The Lakeland girls snapped Tomahawk’s streak of 11 straight conference titles and the Lakeland boys added a fifth title in a row as the Thunderbirds swept the Great Northern Conference cross country meet Saturday at Riverview Golf Course in Antigo.
Lauren Schilling turned in the top time for on the girls’ side, earning conference Runner of the Year honors, and four Lakeland girls earned top-10 finishes to propel the Thunderbirds over the perennial favorite Hatchets.
Andrew Schilling led the boys as the conference runner-up, and four Thunderbird boys finished in the top-11 as Lakeland edged out Medford to take the title.
“We had hoped to win both conference titles and have several all-conference athletes, and we were able to do that,” coach Kevin FitzPatrick said.
For the girls, Lauren Schilling’s 15:30.9 finish started a string of three runners in the top four, with Katie Klappa finishing second in 15:45.5 and Nicole Gilman taking fourth in 16:23.3.
Morgan Courtney followed in ninth place, running in 16:44.4, and Sierra Ouimette rounded out Lakeland’s top five with a sixteenth place finish in 17:39.1.
Because Antigo and Medford didn’t field complete five-person teams on the girls’ side, Courtney’s finish counted as eighth place and Ouimette’s finish counted as fourteenth for total team scores.
The Lakeland girls scored 29 points, holding off Tomahawk (40) and taking the conference title away from the Hatchets for the first time in the history of the Great Northern Conference, going back to the old Lumberjack Conference, ending Tomahawk’s run of 11 straight titles.
The strong finishes from Lakeland’s top runners were no surprise to coach FitzPatrick, who was excited about the team’s potential and expressed the runners’ chances during a team meeting last Thursday.
“I looked at Lauren, I looked at Katie, and I looked at Nicole, and I said, ‘You know, any one of the three of you could win this race on Saturday,’” FitzPatrick said. “We talked about some team strategy, and Lauren talked about wanting to get out a little bit harder, and I said that I’d like them to run together for the first mile, and then kind of do their thing. Well, the gun went off, and Lauren took off like a rocket, and really never looked back. At that point, within the first 200 meters of the race, I knew she was going to win.”
FitzPatrick’s immediate thought proved true, and Schilling hung on to take the top spot in the race, earning conference Runner of the Year honors along the way.
Klappa, the team’s senior captain, hung with Schilling for a while and eventually finished comfortably in second place.
The second place finish ends a strong cross country career for the senior, who began running as a sophomore after playing tennis as a freshman.
“She showed potential as a sophomore, and last year she was second team all-conference,” FitzPatrick said. “This year, she comes out and is the conference runner-up. She’s really had an outstanding high school career, and I’m excited to see what she does Saturday at sectionals.”
Following Klappa, Gilman finished fourth to earn first team All-GNC honors.
“Nicole struggled a little bit, but she still finished fourth in the conference, and that’s a great position for her,” FitzPatrick said. “I know that wasn’t the race she wanted to have, but she ran an outstanding race.”
FitzPatrick also praised the runners who rounded out the top five for the Lakeland girls.
“The two who really stepped up are Morgan Courtney, who had about a 40-second PR, and Sierra Ouimette, who was about 20 seconds faster than she was all season,” he said. “Those two were huge. I think Tomahawk expected us to go 1-2-3 and were trying to break that up, but I don’t think they expected the races that we got out of Morgan and Sierra.”
The battle between Lakeland and Tomahawk has been fought all season long, and as FitzPatrick said, at one point this year, the Hatchets had seven runners ahead of Lakeland’s top five. Lakeland limited that number to six on Saturday, and put together an incredible performance as a team to take the GNC crown.
“Our girls probably had the best meet of all, from the standpoint of performance,” FitzPatrick said. “All but two of our girls had their fastest times of the season, and probably half of them had lifetime bests. You can’t ask for more than that as a coach.”
FitzPatrick gave credit to Tomahawk for bringing competitive teams to the mix each and every year, but said Lakeland’s talent was too much for the Hatchets this season, despite initial thoughts Lakeland’s young team would take more time to become a contender.
“Coach [John] Zuelsdorf, from Tomahawk, runs an outstanding program, and to win the title for 11 years in a row, I know how tough that is and how much his kids wanted to win that again, and they worked really hard for that,” FitzPatrick said. “We were just blessed this year with a group of kids that we thought would be a rebuilding year, and all of a sudden we’re not only a conference powerhouse, but a contender to go to state.”
While the Lakeland girls broke up a streak that has been growing over the past decade, the Lakeland boys extended a streak that began with a GNC title in 2009.
Andrew Schilling’s 16:50 finish trailed only Brian Tomek of Tomahawk, who took conference Runner of the Year honors for the second season in a row.
Schilling’s runner-up performance started a run of four top-11 finishes from the Lakeland boys.
Will Bodewes took seventh place with a 17:39.3 run, Dylan Ouimette followed in tenth place, running 17:50.1, and Mack Fitzpatrick took eleventh, finishing just behind in 17:50.5. Caleb Anderson rounded out the Lakeland top five with a twenty-third place finish in 18:33.6.
Lakeland’s runs earned them 53 points, beating Medford’s 68 to take the top GNC spot for the fifth straight season.
As FitzPatrick said, the boys race was not as clear-cut as the girls’ side. While the girls’ race was basically between Tomahawk and Lakeland, several teams figured to compete for the boys title. It ended up being a race between Lakeland and Medford, and it literally came down to the wire.
“We knew that it would be a tough fight between the top three or four teams in the hunt for a conference title, and as the race was progressing, it just looked to me like Medford was the team to beat, which we kind of thought all along,” FitzPatrick said.
Standing about 600 meters from the finish line, FitzPatrick began to chart the positions of Lakeland and Medford runners, trying to get a read on which team had the advantage.
“At that time, Medford led us 61-62,” FitzPatrick said. “As the race progressed, we obviously picked up a lot of places in the last 600 meters that gave us that 15-point gap on Medford.”
As Fitzpatrick said, over the last 600 meters, Andrew Schilling maintained his second place position, Will Bodewes moved up one place, Dylan Ouimette and Mack FitzPatrick each passed two runners, and Anderson overtook four opponents.
“That was all huge, and all within the last 600 meters,” FitzPatrick said. “That was really the difference right there, those guys all came through.”
The boys continued the Lakeland trend of running their fastest times late in the season, building off last week’s run at Tomahawk.
“Our fastest times have come in the past two weeks, they either happened at conference or at Tomahawk last week,” FitzPatrick said. “Those who didn’t run their fastest times at conference came pretty close to what they ran at Tomahawk.”
FitzPatrick said the runs from Mack FitzPatrick and Caleb Anderson stood out, as each runner had lifetime bests at conference. Mack FitzPatrick, along with Dyan Ouimette, picked up second team All-GNC honors, while Andrew Schilling and Will Bodewes earned first team honors with their runs.
FitzPatrick credited the boys for having the right mindset heading into the meet, as the boys knew they had the potential and had put in the hard work to earn the conference title.
“They come into the meets expecting to win,” FitzPatrick said. “They’re not resting on their laurels, saying, ‘OK, we’re going to win,’ they know they’ve got to do the work, but they come in with that expectation and that really makes my job easy.”
A great season
The conference victories cap a regular season filled with great moments for both the boys’ and girls’ squads. FitzPatrick said a hard-fought conference win was the fitting end to a great regular season.
“It was an exciting event to be a part of,” FitzPatrick said. “What I like about our conference is that it is very competitive. Anybody on that boys’ side could have won, and the girls, right now Tomahawk and Lakeland are the power schools, but previously in the Lumberjack Conference, there were two teams that were always there, and the others were really out of it. In the Great Northern we really have a very competitive setup. All the coaches there really do a nice job preparing the kids to run their best.”
Coaching the two conference-winning teams, FitzPatrick was awarded Coach of the Year honors for both the boys and girls, an honor he said is only possible with the strong performances from the runners and the help he receives from his assistant coaching staff.
“Our assistant coaches, Mike Vogelsang, Gordy Drewsen and Aubrey Hoye, I don’t talk about them nearly enough, and they are really a tremendous asset to our program, we would not be doing the things we do without them,” FitzPatrick said. “I was fortunate to get the Coach of the Year honors based on the fact that we won the conference, but that wouldn’t have happened without those three.”
FitzPatrick said each coach is a valuable asset who put a lot of time and effort into the championship teams.
“Aubrey’s a volunteer, and she’s an ER physician, so she’s working nights and going to practice or heading straight to work after practice, she has been awesome,” FitzPatrick said. “Gordy is an LUHS grad, so she’s been through the program, and Mike, from my hometown, is a great runner as well, those three have just done an outstanding job.”
FitzPatrick said the team has also received enormous support from the parents who have braved distance and weather to watch the kids compete.
“We have a wonderful group of parents who support the program,” FitzPatrick said. “They’re there for our kids, they support us coaches, and really make my job easy.”
Lakeland now looks ahead to the sectional track meet, which will be held Saturday in Waupaca. The Thunderbirds have aspirations to bring a team to state.
“It’s all about putting together the best team effort to make it to state,” FitzPatrick said. “I think we have individuals who can make it to state on their own, and that’s exciting. Not just one individual, I think several individuals can make it on their own to state, but I think it would be really cool to get a team to state.”
The last Lakeland girls’ cross country team to make it to state was in 2006, while the boys haven’t been to state since 1989.
“The girls are in a good position to go to state, and if we get the kind of races we had at conference we have a shot,” FitzPatrick said. “The boys have their work cut out for them. Freedom has a tremendous program, they’re very senior-laden and will be tough to beat. Oconto Falls finished right ahead of us last year, so our goal is to try to get by Oconto Falls on Saturday.”
The Lakeland boys will also need to look out for a couple GNC opponents at sectionals.
“Medford could be back, too, they’re going to be a contender, Tomahawk, in a big meet like that, will also be a contender,” FitzPatrick said. “It’s not going to be easy by any means, but obviously we’re going to do everything in our power to put our kids in the position to get those qualifying spots for state.”
At the sectional, the top two teams will advance as a whole, and the top five runners not on advancing teams will also be eligible for state individually.
“We have a number of kids with a shot individually, but we want to get to state as a team, too,” FitzPatrick said.
Jim Oxley may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.