In three short years the Rhinelander-Northwoods Composite high school club mountain bike team went from a fledgling program to one of the best in Wisconsin — finishing second in the state in both Divisions 1 and 2 of the Wisconsin High School Cycling League with its split squad and placing a number of riders on the podium.
The team’s fourth season began Sunday in Eau Claire and coach Steve Engel expects another strong season out of his teams.
“We’re excited about our season. Eau Claire’s first and hopefully we’ll be able to get some results that show how good these kids really are,” he said. “As far as our competitive riders, I think we’re in a good position. As far as numbers growth, we stayed pretty stable with last year. I guess that’s good considering we did lose quite a few kids that were on the initial team, those kids that had been on the team the whole time.”
The team draws riders from Rhinelander, Lakeland and Three Lakes high schools. Engel said the team has stabilized between 16 and 18 riders between the high school and middle school ranks this season, following substantial growth in each of the first three seasons.
“We’ve got some new kids and everybody’s learning,” he said. “We also have some kids that, quite honestly, are faster than I am. I think we’re sitting pretty good … Growing’s a plus and a minus. You get bigger and it gets harder to manage the ability gap of the kids without a larger number of coaches.”
Because of the number of participants from RHS, the WHSCL has once again made the team split off into two separate entities on race day, with everyone from Rhinelander racing under the RHS banner and everyone else competing under the Rhinelander-Northwoods Composite banner.
That didn’t slow down the Hodag bikers last year. RHS took second in Division 1 behind Shorewood in the final overall standings while the RNC squad finished only 33 points behind Wausau East for the Division 2 title.
The RNC squad returns a core of riders that will compete in the upper ranks of the league this year. Siblings Johanna and Jakob Craig from Lakeland are back and will be mixing it up in the varsity division. Johanna Craig finished second as a junior in the varsity girls category behind only Lauren Lackman from Wausau, who has since graduated.
“Johanna is still racing varsity girls and I expect her to do very well, probably podium every race unless something goes wrong,” Engel said. “I know she’s been going to a couple of colleges that are looking at her to race bike.”
Jakob Craig is making the rare jump to varsity classification as a sophomore. He swept all five league races in the Division 2 freshman boys class. He was able to successfully petition the league to bypass the JV-2 and JV-3 levels and move straight to varsity.
“Varsity is a huge jump. I’m sure he’ll compete well, but how he’ll fare on the podium will be up for grabs here, the first race anyway,” Engel said. “He’s done so well in some other races and last year he beat everybody by so much in his races most of the time, I think they took his petition seriously.”
Megan Lester from Three Lakes has also been moved up this year, after winning the freshman girls state championship last season. The league allowed her to bypass the JV-2 level for sophomores and move to JV-3, which is typically reserved for juniors and seniors who have not earned varsity classification.
Those three athletes, along with Lakeland junior Grace Dorsey, who finished fourth in the girls JV-2 standings last year, will likely anchor the RNC team all season.
“Our composite (team) should do well,” Engel said. “I believe that both of our teams, I don’t know if we’ll be second and third like we were last year at each race for points totals, but I’d expect us to be in the top five if everybody finishes where I expect them to.”
The RHS squad lost a number of seniors from last year. Bridger Flory, Freddy Wisner, Alexis Pyrchalla, Emma Hjelle and Jaden Olski all graduated off of last year’s team and Hugh Wiese, who finished eighth in the Division 1 JV-2 boys standings, elected to focus on soccer this fall.
Those slated to return for RHS include sophomore Sage Flory, who was fourth in the freshman standings last year, Gwyneth Lowry who was seventh in girls JV-2, Madesen Van Order, who was 12th in the JV-2 standings and Kyle Siefert, who was 22nd in D1 as a freshman. The RHS side will also pick up incoming freshman Jett Biolo, who placed in the top 13 in all five rounds as an eighth grader last year with a best finish of seventh in his age group.
In the middle school ranks, Macy Lester is back after winning four of five rounds in the sixth-grade girls’ division last year. Joey Belanger is also back after consistently placing in the top 10 in the seventh-grade boys class.
Eau Claire results
Johanna Craig took the girls’ varsity division, Megan Lester was the girls’ JV-3 winner and Sage Flory won the girls’ JV-2 race in the first race of the season Sunday at Lowe’s Creek. All three received white jerseys from the league following the race, signifying they lead the season-long point standings in their respective divisions.
Craig and Lester helped lead the Composite squad to victory in the Division 2 team standings. Flory helped lead the Rhinelander High School team to an 11th-place finish in Division 1.
Johanna Craig picked up where she left off, completing a 16-mile course in 1 hour, 17 minutes, 55.36 seconds — more than 2:10 faster than her nearest pursuer, Emma
Osborne of Brookfield Central.
Lester won the JV-3 race in a time of 1:23:04.90, more than 2 1/2 minutes ahead of runner-up Megan Seiler of Muskego. Lowry, riding for Rhinelander High School, was third in the race (1:26:04.06).
Flory took the 11-mile JV2 race with a time of 56:53.90, nearly a minute ahead of Gracelyn Smith of Lake Mills.
The composite team also got a sixth-place finish from Jakob Craig in the varsity boys’ division. Dorsey rounded out the scoring for the RNC squad. She recovered from a crash at the start of the JV-3 girls’ race to finish 11th in class. Freshmen Tyler Marquardt and Carter Johnson were 28th and 33rd, respectively in the freshman D2 category for RNC.
RNC scored 2,106 points to finish 84 points ahead of Marquette for first place in the 51-school Division 2 field. The Composite squad was the state runner up last year behind Wausau?East.
Freshman Jett Biolo finished sixth for the RHS squad in his debut (55:56.19, 11 miles). Anna Wood was 16th in the JV-2 girls’ class, Travis White was 28th in the freshman boys’ D1 and Kyle Siefert had a 49th-place finish in the JV-2 D1 boys’ race. With the RHS squad only counting six riders, two shy of the maximum in Division 1, the team finished in the bottom half of the 17-team D1 field.
RNC had only two riders in the middle school ranks but both did very well in their six-mile races. Macy Lester won the seventh-grade girls’ race (30:57.92) while Belanger finished third in the eighth-grade boys’ race (27:32.92).
The second round of the WHSCL season takes place this Sunday at Nine Mile Forest in Wausau.
The league heads to Minooka Park in Waukesha Oct. 13 and the state championships will once again take place in Waterloo Oct. 27 on the proving grounds of the Trek Bicycle Corporation.
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at [email protected]