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Park Rapids cross-country teams featuring contrasting situations

Providing leadership for the Park Rapids boys and girls cross-country teams this season will be seniors (front from left) Josh Hays, Tiffany Deitchler, Zac Haugland; (back) Kevin Merfeld, Travis Deitchler, Matt Sullivan. Not pictured: Taylor Kimball.

Kerry Johnson will have to contend with contrasting situations for the Park Rapids boys and girls cross-country teams this season.

The girls have high expectations after finishing fifth at last year's state Class A meet. However, the Panthers can't afford any injuries as only seven runners reported for the first two weeks of practice.

The boys don't have a problem with numbers as 17 runners are competing this season. The return of 11 runners from last season has Johnson expecting an improved season from the boys this fall.

"I'm working with a great bunch of kids. Last year both the boys' and girls' teams earned the silver academic award. I was really proud of that. I know they can go for the gold inside and outside the classroom," said Johnson. "The keys to meeting expectations are to keep working hard, have some positive peer pressure in practice and beyond, and staying injury free. I tell the kids they need to get after it each and every practice. They can't dog it and expect great things. There are so many tough teams in our section. We have many untested runners, so it's hard to know just how they will do. What really matters is the end of the season when we're even better conditioned and have even more eye of the tiger. Then we'll see what we are really made of. I'm excited for the season."

Girls seek another state trip

Having four girls returning from last year's Mid-State Conference champion and state-qualifying team provides a solid nucleus for the Panthers to contend for another state berth this season.

Looking to lead the Panthers back to state are senior Tiffany Deitchler, junior Lydia Lutz, and sophomores Kaylee Hilmanowski and Morgan Olson. Deitchler will serve as captain this season.

Lutz returns as the Panthers' top runner after winning the conference title, placing second at the Section 8A meet and placing 20th overall at the state Class A meet to earn all-state honors. Lutz placed 30th at state in 2007 and 34th at state in 2008.

Olson was the team's No. 3 runner at the conference meet by earning all-conference honors by placing fifth and was the Panthers' No. 4 runner at the section meet by placing 27th. Olson placed 109th overall and was the team's No. 5 runner in her state debut.

Hilmanowski rounded out the Panthers' team score at the conference meet by placing 15th and at the section meet by finishing 30th. In her state debut, Hilmanowski was the team's No. 4 runner by placing 96th.

Deitchler, who placed 69th as a state participant in 2007, placed 16th at the conference meet, 31st at the section meet and 129th at the state meet last season.

The Panthers have three key spots to fill. Victoria Lutz graduated after qualifying for state as an individual and placing 40th overall last season. Summer Ellefson, who was the Panthers' No. 3 runner at the section meet (placing 17th) and state meet (placing 75th), elected not to go out for cross country this year. Sophie Shogren, who was the No. 7 runner at the section meet (placing 49th) and state meet (placing 150th) decided to go out for volleyball.

Looking to fill those spots will be junior Shelby Pierce, sophomore Lora Remus and freshman Alex Pederson.

"As far as expectations go for the girls, they are very high," said Johnson. "We lost some talented girls, so that worries me a bit. The three girls who joined us are doing well and I look to them to get even better as the season progresses."

Staples-Motley should challenge the Panthers for the conference title again this season while defending champion Perham, Warroad and Staples-Motley should join the Panthers as the favorites to claim the two state berths in the section.

"If these girls stay healthy and work hard, they could do quite well," said Johnson. "We would love to make it back to state and try to place even higher. I think these girls can do it."

Boys looking to move up

A year of experience should lead to an improved season for the Park Rapids boys team.

A year ago, the Panthers finished sixth at the conference meet and 11th at the section meet. Johnson expects Park Rapids to move up in both the conference and section standings this fall.

Returning from last year's team are seniors Taylor Kimball, Zac Haugland, Josh Hays, Kevin Merfeld and Matt Sullivan; junior Ryan McBrady; sophomores Jake Waggoner, Jacob Hays and Ben Kading; and eighth graders Isaac Overmyer and Matt Konshok. Sullivan will serve as captain.

Kimball returns as the Panthers' top runner after placing 19th at the conference meet and 47th at the section meet in his first year of running last season.

Haugland was the Panthers' No. 2 runner, placing 30th at the conference meet and 49th at the section meet.

Waggoner also competed in cross country for the first time last season and was the team's No. 5 runner at the conference meet by placing 35th and No. 3 runner at the section meet by placing 76th.

Jacob Hays capped off his first season in cross country as the Panthers' No. 4 runner at the section meet by finishing 81st.

McBrady rounded out the Panthers' section team by finishing 101st as the Panthers' No. 7 runner.

Sullivan and Merfeld rounded out the Panthers' conference team by placing 38th and 39th, respectively.

Looking to challenge for varsity spots are four first-year runners: senior Travis Deitchler, sophomores Tanner Otterness and Nate Carlson, and freshman Bailey Mueller. Eighth graders Adam Mackley and Wesley LaCoursiere are also out for cross country for the first time.

"It's an exciting time for boys in cross country," said Johnson. "The numbers are growing and many of them ran over the summer. That has been one of the biggest changes I have seen. The guys came into the season in better shape. That helps so much. I think these guys could surprise a few teams this year."