JUNEAU — The blueprint was already drawn; all Dodgeland’s prep girls cross country team had to do was make a duplicate copy.
“Last year, our coaches told us that we had a chance of making it to state if we worked hard, and we did all the small things, like eating healthy and getting sleep,” sophomore Rachel Parbs said of a season that ended with a fourth-place showing at the WIAA Division 3 state championships in Wisconsin Rapids.
“So this year we kind of did the same thing and we were excited to see what the season had to come.”
With good reason, it turns out.
The Trojans have spent much of the year as the top-ranked team in the Wisconsin Cross Country Coaches Association Division 3 poll, and now they’re headed to Saturday’s state meet at The Ridges Golf Course as a sectional champion and the team to beat when the gun sounds for the D3 5,000-meter race a little after noon.
Dodgeland entered this season with lofty expectations, and coach Barry Smanz said the Trojans didn’t realize their true potential until winning the Dana Waddell Invite in Marshall on Sept. 12, nearly a month into the season.
“It wasn’t until the Marshall meet where we had a really good performance — and we actually beat four ranked Division 2 teams that day — that we knew what we were really capable of,” Smanz said.
Dodgeland’s cause was aided in a big way by the addition of junior Julia Holtz, who joined the team after playing volleyball her first two years of high school.
“She is one of my best friends so I kind of talked her into it,” said junior Meygan Benzing, the individual sectional champion on Saturday in Hartland. Holtz was the Trojans’ No. 4 runner, in 13th place.
Holtz isn’t just succeeding on the course, though — she has also given the chemistry on the team a boost.
“All the girls on the team are my friends,” she said. “It made it easier to switch from volleyball to cross country.”
In fact, it’s that bond they share that all of the girls agreed has contributed to success on the course as well as fun off it.
“It’s helped a lot, our team atmosphere,” said junior Jamie Huber, who like Benzing has either won or been in contention to win every single race this season. She won the Trailways Conference meet and finished third at sectionals.
“Jamie and Meygan definitely lead the team, but we have five juniors out of our seven, and four of them have been together since sixth grade running,” Smanz said. “So they’re very close. They really buy into the team concept, much more than individual goals.”
Juniors Jada Kohn and Kelli Kjornes — the team’s sixth and seventh runners — have also bought in and are prepared to contribute if needed.
“It’s kind of close, so I always have to be there in case someone goes down or doesn’t have a good day. Or if it came down to a tiebreaker,” said Kohn, who took 30th at sectionals, 16 spots behind Parbs, the Trojans fifth and final scorer. “So I guess it’s always in the back of my mind that I have to do my best in case that happens, especially at the big meets.”
Kjornes — who was injured much of last year and didn’t get to run at state — took 50th Saturday.
But it’s her mindset and message to the team about this Saturday’s state meet that might be most useful of all.
“Don’t think about it as way bigger than it should be,” she said. “I mean, it is big — but it’s just like any other race.”
It is, but there’s also a lot more fanfare and a much bigger field of runners to navigate. The course at The Ridges is also right up there in terms of degree of difficulty.
The strategy, then?
“A lot of people drop back on the hills and go slower (in order to conserve energy),” Parbs said, “and we’ve been training to go faster up the hills instead of slower, so that we can use them to pass people.”
“Work on the hills, power through them,” Kjornes added. “(And) don’t go out too fast — go at the pace you usually do.”
Like is often the case in cross country, though, the biggest factor might just end up being heart.
“We’ve all run the course besides Julia, so we know it pretty well and we’ve done enough training for the golf course to be (manageable) enough for us,” Benzing said. “But we still have to have that mindset of mind over matter, and push and finish strong.”
Regardless, it’s a good bet they’re going to have a blast together this weekend — just like they’ve been having all season.
They’re having so much fun, in fact, that sophomore Kaitlin Pickart can hardly believe it’s the end of the year already.
“It’s been crazy,” she said. “This season felt like it went faster than last year. And part of that I think is nobody got hurt and we’re really close as a team.”
Not just close — confident, too.
“They know what they’re capable of doing — now it’s just (a matter of) getting it done,” Smanz said. “When it comes to the state meet, you can throw all the rankings away; strange things happen at the state meet that you can’t control. You can’t control how other teams run, but you can control how you run as an individual, and that’s what we need to happen.
“Because if we run our best, it will get things done.”