10/27/2017 7:28:00 AM T-Birds hope to fly high at state meet
Jeremy Mayo/River News
Aubrey Anderson makes her second appearance in WIAA Division 2 Championships for Lakeland. The Thunderbirds are shooting to finish in the top five in the boys and girls team standings.
The road to state ends at The Ridges Golf Course in Wisconsin Rapids on Saturday for Lakeland Union High School's cross country team.
It is there the Thunderbirds will defend last year's WIAA Division 2 championship.
Heading into the season, Lakeland appeared to be a lock to repeat as state champions, but when Noah Bodewes transferred before the start of the school year, those dreams became murky.
As the season has unfolded, it is clear Lakeland still has a team which can finish in the top five at state, despite getting nipped by Medford at the sectional meet last Saturday.
"I'd love to see us in the top five," LUHS head coach Kevin FitzPatrick said. "I definitely think we're a top-five caliber team. With the three frontrunners that we have, those six are very important in cross country. If we can just get four, five and six to have a solid race - they don't have to have a great race, just a solid race - and we'll be a top-five team."
Kav FitzPatrick, Darius Diver and Jack Garcia project to finish in the top 20 individually, so where Lakeland finishes could depend on the remaining four runners.
Fellow senior Jim Drewry has been the fourth runner for the T-Birds almost all season, while freshman Alec Steinberger has come on strong in recent weeks. Seniors Grant Gibson and Jake Van Hefty will also need to have strong races.
"It's mainly a confidence issue," FitzPatrick said. "This week it's all about being mentally and physically prepared. In the bigger picture, they've already done the physical preparation, so we're doing all we can to keep them mentally prepared to compete. The workouts that we do are not very significant from a physical standpoint, but they are important from the standpoint of being mentally prepared. Some kids are getting a little rest, some kids are getting more work. It all depends on what their needs are."
While Lakeland's boys' team has high aspirations from a team perspective, Kav FitzPatrick has lofty individual goals that he wants to achieve.
FitzPatrick enters the race with the best time in Division 2, which means he's the early favorite to be the first state champion in school history.
Last season, FitzPatrick felt he didn't run his best race and still finished 14th. That is a motivating factor entering the day.
"Coming away without an individual medal last year, I was definitely disappointed with that," Kav FitzPatrick said. "So I trained hard all summer and we've been working really hard as a team all season. I think that, for me finishing at the top is not only good for me winning an individual title, but it's great for the team, scoring an incredibly low point total for our team."
While the boys' team looks to finish in the top five at the state meet for a fourth consecutive season, the girls' team has the same goal in mind.
Last season Lakeland finished 12th out of 16 teams, but this senior-less squad appears poised to position itself in the state's hierarchy.
Three runners from last year's team return, in Ashley Peterson, Aubrey Anderson and Maddie Nelson, but all three are vastly improved. Add in a trio of freshmen in Kate Melms, Mia Case and Katie Tharman, along with junior Riley Mauzer, and the T-Birds have a formidable group.
"With Ashley being up there, and Aubrey and our next four are really close together," coach FitzPatrick said. "We're going to be a solid team at the state championships. I think they've gained more experience as we've raced this season and I think they're going to be ready to go."
Peterson has a chance to place in the top 10, and even in the top five individually, which would be a nice way to cap a breakout sophomore campaign, particularly after finishing 86th at state last fall.
Seven of the top 10 from last year's race return, including defending state champion Dana Feyen of Gale-Ettrick-Trempealeau.
"She'll find herself in position," FitzPatrick said. "She's got Dana Feyen, the defending state champ, who is a tough athlete. Ashley can run with anybody, so I'm excited to see what she can do this weekend."
The WIAA Cross Country Championships are held tomorrow at The Ridges Golf Course in Wisconsin Rapids. The Division 2 girls' race is scheduled ot begin at 1:20 p.m. and the boys' at 3:10 p.m.
Nick Sabato may be reached at email@example.com or via Twitter @SabatoNick.