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How Ava Raasch has 'overcome' adversity, helped put Dodgeland girls in position to compete for state berth

How Ava Raasch has 'overcome' adversity, helped put Dodgeland girls in position to compete for state berth

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Ava Raasch hasn’t exactly struggled this season, at least not in the traditional sense.

The results have been good: The sophomore on the Dodgeland girls cross country team opened the year by winning the Dodge County Invite at River Bend Park in Horicon, followed that up with runner-up finishes in her next two meets and then, in her most recent meet on Oct. 14, took fifth at the Trailways Conference championships.

But the trail has been rocky — rockier than she’s used to, anyway.

“I have been going to the doctor lately for breathing issues, and we found out I might have asthma,” she said. “We knew about it last year but we didn’t know it might be asthma, so I had a rescue inhaler. Lately it’s been getting a little worse, so now we’ve been starting to do stuff about it. Pretty soon I’m going in for tests.”

First, though, she’ll be tested again on the cross country course.

Raasch has overcome her health issues pretty well so far and Saturday at a WIAA Division 3 sectional meet in Kenosha she’ll try to extend her season one more weekend. To do so, she’ll need to either help the Trojans finish in the top two, thus securing a berth as a team, or, if that doesn’t happen, she’ll need to be one of the top-five individual finishers who aren’t on one of the top two teams.

The 2020 individual state qualifier has the right attitude, that’s for sure.

“I don’t let that bring me down because I know I can overcome it,” she said of navigating her undiagnosed breathing issues. “I just try to stay positive and don’t let the negative overtake my mindset, because I know then that will really affect my running.”

Longtime Dodgeland coach Barry Smanz — back in the saddle this fall after sitting out last season, what would have been his 47th with the Trojans — said Raasch is definitely on the right track after having to miss a couple meets in September.

CROSS COUNTRY: Dodgeland head coach taking leave of absence, Perkins, Klueger to co-coach season

“She’s been pulling away from everybody else in workouts a lot more than she did earlier in the season,” he said. “She’s just running with a confidence now that she might have been lacking a little in the beginning of the season, because she wasn’t performing as good as she knows she could.”

Raasch, who took 31st at state last year in a meet that featured fewer teams than normal because of the fall/spring split due to school’s being impacted differently by the pandemic, said she’s running a lot smarter — mostly in terms of her pace and how she tackles different terrain — this season thanks to the experience she gained as a freshman.

She isn’t the Trojans’ only reason to be excited for Saturday’s meet on the campus of UW-Parkside. They aren’t one of the favorites to make it to state — those teams would be Ozaukee (ranked fifth in Div. 3 by the state coaches association) and Burlington Catholic Central (13th) — but with three other girls beside Raasch as contenders for individual berths and a fifth runner who is peaking at the perfect time, Dodgeland is definitely in the conversation as far as potentially being able to pull off an upset.

Brookfield Academy also has been ranked this season, most recently at No. 16 two weeks ago. But so has Dodgeland, as high as ninth and most recently 16th before falling out of the poll two weeks ago.

About that fifth runner, sophomore Lydia VandeBerg: She’s the linchpin.

“We feel she’s put us in the position that we can challenge as a team,” Smanz said. “She’s just worked so hard. The first meet of the year she probably ran around 26 (minutes) and she just missed breaking 23 at conference, and that was not an easy course.”

VandeBerg was 20th at the conference meet in 23 minutes, 36.5 seconds, helping Dodgeland finish as the runner-up (51 points), respectably close behind champion Oshkosh Lourdes (26) — the top-ranked team in Div. 3 by the coaches association.

Like Raasch a year ago, Dodgeland’s second runner, freshman Mallory Kohn, has enjoyed a great rookie campaign this fall.

“We knew she had some talent. We didn’t expect that she’d be competing for an individual trip to state,” Smanz said. “As she’s learned how to race a 5K and she’s gained confidence in herself, she’s moved up. When she made first team at the conference meet, there were some girls that beat her by a minute earlier this year that she passed in that final mile.”

If Ozaukee and Catholic Central do take first and second, Raasch and Kohn are both seeded to finish among the five individual qualifiers.

Senior Miranda Firari and junior Sayrah Benzing are not — but they’re as close as possible, seeded as the first two on the outside looking in.

Smanz praised Firari for more than just her own running ability.

“Our team wouldn’t be in the position it is this year without Miranda’s leadership,” he said of the four-time all-conference honoree, once as a first-teamer and three times as a second-teamer.

Firari is also the lone holdover from the Trojans team that took third at state in 2018, and she was the Div. 3 pole vault champion at the 2019 state track and field championships.

GIRLS CROSS COUNTRY: Dodgeland's Benzing and Huber take podium at D3 state championship

“You never count Miranda out,” Smanz said of her chances at closing the gap and making it in as an individual. “She has that mindset of a great all-around athlete.”

Firari is Dodgeland’s only senior competing this fall, but her classmate, Brielle Blome, has also been an integral part of the team, helping out in other ways after a torn ACL suffered during the girls soccer season in the spring robbed of her of this cross country season.

Injuries don't keep Dodgeland fall-sport athletes Blome, Peplinski from being part of the action

As for Benzing, Smanz praised her consistency this season and said she’s “ready to break through with a big PR.”

However things end up sorting themselves out Saturday, it seems clear that Dodgeland’s girls will very much be in the mix.

“The girl from Random Lake (sophomore Halle Van Horn), who was state runner-up last year, is probably going to win it, and the next 17 people are all from one of four teams,” Smanz said. “So we’re not going to have a lot of other teams playing spoilers.”

Meantime on the boys side, the Trojans are a little banged up and don’t figure to have a shot at punching a ticket to state as a team.

But junior Logan Pickart’s chances of moving on are good.

“Logan worked hard in the summer putting in a lot of miles and entered the season prepared and confident,” Smanz said of the recent first-team all-conference recipient who earned second-team honors last fall and honorable mention recognition as a freshman. “He has taken that next step and is peaking at the right time.”

At the conference meet, Pickart was able to surpass some kids who Smanz said had “beat him three or four times during the season.”

It couldn’t have come at a better time, with sectionals on the horizon.  

“He’s talked about it and worked toward it the entire season,” Smanz said of Pickart’s state ambitions. “And he’s just hammered some workouts lately.”

Follow Dan on Twitter @Danny_Larson_8 or contact him at 920-356-6753.



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