After just missing her main goal last season, Kerry Johnson is hoping to fulfill her ultimate goal of sending both Park Rapids cross country teams to the state Class A meet.
Last fall, the Park Rapids girls qualified for the state meet for the third year in a row by winning the Section 8A title for the first time since 1997.
The Park Rapids boys were looking to qualify for state for the first time since 1997, but fell short after placing fourth at the section meet.
With the return of several veteran runners and the addition of some talented newcomers, Johnson is hoping the Panthers can duplicate the performance of 1997 and send both teams to state.
"I have really high expectations for both teams. As far as reaching those expectations, they just need to give it their all each and every practice and take care of themselves. Our numbers are getting bigger, but we still can't afford to have any injuries," said Johnson. "I have a pretty large number of kids who came in in better shape than last year. It's a great group of athletes and they are competitive. I know they will push themselves."
Boys eye elusive state bid
This could be the year the Panthers send a team to state for the first time since 1997.
At last year's section meet, the Panthers tallied 131 points to finish behind Perham's 26, Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton's 66 and Staples-Motley's 118.
Perham will again be the heavy favorite to win the section title for the seventh year in a row since the Yellowjackets return all seven runners who qualified for state last year.
However, D-G-F graduated five runners and Staples-Motley graduated four runners from their section teams while the Panthers return six of their section entrants from a year ago.
Leading the Panthers this fall will be the seven returning veterans: seniors Jake Waggoner, Tanner Otterness and Jacob Hays; juniors Bailey Mueller, Brad Eischens and Austin Carlson; and sophomore Isaac Overmyer.
Overmyer finished fifth at the section meet to become the first member of the Park Rapids boys cross country team to qualify for state since Ellis Peterson qualified from 2002-2004. Overmyer also won the Mid-State Conference title and capped off the season by placing 26th in his state debut.
Waggoner was the Panthers' No. 2 runner at the conference meet by placing 21st and at the section meet by finishing 31st. Waggoner will serve as one captain this season.
Otterness, who will serve as the other captain, was the Panthers' No. 3 runner at the section meet by placing 32nd and the No. 4 runner at the conference meet by finishing 28th.
Mueller was the team's No. 3 runner at the Mid-State meet by placing 22nd and the No. 4 runner at the section meet by finishing 33rd.
Eischens finished 42nd at the conference meet as the Panthers' No. 6 runner and 73rd at the section meet as the team's No. 7 runner.
Hays was the Panthers' No. 6 runner at the section meet by placing 59th and the No. 7 runner at the conference met by finishing 47th.
Carlson served as an alternate at the section meet.
Looking to fill the spot vacated by the graduation of Ryan McBrady, who was the No. 5 runner at both the conference and section meets, will be seniors Aaron Hamblin and Nick Schulz; juniors Drew Bade, Cody Brumbaugh, Zach Jewison, Jared Kantonen and Nathanael Rairdon; sophomores, Matt Konshok, Adam Mackley and Tyler Breitweser; freshman Jacob Bridgman; eighth grader Zach Nelson; and seventh graders Tanner Eischens and David Forsman.
"There is a group of boys who ran a great deal this summer. They are ready to get going to see how they match up against the competition," said Johnson. "We have some new runners come out who I think will help the boys get close to, if not achieve, their dream of state. We were all disappointed last year and I think the seniors have been working even harder this summer to get that state berth. I am excited to see how they do."
Girls look to continue streak
Extending their state streak is going to be tough since the Panthers' main rivals return veteran teams.
The senior trio of Lydia Lutz, Shelby Pierce and Summer Ellefson led the Panthers to their first section title since 1997 last season. Lutz won her first section title and placed sixth in her fifth appearance at state. Pierce earned her first individual trip to state by placing ninth and finished 69th in her second state trip. Ellefson followed in 13th place and placed 109th in her second state appearance.
Those three led the Panthers to the section title with 47 points. Perham finished second with 50 points while Warroad (89) and Pequot Lakes (121) followed. Park Rapids tallied 247 points at state.
While the Panthers graduated their top three runners, Perham, Warroad and Pequot Lakes all return six runners who competed at the section meet last season.
Even though the Panthers will have to replace their top three runners, Johnson still feels the girls have the potential to return to state.
Looking to help the Panthers continue that streak will be the five returning varsity runners: seniors Lora Remus and Kaylee Hilmanowski, and freshmen Megan Olson, Abby Mueller and Maya Johnson. That group helped the Panthers tie for 11th place at the state meet.
Hilmanowski, who also ran on the Panthers' state teams that placed fifth in 2009 and 15th in 2010, was the team's No. 7 runner by placing 28th at the conference meet and 41st at the section meet and was the No. 6 runner by placing 133rd at state.
Remus, who will serve as captain this fall, competed in her second state meet for the Panthers last season. Remus was the team's No. 5 runner by placing 19th at the conference meet, 18th at the section meet and 125th at the state meet.
Olson received all-conference honors by placing 10th at the Mid-State meet as the Panthers' No. 4 runner and was the team's No. 4 runner by placing 14th at the section meet. Olson capped off her season as the Panthers' No. 3 runner at state by placing 99th.
Mueller was the Panthers' No. 6 runner by placing 26th at the conference meet and 36th at the section meet and rounded out Park Rapids' squad by placing 135th in her state debut.
Johnson was an alternate on the section and state teams.
In addition, senior Morgan Olson returns after sitting out last season. Olson was the Panthers' No. 5 runner at the state meets in 2009 and 2010.
Being counted on to contend for varsity spots will be several first-year runners. That group features senior Jordyn Bynum; junior Bethany Kern; sophomore Rebecca Hays; freshman Tayah Otterness; and eighth graders Megan Jewison and Madison Steffel.
"It will be hard to replace Lydia, Shelby and Summer, but the girls aren't ready to give up on their state dreams," said Johnson. "We have a group of girls that ran this summer and they are ready to get after it. I think we have a group that can run pretty close together. I think that will be the way this team has success. We may or may not have a top five runner, but we will have a few who will be very close. I think they will only get stronger as the season progresses."