In just a handful of seasons, the Rhinelander-Northwoods Composite Mountain Bike team has gone from startup to the top of the Wisconsin landscape.
The Hodag bikers put a bow on their first ever team state championship on Sunday, capturing the Wisconsin High School Cycling League Division 2 state crown in the 2019 series finale in Waterloo at the proving grounds of the Trek Bicycle Corporation.
Forced to split into two squads due to league regulations, the team’s RNC group — made up of riders from Three Lakes and Lakeland — finished second on the day behind Marquette, but the Hodags had build enough of a margin through the first four weeks of the season to defeat Marquette by 86 points for the overall title. The championship came on the heels of a runner-up finish in Division 2 a season ago.
“We’ve had a great season,” coach Steve Engel said. “I think all the kids had a ton of fun. They seemed to get along well and enjoy each others company. Hopefully pretty much everybody will be back next year. It’s kind of a tribute to the fact that we have a pretty strong girls’ program. I didn’t have anything to do with getting the girls to race, but I think once you have some girls, they enjoy each others company and it makes it easier when new people come in.”
The demographics of the WHSCL skew heavily male — 83.3% — but the league stipulates that at least 25% of the riders who count toward the team’s overall score must be female. There’s no denying that RNC had the best crop of female riders in the league this year with the individual champions in the varsity, JV-3 and JV-2 divisions.
Johanna Craig, Megan Lester and Sage Flory won those three titles for Rhinelander and all did so in dominating fashion on Sunday. Craig took the 16-mile varsity girls’ race in a time of 1 hour, 18 minutes, 21.82 seconds — a 2:45.84 margin of victory over runner-up Ethel Karinen of 906 Composite. Lester covered the same 16 minus in 1:25:54.12 to make the JV3 race over Muskego’s Megan Seiler by 2:51.75. Flory (55:34.64) rode to nearly a minute victory over Sauk Prairie’s Emma Kinnamon in the 11-mile JV-2 race.
“I think the big story was how dominant the girls were,” Engel said. “The girls that took first didn’t just take first, they took first by a good margin. Johanna was more than two minutes ahead of her next competitor. Megan had an amazing race. She was more than two minutes ahead of her next competitor, almost three. She would have actually taken fourth place in the varsity race. That was an outstanding effort. Sage Flory was a minute ahead of her next competition and she had just gotten back from running (cross country) sectionals. She had a pretty good weekend.”
Of the three, Lester arguably had the most pressure on her, coming into the event with a scant 11-point lead over Seiler in the standings. Lester, a sophomore, needed to finish first or second Sunday to capture her second individual state title after winning the freshman girls’ division last year.
All Craig and Flory had to do was finish the race to clinch their titles after both won the first four rounds of the season. Both finished in style, sweeping the five-race series.
“Johanna, it was her last race and it’s considered the state championship race, so she went in wanting to win it. It wasn’t just about the points championship for her,” Engel said. “All of the girls go out and give it their best effort, but (Sunday), they really tried to show everybody what they had.”
Craig and Lester formed a 1-2 punch that made the RNC tough to catch this year. The composite squad also got a boost from Jakob Craig, Johanna’s younger brother, who finished eighth on the day in the varsity boys’ race (1:27:27.29, 21 miles) and placed sixth overall in the championship standings.
“Eighth place for a 10th grader, he’s the youngest in that group,” Engel noted. “I know he’d like to be No. 1, but there’s 20 kids in that group and he’s in the top half. There’s nowhere to go but up.”
Tyler Marquardt finished 23rd both on Sunday and in the overall standings in the Division 2 freshman boys’ class for RNC. Mason Peck was 31st in that class on Sunday while Carter Johnson finished 32nd.
Flory lead the Rhinelander High School partition of the team with her championship, but wasn’t the only Hodag girl to finish on the podium. Junior Gwyn Lowry finished eighth on the day in the JV-3 race, which was good enough to allow her to hold on to fifth place in the final standings.
Rhinelander’s next scorers were a trio of freshmen boys. Jett Biolo, Layne Roeser and Travis White placed ninth, 15th and 17th, respectively out of 36 riders Sunday in the D1 freshman boys’ class. Anna Wood was 18th in the JV-2 girls’ race and Kyle Siefert was 53rd in the D1 JV-2 boys’ race.
“Gwen had a good race too, eighth place and didn’t have a bad time at all,” Engel noted. “Jett had a good race. The freshmen boys are a very competitive group — Jett, Layne, Travis. They all are in that same race and they all had pretty good finishes if you look at their place and how big the group is. Anna brought in some points and so did Kyle. Obviously the RHS group has a hard time competing, score wise, because we have to score eight people (in Division 1) and only eight were there. It’s pretty tough.”
The RHS squad finished eighth on the day, and ninth overall, in Division 1. Biolo finished 10th in the final D1 freshman boys’ standings while Wood took 18th in the JV-2 girls’ class.
In the middle school ranks Macy Lester, Megan’s younger sister, completed a clean sweep of the seventh-grade girls’ class. She won by 1:39 on Sunday with a 6-mile time of 28:57.38. Joey Belanger finished third in the eighth-grad boys’ race, Violet Biolo was fifth in the sixth-grade girls’ race and Helena Wisner was 28th in the seventh-grade girls race.
Johanna Craig and Grace Dorsey, who missed the final three races of the season due to other commitments, were the only seniors on this year’s RNC squad, meaning that the team should be set up for more success next year.
“We should have much the same group,” Engel said. “Obviously, points-wise, losing Johanna will hurt, but I think Megan will probably step into varsity next year. It will work out well for us. Hopefully some new kids will pop into the group and help us score more points, and have more fun too. It’s not all about winning races.”
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at [email protected] newsonline.com