This past Thursday night (Sept. 3), on an evening made for racing, the Chetek-Weyerhaeuser running Bulldogs competed in the Spooner Invitational held on the grounds of Spooner High School. It was their first race of the new season and for many of them, on account of the loss of the 2020 spring track season, their first race since last year.
Just as COVID has changed how we “do” work, school and generally life as we know it, things will be different in cross country this season as well. For starters, we won’t be competing outside the Heart O’North in 2020. This means we lost “the river run” in River Falls a few weeks ago and won’t be traveling to Duluth for the Swain Invite in October (both events were canceled anyhow on account of COVID this year). It also means races will be considerably smaller (35–50 kids per race as opposed to 90–100). Starting boxes are staggered every other box to allow social distancing between teams. For the first 100 meters, kids will have to wear their gaiter up (over their mouth and nose) and teams will have individual chutes at the finish line. And at this point, its not certain if anything will happen in the post-season following the conference meet in Spooner in mid-October.
Despite that, it was great to be racing again. Usually, when we think of Spooner, we can count on two things: it will be hot and humid and it will be hilly. But it was unseasonably cool, so all we had to look forward to was the hills.
For the first time since 2018, C-W was fielding a complete boys team and our top three, barring injury or sickness, will be fun to watch as the season progresses. Senior Joseph Jensen finished second in the conference last year and is eager to win a race outright. He stayed active this past summer, and in the first few weeks of practice, he has looked strong. On Thursday, he went out strong but perhaps too strong because early on he developed a side stitch, the bane of every runner. While he was leading through the first mile or so atop the big hill on the first loop, Emmett Johnson, of Northwestern, passed him and never let go of the lead. To Joseph’s credit, he ran through the pain and finished second overall in a time of 19:18.
Last year as a junior, Liam Tschumperlin was hampered by a litany of injuries so much so that we only had him for essentially the last third of the season. This past spring and summer, he’s done a lot of lifting and training, and in the first couple of weeks of the 2020 season, it shows; he looks like a new guy out there. This past Thursday, he finished in the Top 10 for the first time, finishing seventh in a personal course PR of 20:29 (almost a minute faster than his 2019 Spooner finish).
Coming right up on Liam’s “six” was sophomore Elijah Poppe, finishing just four seconds behind Tschumperlin in 20:33 for eighth place. “Lij” appears to have grown by about a foot and a half since last year, and I expect that he and Liam will be vying each week for the No. 2 spot on our team.
Sophomore Austin Hamholm is a rarity in our sport—a former football player who decided to give up Friday night lights in favor of Thursday evenings in the woods. Already in the first few weeks of the season, he is making steady improvements. It helps that he ran steadily this summer. On Thursday, he crushed his PR he had set at the Ice Cream Run at the end of the first week by finishing in 23:09. Not bad for a newbie and former gridiron guy.
Last, but not least for the running ‘Dogs was senior Brody Killoren. Brody chose not to run last season and his presence was sorely missed. How blessed we are to count “Baby K” in our ranks once more. On Thursday, he ran 27:54 to finish out the scoring for C-W.
In most races, if you get three runners in the Top 10, you have a great chance to win it outright. But on Thursday, we were competing against perennial giant and conference champions Northwestern, who also has three guys in the Top 10 and a whole slug of others in places 11–20. That’s an advantage that is nigh unto impossible to overcome for a small team like ours. We finished second to the Tigers but it wasn’t a turkey shoot. We’ll see what the cooler weather brings.
3. St. Croix Falls................59
In the girls’ race we had some cause to have high expectations for this season given that we have the two-time HON champion Lana Blumer and the 2019 runner-up Natalie Poppe lining up in our box. What’s more, senior Rebecca York, who finished in the Top 10 at Spooner last year, is right in the hunt with them. But, in the early going of the new season, Lana’s been hampered by a few physical issues that may hinder her progress this season. Time will tell.
Last year, in most races, Lana and Natalie ran nearly stride for stride the whole way. On Thursday, this was Natalie’s race to win, and win she did in a time of 22:31. Lana finished second in a time of 23:02. Even on a leg that was maybe only 60 percent, she still handily grabbed silver nearly a minute ahead of the third-place runner. We’re all hoping that rest and physical therapy can help her work through whatever is going on with her.
As expected, senior Rebecca York finished in the Top 10 in 6th place in a time of 24:14. Becca is such a strong runner that as the season progresses, she will only get faster.
The remaining half of our team is made up of sophomore Emily Holmbeck and freshmen Zoe Nelson and Elliana Bayer. Emily is such a positive presence on our team and the two freshman bring lots of potential to our small squad. On Thursday, Nelson crushed her PR by nearly three minutes, finishing 27:13. Coming on strong toward the back of the pack was Holmbeck with Bayer just a step or two behind her. These girls pushed each other the whole way finishing 29:05 and 29:25, respectively.
Last year, we had three finishers in the Top 10 and won the Spooner Invite, but Northwestern was not there. They too, had three in the Top 10, and like their boys’ team, they also dominated places 11–15. That wins it every time. But on Thursday, we were within shouting distance. We’ll see the Tigers quite a lot this season and hopefully our girls will gain confidence that though small, they are mighty.
3. St. Croix Falls................68
4. Cumberland/Turtle Lake.75
COVID has changed a lot of things among the cheer line that our kids usually form at the finish line to high five and cheer the other finishers as well. Since the powers that be are trying to limit how much the athletes physically interact with each other, C-W senior and student manager Kendyl Johnson came up with a great idea—noisemakers. On Thursday night, our kids spaced themselves out along the home stretch and rang 24 cowbells relentlessly encouraging the rest of the racers home. Coach McGrath, of Northwestern, was so impressed he vowed to copy us. As they say, imitation is the highest form of flattery.
The ‘Dogs will race this Thursday, Sept. 10, at the Bloomer Invite located at the Three Lakes Ski Trail southeast of Bloomer. It promises to be yet another beautiful night for racing and the gentler course may coax some great performances out of our runners. C-W will also host their lone home event of the season, the Dan Conway Invitational on Tuesday, Sept. 15. This year’s invite will be a little different as the high school boys’ race begins at 5 p.m. followed by the high school girls’ race. There is no middle school race at this year’s event.