary opponent in the race for second place. The key for the Panthers was the performance of their 3-5 runners, in seniors Will Spitzmueller and Spencer Goodwin and freshman Jakob Eggen. They made an incredible surge in the final half-mile of the race to pass several runners. This moved them all in front of Northwestern's 3-5 runners, which locked up second place for the Panthers.

Each Central team has only advanced to state one time before. The girls did it for the first time last year, while the only state appearance for the Panther boys came in 2008.

The Panther girls won the first sectional championship for the program with 62 points. Hayward took second place with 75 points. Moll was the third place finisher at the sectional meet a year ago and she has been even stronger this year. Runners challenged her, primarily Osceola's Lauren Ellefson, but Moll's strength in the second half of the race allowed her to pull away. She finished 10 seconds ahead of Ellefson.

"That's the way she needs to run," Central coach Bill Emery said of Moll's steady buildup through a race. "Rather than try to dominate the race, she might have more success running smart and then pulling away."

Freshman Sydney Carlson continued her inspiring improvement at the sectional meet. She moved up to be the sixth place finisher overall and was pushing the runners immediately ahead of her.

"That may have been the biggest surprise for me," Emery said of Carlson's continued emergence.

The Panthers had a steady flow of finishers, getting six of the top 27 runners. Junior Claire Moll was Central's third runner, placing 14th. Junior Marie Hamlin was close behind, placing 19th and freshman Mya Kizer placed 22nd. Junior Mariah Withuski was the Panthers' sixth runner, placing 27th, but to show the strength of the Panthers' program, she beat the top runner from five of the schools in the meet. Junior Kourtney Labeause was Central's seventh runner, placing 53rd.

The Panthers placed 14th among 16 teams at the Division 2 state meet last year. With five runners having state experience, Emery said the goals are set higher for the Panthers this year.

"We're not going there to play. We're going there to get some work done," Emery pronounced.

The top individual for the Panther boys placed tenth at the sectional meet, but the strength and depth of the team earned the Panthers their ticket to state. Freshman Cougar Holder and sophomore Erik Collins were among the youngest runners in the top 20 finishers. Holder placed tenth and Collins 18th.

Then came Spitzmueller, Goodwin and Eggen. Spitzmueller moved up to 22nd, Goodwin 26th and Eggen 30th. Emery said it was especially inspirational to see how Spitzmueller bounced back after he felt he ran a subpar race at the Middle Border Conference meet. Spitzmueller was so spent after the sectional race that he had to be taken to the hospital to get IV fluids.

Josh Burgess was Central's sixth runner, placing 37th and Riley Hackbarth was the team's seventh runner, placing 41st.