LA CROSSE — With just four sophomores, the Royall prep girls track and field team scratched the surface in 2019 at the WIAA Division 3 state championships.
The Panthers finished third as a team, just six points behind champion La Crosse Aquinas. After losing the 2020 season, that group of Jessica Brueggeman, Emma Gruen, Madeline Wainwright and Tenley Wopat had one final chance to leave a lasting memory on the Royall program.
Panthers fans will certainly remember what the group accomplished for a long time.
Back at the Div. 3 state championships, Royall broke through the surface, scoring 50 points to claim its first-ever state team championship at Veterans Memorial Coliseum. The Panthers held off runner-up Fennimore (47) while using a pair of individual titles and a slew of improvements on seed times in order to hoist gold.
“We’ve kind of been working towards this, even with like an off season, we had to bring and bring everything we had from two years ago,” Senior Emma Gruen said. “So it was really exciting for all of us to come back and still be able run together.”
“It was a total team effort and they’re just a great group of girls. Hard-working, and just incredible,” Royall oach Brian Knudtson said. “Just all season bringing their times down and then you go into the summer and hope they don’t peak too soon, but every challenge, they met.”
The challenges, especially Thursday, were numerous, beginning with Brueggeman the girls long jump. The reigning 2018 state champion was in an absolute battle from the start, sitting on a top leap of 17 feet, 4¾ inches.
That number grew exponentially as Brueggeman got into a tug-of-war over her state record mark of 18-8¼. Eau Claire Immanuel Lutheran’s Lydia Kettner broke the mark first, jumping 18-9 on her first attempt in the finals.
The mark didn’t last long as Gibraltar’s Abey Fitzgerald quickly topped it by hitting 19-½ on her jump of the same round. And after Brueggeman sandwiched her way between Kettner and Fitgerald, she obliterated the state mark in her final attempt, leaping 19-8 to a crowd of disbelief.
“When I just got done jumping, he said something about ‘You crushed it,’ and then I was just like ‘That didn’t feel like a great jump,’” Brueggeman said. “Then everybody behind in the crowd was saying ‘Did they say 19?’ I thougth ‘No way was that a 19-foot jump,’ but then it was 19-8… I didn’t believe it at first. I was like ‘There’s no way that’s right.’
“I literally could not believe it. I was still in shock after they put it on the board.”
It was just the spark he Panthers needed as Brueggeman, who was seeded third entering the meet, sparked a stretch in which Royall held or improved on its seed time the remainder of the day. Emma Gruen held on to her second-place seed in the high jump as she finished runner-up behind Fennimore’s Izzy Bender by clearing 5 feet, 2 inches.
Freshman Marah Gruen then held on to finish fourth in the 1,600 with a time of 5:20.82, and later finished third in the two-mile, shaving off just more than five second off her bronze medal time of 11:43.96.
“During my two-mile, I was getting yelled at ‘You got to pass her! We need the score!’ It’s not a fun race, but anything I need to do to get us some points,” Gruen said.
Coupled with the individual wins the Panthers senior foursome took second in the 400 relay, finishing just over a half-second behind winners Shiocton, with a time of 50.49 seconds. The group then finished off what they started six years prior in seventh grade with the 1,600 relay.
The team, led off by Wainwright and anchored by Brueggeman, matched its seed by taking fourth with a time of 4:12.81.
“Having the same team run the same events from middle school is really exciting and helped a lot,” Wainwright said.
The fourth-place finish essentially guaranteed the Panthers’ long-awaited team championship. Despite trailing the Golden Eagles by two points, Brueggeman’s runner-up finish in the triple jump all by solidified the championship.
Brueggeman leaped 38-7½ on her first attempt of the finals, an attempt that was logged before she made a break to report for the 1,6000 relay. While it doesn’t seem like much, getting the jump in ahead of relay was crucial as Nelson, gassed from running of the legs of the 1,600was more than enough to create enough space against Fennimore’s Brynlee Nelson, who finished sixth at 35-11½.
“I think just knowing our competition and where we were seeded helped,” Wainwright said of the Panthers’ being able to peek ahead at the team standings.
“Track is always thought of as an individual sport, and obviously your team places at every meet, you just don’t worry if you don’t win it,” Brueggeman added. “Individually it’s tough, but given the circumstances, I’m not too upset about it. We won the meet, so you have to look on the bright side.”
It’s certainly a bright spot to punctuate a magical run for the Panthers program, having captured the school’s first conference and regional titles since 1977, the group followed things with Royall’s first-ever sectional and team state titles.
“It’s a season of a lifetime for a coach, and the girls have been doing great. We have an awesome group of seniors, but then we have a freshman stepping up and medaling in two individual events that pushed us over the top,” Knudtson said.
“It was a total team effort and they’re just a great group of girls. Hard-working, and just incredible.”
“Just the whole atmosphere of it is really overwhelming and I’m really happy we were able to pull through and come out on top. It’s really exciting,” Wopat added.
Follow Sean Davis on Twitter @SDavis_PDR or contact him at 608-745-3512.