A significant challenge awaited the Bluejay cross country teams in Friday’s rain-swept race at Nine-Mile Forest in Wausau.
Several of the top teams in the state and a gut-check course stood in their way, but the Merrill runners closed out their season in admirable fashion.
“We knew we’d have our hands full,” MHS coach Greg Eichelkraut said. “For the girls, it’s a fast course but still with rolling hills. For the guys, it’s a tough course with a significant hill in the middle.”
The Merrill girls ended up 11th of 12 teams entered, and Sydney Harris came up short of her goal of reaching state as an individual qualifier.
“Most of the varsity girls turned in their second-fastest time of the season-Kathleen Zeitz, Kelci Peterson, Sydney Harris and Ashley Berton,” Eichelkraut said. “Sydney was trying to go for state, and she would have had to execute a heck of a race plan to do it, but it just wasn’t her day. She gave a solid effort and made it exciting for the end of the season.
“Two teams we felt were in reach were Rhinelander and Shawano. It turns out we finished between them in a good, solid day.”
Defending state champ Wausau East won with an excellent score of 24. Shawano (277), Merrill (308) and Rhinelander (331) closed out the field.
The Jay girls were paced by Harris (26th, 16:19), Berton (50th, 17:00); Zeitz (73rd, 18:15), Kendra Andreska (79th, 19:12), Peterson (80th, 19:15) and Maria DeBroux (81st, 19:15).
The boys race was dominated by SPASH with 33. Merrill scored 366 behind Luke Gessler (67th, 19:08), Marcus Reinhardt (71st, 19:20), Andrew Seaman (73rd, 19:21), Andrew Koch (75th, 19:27) and Trevor Myers (80th, 19:49). Michael Seaman (81st, 20:16) and Mitch Sherfinsky (82nd, 20:33) also competed.
“On the boys side, we felt we had a chance to catch West, but we would have to have a major step-up because at conference they had one of their top runners run JV for awards,” Eichelkraut said. “We decided to take a chance and run a pack early, but then we sent a couple of boys up with their top runners. That plan didn’t materialize, although Luke Gessler executed a great race plan and wasn’t far off his season best. Marcus and Andrew Koch had solid races and were able to split up the West pack.
“We could have stayed in our comfort zone and stayed in our pack and no way would we have ever caught them. I was proud we went for it.”
The Bluejays are looking to a strong future with just Zeitz, Sherfinsky, Mitch Czech and Megan Berndt graduating.
“We knew we would be very young, and with the girls, not have a lot of depth,” Eichelkraut said. “We pushed the kids hard while watching their health and we came through the season very healthy. We definitely ran our best races at the end and gained a lot of competitive fire.
“I was very pleased with how we progressed through the season, especially the boys with all the freshmen and first-year sophomores. They have a lot of potential if they stick together and keep training hard. The girls have a good foundation for the future, too.”