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Park Rapids boys, girls cross-country teams entering season with different expectations

Kerry Johnson has different expectations for the Park Rapids boys and girls cross-country teams.

With a veteran group returning, Johnson believes the Park Rapids girls team will contend for the Section 8A title and a berth in the state Class A meet.

As for the Park Rapids boys team, Johnson has only one varsity runner back from last season. However, the addition of several new runners has the Park Rapids head coach confident the boys will field a competitive group by the end of the season.

"We have some new runners out, but we can always use more runners," said Johnson, who enters her second season as the Panthers' head coach. "It's going to be interesting to see how we do this year. I'm excited about the season."

The Panthers make their season debut Tuesday at the Wadena-Deer Creek Invitational.

Girls return veteran team

Being in one of the toughest sections in the state prevented the Park Rapids girls cross-country team from qualifying for the state Class A meet last year.

That could be the case again this fall.

Last season, the Panthers were ranked as high as No. 10 in the state Class A poll. Unfortunately, Section 8A also featured No. 2 Staples-Motley and No. 4 Perham.

At the Section 8A meet, Staples-Motley led the field with 51 points while Perham claimed the other state berth with a runner-up 58 points. Park Rapids finished third with 89 points.

At the state meet, Perham claimed runner-up honors while Staples-Motley finished fourth.

Staples-Motley won the Mid-State Conference title with 33 points. The Panthers were second with 45 points.

Both Staples-Motley and Perham return talented teams. Staples-Motley lost section champion Naomi Landecker and ninth-place finisher Natasha Wenzel to graduation, but has five section runners back. Perham returns six section runners, including its top four finishers.

The Panthers also return a talented group of runners with the potential to push the two section favorites for a spot in the state meet.

Leading the Panthers this season are three runners who have competed as individuals at the state meet: senior Victoria Lutz, junior Tiffany Deitchler and sophomore Lydia Lutz.

Victoria Lutz was a state qualifier in 2006 and will be looking to lead the entire team to state this fall. Lutz was the Panthers' No. 3 runner last season by placing 10th to repeat as an all-conference runner before being the team's No. 4 runner at the section meet by placing 20th overall.

Lydia Lutz was the Panthers' top runner all season, finishing among the top 10 in every meet. Lutz repeated as an all-conference runner by placing second at the Mid-State Conference meet and returned to state with a runner-up finish at the section meet. At state, Lutz finished 34th overall after placing 30th in 2007.

Deitchler, who joined Lydia Lutz at the 2007 state meet, was the Panthers' No. 2 runner late in the season. Deitchler also repeated as an all-conference runner by finishing ninth at the Mid-State meet before placing 13th at the section meet.

Also back from last year's varsity team are juniors Sophie Shogren and Chelsea Johnson, sophomore Allie Bade, and freshman Morgan Olson.

Olson was the Panthers' No. 3 runner at the section meet by placing 15th in her section debut. Olson was Park Rapids' No. 4 runner at the Mid-State Conference meet by placing 11th.

Shogren ended the season as the Panthers' No. 5 runner by placing 13th at the conference meet and 39th at the section meet.

Johnson rounded out the Panthers' varsity lineup in five meets, including placing 66th at the section meet.

Bade competed in two varsity meets, placing 23rd as the Panthers' No. 7 finisher at the conference meet.

Looking to fill in for Kayla Stursa, who was the lone senior on last year's team, will be sophomore Summer Ellefson and freshman Kaylee Hilmanowski. Ellefson has competed in the last three state Nordic ski meets while Hilmanowski ran distance on the track team last spring.

"I'm really excited to see how we're going to do this year," said Johnson. "We have a very strong team. All the girls are really competitive and have been working hard. I have some very high expectations. I think that as the season continues, we will get stronger and stronger."

Boys building for future

After graduating six runners and having two others decide not to go out this fall, Johnson wasn't sure if the Park Rapids boys cross-country team would have enough runners to field a varsity team.

Having 11 first-year runners sign up not only guaranteed the Panthers would be able to field a varsity team, it guaranteed competition for the seven varsity spots.

Junior Zac Haugland returns as the only runner with varsity experience. Haugland ended the season as the Panthers' No. 4 runner, finishing 30th at the Mid-State Conference meet and 59th at the Section 8A meet.

Junior Matt Sullivan competed in the first varsity meet last season while freshman Ben Kading competed on the junior high last fall.

Looking to fill in for last year's senior class of Derek Werner, Bryce Klasen, Giacomo Siciliani, Kyle McBrady, Mike McDowell and Kirt Leadbetter and top runner Levi Erickson (who elected to go out for football) will be the 11 first-year runners: senior Jared Storseth; juniors Josh Hays, Kevin Merfeld and Taylor Kimball; sophomores Ryan McBrady and Sam Goebel; freshmen Jacob Hays and Jacob Waggoner; and seventh graders Matt Konshok, Isaac Overmyer and Dillon Schroeder.

"It's going to be interesting to see how the boys do," said Johnson. "Since we only have a few boys back from lat year, it's hard to know what to expect. The varsity spots are wide open. All of the boys are working hard in practice and pushing each other. I think the guys will be competitive. We have some very strong runners and I'm excited to see how much they can improve as the season progresses. It's going to be fun to see where we end up."