The benchmark for success was set last year, when the St. Croix Central girls cross country team made its initial trip to the WIAA Division 2 State Cross Country Championships.
When the Panthers returned to this year's state championships last Saturday at Wisconsin Rapids, they had improvement on their minds. And they made major improvements. After placing 14th in Division 2 last year, the Panther girls moved up to tie for sixth place in the final standings this year. They lost the tiebreaker for sixth, leaving them in seventh place on the final ledger.
The St. Croix Central boys also qualified for state. In the realm of progress, the boys are one year behind the girls. The boys placed 16th in the Division 2 state meet, while quickly looking at the possibilities for the team's future.
The Panther girls finished the meet with 199 points, the same total as Port Washington, for the sixth place tie. That's a pretty major improvement over the 316 points the Panthers amassed at the 2016 state meet.
The leader for the Panthers, as she's been for the past several seasons, was senior Olivia "Liv" Moll. Her goal for the state meet was to finish among the top 20 Division 2 girls. That's just what she did, placing 17th in 20:06. Last year Moll was also Central's leading finisher, placing 31st. Moll finished as the Division 2 sectional champion and she was the top finisher at the state meet among all the runners who competed at the Hayward Division 2 sectional meet. Central coach Bill Emery said the performance at state was a fitting way for Moll to complete her high school cross country career.
"She was amazing—plus," Emery said.
Behind Moll was a pair of freshmen, with Sydney Carlson in 58th and Mia Kizer in 82nd. Emery could hardly contain his excitement over the progress these two showed.
"They're not going to be afraid to take on anything next year," Emery predicted.
Emery said the freshmen were nervous the night before the race, but the girls team talked through all the issues about state, helping the freshmen to handle their nervousness.
The Panthers should return six of their seven runners from this year's state team, so the future is in good hands. Junior Claire Moll finished 88th, junior Marie Hamlin was 90th, junior Mariah Withuski was 115th and junior Kourtney Labeause was 142nd in the Division 2 state meet lineup. This was the second straight year of running for state for several of these girls, so the Panthers will bring back a lineup with as much experience as any Division 2 team around the state.
None of the Panther boys had state experience. Emery said it showed in nervousness among the boys.
"They got squirrely," he said about the night before the race. "The seniors were happy to be there. The youngsters weren't sure what to make of it."
Central's boys were led by freshman Cougar Holder, who placed 79th at the state meet. The future should be bright for Holder, who was the third-ranking freshman in the Division 2 state meet.
Holder finished in 17:51 and six seconds behind him was Panther sophomore Erik Collins, who placed 83rd. Emery said these two have a healthy competition between them and he foresees that continuing in the future as they battle to be the team's lead runner.
Junior Riley Hackbarth had his best finish of the season as the Panthers' third runner at state, placing 118th in 18:28. Senior Spencer Goodwin was five seconds behind Hackbarth, placing 125th. Freshman Jakob Eggen placed 133th, senior Will Spitzmueller in 139th and sophomore Josh Burgess in 142nd.
Emery was pleased to see that Spitzmueller could run at state, after some recent health issues. Spitzmueller gave everything he had, putting on a huge kick in the home stretch to edge a runner from Jefferson at the finish line.