Panthers enjoyed successful seasons
Kerry Johnson had plenty of reasons to be proud of what the Park Rapids boys and girls cross-country teams accomplished this season.
The girls fulfilled their main goal by returning to the state Class A meet as the Section 8A runner-up. The Panthers won three meet titles during the season and were ranked as high as No. 6 in the state Class A poll.
The boys had their most successful season in a decade by ending the season with a third-place showing at the Mid-State Conference meet and a fourth-place finish at the Section 8A meet.
One of the highlights to the season was when both teams won titles at the Pelican Rapids Invitational. That marked the first time both the boys and girls teams claimed titles at the same meet since the Menahga-Sebeka Invitational in 1998.
Both teams also excelled in the classroom by earning the state Gold Academic Award for having team GPAs between 3.75 and 4.00.
"This was such a great year. The only thing better than getting the girls back to state would have been having both the girls and guys make the trip," said Johnson. "There was such camaraderie and that made coaching even more enjoyable. I miss these teams already. I am already looking forward to next year."
Girls return to state meet
It took a combination of veteran leadership and valuable contributions from first-year runners that sent the Panthers back to state.
Having four runners back from last year's state meet provided a solid foundation for the Panthers this season. Senior Tiffany Deitchler, junior Lydia Lutz, and sophomores Kaylee Hilmanowski and Morgan Olson helped the Panthers finish fifth at last year's state meet. That finish was the best for the Panthers in their five state meet appearances.
Even though the Panthers had four veterans back, the loss of Victoria Lutz (who graduated) and Summer Ellefson and Sophie Shogren (who decided not to go out for cross country) left the Panthers with three state spots to fill.
Fortunately for the Panthers, junior Shelby Pierce, sophomore Lora Remus and freshman Alex Pederson joined the team to give the Panthers a full lineup.
"I really didn't know what to expect from the girls team. It was hard to lose girls from last year's team because the team was so strong," said Johnson. "I knew Tiffany, Lydia, Kaylee and Morgan would work hard and give it their all and they didn't disappoint one bit. They all had state experience so I knew that they would work hard to get back. We had two runners (Pierce and Pederson) with no cross-country experience and one girl (Remus) who moved here (from Fargo Shanley), so I wasn't sure what to expect. I just didn't know how it would all come together. Without these three runners, we would have struggled to even put a full team together. They were so valuable."
The value of all seven runners was showcased at the season-opening meet as the Panthers finished fifth at the 12-team Moorhead Invitational with 141 points. Moorhead took first with 72 points.
Park Rapids ran to runner-up honors at the nine-team Wadena-Deer Creek Invitational with 40 points. Little Falls took first with 31 points.
The Panthers then won back-to-back titles with 22 points to lead the nine-team Pelican Rapids Invitational and 62 points to take first at the 17-team Bagley/Fosston Invitational.
At the Milaca Class AA Mega Meet, the Panthers finished seventh out of 26 of the top teams in the state with 234 points. Adrian led the field with 58 points.
The Panthers then finished eighth at the 24-team Fergus Falls Invitational with 232 points. Monticello took first with 46 points.
Park Rapids won its third title of the season with 18 points at the seven-team United North Central Invitational at Blueberry Pines.
At the Mid-State Conference meet at Cross Lake, the Panthers finished second with 58 points as Detroit Lakes claimed the conference title with 47 points. Lutz claimed the conference title and Pederson finished seventh to earn all-conference honors while Olson finished 14th to receive all-conference honorable mention honors.
At the Park Rapids Invitational at Headwaters Country Club, the Panthers finished third with 98 points. Perham took first in this 16-team meet with 69 points while Warroad was second with 91 points.
The Panthers were able to return to state with a runner-up performance at the Section 8A meet at Bagley. Perham won the section title with 84 points while Park Rapids was next with 102 points. Warroad (113) and Roseau (115) followed in the 23-team field.
Adrian lived up to its No. 1 state ranking by winning the state title with 89 points. The Panthers finished 15th out of 16 teams with 334 points to cap off another successful season.
"I think for the girls and me, it was like a huge weight was lifted once we found out we were heading to state again," said Johnson. "It was something we all wanted so badly. It was a huge accomplishment to go back. They really worked hard to earn that trip."
Lutz led the Panthers all season by placing in the top 10 at every meet. Lutz took first at Pelican Rapids, Blueberry Pines and the Mid-State meet; was second at Wadena, Bagley, Headwaters Country Club and the Section 8A meet; and took third at Moorhead. Lutz capped off her fourth trip to state by placing 26th overall. Those efforts propelled Lutz to the team's Most Valuable Runner award.
Pederson was the Panthers' No. 2 runner all season, finishing in the top-10 spots at Blueberry Pines (second), Pelican Rapids (third), the Mid-State meet (seventh) and Wadena (eighth). Pederson also finished 14th at Bagley, 18th at Headwaters and 20th at Moorhead. Pederson capped off the season by placing 15th at the section meet and 108th at the state meet. Pederson earned the team's Hardest Worker award.
Pierce, Hilmanowski, Olson and Remus finished in the 3-6 spots all season.
Pierce was the Panthers' No. 3 runner at Blueberry Pines (placing fourth), the section meet (placing 27th) and the state meet (placing 121st); the No. 4 runner at Fergus Falls (placing 63rd) and Headwaters (placing 28th); and the No. 5 runner at Milaca (placing 68th) and the conference meet (placing 22nd). Pierce received the team's Most Improved award.
Hilmanowski was the Panthers' No. 2 runner at Milaca (placing 50th); No. 3 runner at Wadena (placing 10th); No. 4 runner at Moorhead (placing 42nd), the section meet (placing 29th) and the state meet (placing 126th); and the No. 5 runner at Pelican Rapids (placing 10th), Bagley (placing 20th), Fergus Falls (placing 68th), Blueberry Pines (placing sixth) and Headwaters (placing 33rd).
Olson held the team's No. 3 spot at Pelican Rapids (placing sixth), Bagley (placing 15th), the Mid-State meet (placing 14th) and Headwaters (placing 25th) before ending the season as the No. 5 runner at the section meet (placing 39th) and the state meet (placing 134th). Olson was also the No. 4 finisher at Wadena (placing 14th) and Milaca (placing 85th).
Remus, who competed in two North Dakota state meets, was the Panthers' No. 3 runner at Moorhead (placing 34th) and Fergus Falls (placing 53rd); the No. 4 runner at Pelican Rapids (placing seventh), Bagley (placing 19th), Blueberry Pines (placing fifth) and the Mid-State meet (placing 17th); and the No. 5 runner at Wadena (placing 15th). Remus ended the year by placing 41st at the section meet and 139th at the state meet.
Deitchler missed six meets with an injury, but started the season as the No. 5 runner at Moorhead (placing 44th). Deitchler returned to cap off her career by placing 151st at the state meet. Deitchler received the team Spirit Award.
"It was hard for Tiffany not to compete. She did run at state because she said she wanted to go out on a positive note and run her last race. She gutted it out and made all of us so proud," said Johnson. "Tiffany has been a part of cross country since fifth grade and brought experience and insight. It has been great to have her be part of the team."
Looking ahead to next season, the Panthers will return another strong team in hopes of qualifying for state for the third year in a row.
"There are no guarantees. So much can happen between now and August. I just really hope the girls continue to work hard and improve," said Johnson. "They are such a great bunch of girls. We need to pick up a few runners to help fill out the team and then we should be good to go. If all the girls stay healthy, run this summer and work hard next season, we have a good chance to go back to state."
Boys move up in ranks
The boys also used a combination of returning veterans and first-year varsity runners to produce one of their most successful seasons in a decade.
Having 14 runners competing gave the Panthers plenty of depth and competition for the seven varsity spots.
Returning from last year's team were seniors Taylor Kimball, Zac Haugland, Matt Sullivan, Kevin Merfeld and Josh Hays; junior Ryan McBrady; and sophomores Jake Waggoner, Jacob Hays and Ben Kading.
Contributing in their first year of varsity running were senior Travis Deitchler; sophomores Tanner Otterness and Nate Carlson; freshman Bailey Mueller; and eighth grader Isaac Overmyer.
That group helped the Panthers move up in the team standings at almost every meet.
The Panthers opened the season by placing eighth at the 11-team Moorhead Invitational with 237 points. Moorhead took first with 47 points.
At the Wadena-Deer Creek Invitational, the Panthers placed fourth with 86 points. Little Falls led this nine-team meet with 54 points.
Park Rapids captured the team title at the 10-team Pelican Rapids Invitational with 53 points. The last time the Panthers won a meet was at the Perham Invitational in 2000.
The Panthers then placed fifth at the 21-team Bagley/Fosston Invitational with 149 points. Thief River Falls took first with 28 points.
Two big meets followed as the Panthers placed 18th at the 25-team Milaca Class AA Mega Meet with 471 points and 15th at the 25-team Fergus Falls Invitational with 427 points. St. Cloud Cathedral won the title at Milaca with 52 points while Moorhead topped the field at Fergus Falls with 48 points.
A runner-up finish at the United North Central Invitational at Blueberry Pines followed as the Panthers compiled 54 points to trail only Ottertail Central's 28 points in this seven-team meet.
At the Mid-State Conference meet at Cross Lake, the Panthers finished third with 79 points. Detroit Lakes won the conference title with 21 points. That was the Panthers' best showing at the conference meet since placing third in 2000.
The Panthers turned in another solid performance at the Park Rapids Invitational at Headwaters Country Club by placing fourth with 131 points. Perham led the field in this 16-team meet with 24 points.
Park Rapids capped off the season by placing fourth at the Section 8A meet with 161 points. Perham won the section title with 26 points, Thief River Falls was second with 74 points and Staples-Motley was third with 155 points in this 24-team field. That finish was the best for the Panthers since placing fourth in 1999.
"I wasn't quite sure what to expect from the boys. We had so many new runners. A few of them ran with me this summer, so I knew they were capable. I didn't know what to expect when we started doing speed work and just the wear and tear a season can bring," said Johnson. "They are a determined group that really didn't complain. They were also very competitive. They competed against each other and the other teams. All the guys were gunning for those seven varsity spots and that kept them working hard. I thought their season went very well. I was very happy."
Kimball was named the team's Most Valuable Runner after being the Panthers' No. 1 runner most of the season. Kimball earned all-conference honors by finishing fourth at the Mid-State meet and also led the Panthers at Wadena (placing 13th), Pelican Rapids (placing sixth), Bagley (placing 15th), Milaca (placing 37th), Fergus Falls (placing 61st), Blueberry Pines (placing fourth) and Headwaters (placing 12th). Kimball capped off his senior season by placing 24th at the section meet.
Overmyer also received all-conference honors by placing fifth at the Mid-State meet and was the Panthers' top finisher at the section meet by placing 16th and at Moorhead by placing 37th. Overmyer was the Panthers' No. 2 runner at the other meets, finishing 16th at Wadena, seventh at Pelican Rapids, 23rd at Bagley, 70th at Fergus Falls, sixth at Blueberry Pines and 16th at Headwaters.
Haugland, Waggoner, Otterness and Mueller ran in the No. 3-6 spots most of the season.
Haugland was the Panthers' No. 2 runner at Milaca by finishing 93rd; was the No. 3 runner at Moorhead (placing 59th) and the section meet (placing 45th); was the No. 4 runner at Wadena (placing 23rd); and the No. 5 runner at Fergus Falls (placing 108th) and the Mid-State meet (placing 28th).
Waggoner was the Panthers' No. 3 runner at Wadena (placing 20th) and Bagley (placing 31st); the No. 4 runner at Moorhead (placing 60th) and Headwaters (placing 39th); and the No. 5 runner at Pelican Rapids (placing 19th) and the section meet (placing 49th).
Otterness finished as the Panthers' No. 4 runner at Pelican Rapids (placing 18th), Fergus Falls (placing 107th), Blueberry Pines (placing 15th), the conference meet (placing 23rd) and the section meet (placing 46th); and the No. 5 runner at Moorhead (placing 63rd), Bagley (placing 59th) and Headwaters (placing 41st).
Mueller was the Panthers' No. 3 runner at Pelican Rapids (placing eighth), Fergus Falls (placing 94th), Blueberry Pines (placing 13th), the conference meet (placing 19th) and at Headwaters (placing 38th) before finishing 52nd as the No. 6 runner at the section meet. Mueller was also the No. 4 runner at Bagley (placing 44th) and the No. 5 runner at Wadena (placing 26th). Mueller received the team's Most Improved Runner award.
Sullivan rounded out the section team by placing 68th and was the Panthers' No. 5 runner at Milaca (placing 127th) and at Blueberry Pines (finishing 16th). Sullivan, who received the team's Hardest Worker award, was the team's No. 6 finisher at Wadena (29th), Bagley (65th) and Fergus Falls (120th).
Jacob Hays rounded out the varsity team at Moorhead (finishing 70th) and Blueberry Pines (placing 25th).
McBrady was the team's No. 3 runner (finishing 118th), Deitchler was the Panthers' No. 4 runner (finishing 122nd), Merfeld was the team's No. 6 runner (finishing 132nd) and Josh Hays was the team's No. 7 runner (finishing 141st) at Milaca.
Josh Hays received the team's Spirit Award.
Looking ahead to next season, the Panthers have six seniors to replace, but the return of eight runners has Johnson expecting another successful season from the boys in 2011.
"The chemistry on this team was great. Each runner contributed. We are really going to miss the seniors. They have added so much. Taylor will be hard to replace. He was our top runner the last two years and his talent will be missed. Matt was a good captain and he really kept things moving. He worked so hard the last few years by running in the summer. That training really paid off. Zac really contributed to the team. He cheered on the younger runners and really led by example. Josh always brought a positive attitude to every workout and meet. Kevin ran the last two years and really worked hard. Travis came out this year for the first time and pushed other runners," said Johnson. "We have some very good younger runners. We return runners with experience and some junior high runners who will contribute. There are a few runners I am hoping will join us next year. That will make the team complete. I think the guys will continue to improve. I have high expectations for the team next year."