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Park Rapids runners make positive strides

Leading the Park Rapids girls cross-country team this season were (from left) Whitney Steffel, Julia Harmon, Holly Johnson, Alex Kirlin and Haley Pickar. Vance Carlson / Enterprise

With only six runners returning who competed at last year's Section 8A meet and the addition of six first-year runners, head coach Kerry Johnson wasn't sure what to expect from the Park Rapids boys and girls cross-country teams this season.

Those new runners teamed with the veterans to lead the Panthers to successful seasons.

"I thought the season went well," said Johnson. "I was looking forward to seeing how much they would improve throughout the season and they showed good improvement. Everybody improved, which was fun to see. We're going to have to do a lot more summer running to be more competitive next year."

Boys show improvement

Even though the Park Rapids boys returned seven runners who had varsity experience, only three of those competed in the section meet a year ago.

Juniors Seth Breitweser and Ashton Clark and sophomore Keegan Moses returned from the team that placed seventh at last year's section meet with 181 points. Senior Will Pickar returned after missing last season with a leg injury while senior Bryce James, freshman Owen Wagner and eighth grader Sam Warne returned after competing in some varsity meets a year ago.

Joining that group for the first time were junior Gabe Bagstad, freshman Kyron Wohlenhaus and eighth grader Kaleb Stearns.

Park Rapids opened the season by placing sixth at the 13-team Central Minnesota River Run at Staples with 180 points. Buffalo took first with 23 points. Leading the Panthers were Moses (20th overall), Breitweser (23rd), Pickar (39th), Warne (53rd), Bagstad (56th), Wagner (76th) and Wohlenhaus (77th).

At the Wadena-Deer Creek Invitational, the Panthers placed sixth with 184 points as Little Falls led the 11-team field with 41 points. Breitweser (23rd), Moses (24th), Pickar (31st), Warne (48th), Bagstad (58th), Wohlenhaus (64th) and Wagner (77th) ran varsity for Park Rapids.

Breitweser (72nd) and Moses (76th) again led the Panthers at the Long Prairie-Grey Eagle Invitational as the Panthers finished 19th with 460 points. West Central Area took first out of 25 teams with 92 points. Pickar (81st), Warne (117th), Stearns (120th), Bagstad (121st) and Wagner (149th) rounded out the varsity squad.

The Panthers finished 11th out of 26 teams at the Bagley Invitational with 297 points as Moses (24th), Breitweser (44th), Pickar (85th), Bagstad (94th), Stearns (98th), Warne (99th) and Wagner (126th) led the way. Staples-Motley won that meet with 67 points.

Breitweser (15th) and Moses (16th) led the Panthers to fourth place at the seven-team Pelican Rapids Invitational with 106 points as Staples-Motley took first with 30 points. Pickar (23rd), Stearns (27th), Warne (30th), Clark (34th) and Bagstad (35th) rounded out Park Rapids' varsity.

Bemidji topped the 29-team field at the Perham Invitational with 66 points as the Panthers placed 18th with 529 points behind Moses (86th), Breitweser (97th), James (101st), Pickar (120th), Stearns (139th), Clark (146th) and Bagstad (152nd).

At the Mid-State Conference meet at Crosslake, the Panthers finished seventh with 153 points as Detroit Lakes claimed the conference title with 32 points. Leading Park Rapids were Moses (16th), Breitweser (26th), Pickar (34th), Clark (38th), Warne (39th), Stearns (40th) and Bagstad (42nd).

The Panthers concluded the regular season by placing ninth at the 20-team Park Rapids Invitational at Headwaters Golf Club with 266 points. Detroit Lakes took first with 73 points. Moses (31st), Breitweser (45th), James (48th), Pickar (64th), Warne (78th), Clark (85th) and Stearns (90th) led Park Rapids.

At the Section 8A meet at Bagley, the Panthers finished 11th out of 24 teams with 279 points with Moses (27th), Pickar (55th), Breitweser (60th), Stearns (61st), Warne (82nd), Bagstad (119th) and Clark (121st) competing. Perham won the section title for the 12th year in a row with 48 points while Ada-Borup/Norman County West earned the other state berth with a runner-up 91 points. Perham backed up its No. 1 ranking among Class A teams by capturing the state title.

Earning team awards for the Panthers were Moses (MVP and Hardest Worker), Pickar (Hardest Worker and captain), Breitweser (Most Spirit), Warne (Most Improved) and Stearns (Rookie of the Year). Moses, Breitweser, Pickar and Warne ran in all nine varsity meets to earn Tough Runner awards.

"I'm hoping the guys get out and run," said Johnson. "I can expect great things from them, but it won't happen if they don't put in the time. How much they improve next year depends on how much they run from now until August."

Girls field complete team

At the beginning of the season, Johnson wasn't sure if the Panthers would be able to put a five-runner team together.

That doubt lasted only one meet.

With the return of senior Alex Kirlin, junior Whitney Steffel and freshman Haley Pickar, the Panthers had three veteran runners. The addition of eighth grader Holly Johnson, seventh grader Julia Harmon and senior Karen Valencia helped the Panthers field a full team in seven meets.

Park Rapids opened the season with an incomplete team at the 14-team Central Minnesota River Run at Staples as Steffel finished 23rd, Johnson was 26th, Kirlin took 33rd and Pickar placed 35th. United North Central won that meet with 51 points.

At the Wadena-Deer Creek Invitational, the Panthers tied for sixth place with 164 points as Steffel (16th), Johnson (22nd), Pickar (30th), Kirlin (45th) and Harmon (51st) competed on varsity. Pelican Rapids topped the nine-team field with 59 points.

All six runners competed at the Long Prairie-Grey Eagle Invitational as the Panthers placed 13th out of 25 teams with 313 points. West Central Area took first with 60 points. Leading Park Rapids were Johnson (39th), Pickar (45th), Steffel (55th), Kirlin (71st), Harmon (122nd) and Valencia (143rd).

The Panthers finished 11th at the 26-team Bagley Invitational as Steffel (23rd), Johnson (26th), Pickar (30th), Harmon (87th) and Valencia (106th) teamed up to score 230 points. East Grand Forks topped the field with 79 points.

Park Rapids had an incomplete team at the Pelican Rapids Invitational as Steffel (10th), Johnson (12th) and Pickar (13th) posted top-15 showings while Harmon took 33rd. Lake Park-Audubon took first with 48 points in this six-team meet.

Steffel (66th), Johnson (70th), Pickar (90th), Harmon (140th) and Valencia (152nd) led the Panthers to 18th place at the 29-team Perham Invitational. The host Yellowjackets finished first with 60 points.

At the Mid-State Conference meet at Crosslake, Steffel and Johnson earned all-conference honors by placing eighth and ninth, respectively. Pickar was an all-conference honorable mention runner after placing 15th. Rounding out Park Rapids' 119 team score for sixth place were Harmon (43rd), Kirlin (44th) and Valencia (45th). Detroit Lakes claimed the Mid-State title with 71 points.

The Panthers ended the regular season by placing ninth at the 20-team Park Rapids Invitational at Headwaters Golf Club with 212 points with Steffel (22nd), Johnson (26th), Pickar (29th), Harmon (61st), Kirlin (74th) and Valencia (89th) leading the way. West Central Area won the team title with 69 points.

Perham won the Section 8A title for the sixth year in a row with 37 points while United North Central followed with 102 points to advance to state. Perham, which was rated No. 1 in the state Class A poll, went on to win the state title. Park Rapids finished 13th out of 24 teams with 279 points as Steffel finished 36th, Johnson finished 48th, Pickar finished 49th, Kirlin was 79th, Harmon finished 93rd and Valencia was 119th.

Steffel (MVP, Hardest Worker, Most Spirit and captain), Pickar (Most Improved) and Johnson (Rookie of the Year) received team awards with Steffel, Johnson and Pickar also earning Tough Runner awards for competing in all nine varsity meets. The girls also received a Gold Academic Award for having a team GPA of 3.82.

"The girls continued to improve all season," said Johnson. "We'll have four girls coming back, but we need to recruit some more girls. If we can bring in a girl or two and if they do more summer running, I expect we'll put together a better team next year."

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