Deep SPASH boys cross country team ready to compete
Portage County Gazette
By John Kemmeter
After losing an experienced group of seniors from last year’s WIAA Division 1 State Runner-up, the Stevens Point Area Senior High School (SPASH) boys cross country team will look to develop into a contender this season.
The Panthers returned four of their seven runners from last year’s State Meet and opened this season by winning the Neenah Invite Friday, Aug. 31, while they will host the SPASH Invitational at Standing Rocks County Park at 11:50 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 8.
“We’ve had a really good first three weeks of practice,” said SPASH boys cross country coach Donn Behnke. “It’s been really positive, these guys really like each other, and they’re just a great group to be around day-to-day.
“We’re not overly talented, we’re not overly experienced, and we’ve got a long way to go, but guys have worked hard and they’re really excited about building a team this year,” he said. “Guys who were either on the state team last year, or were at the State Meet, got a taste of that excitement, and they’d like to get some more.”
SPASH lost NCAA Division 1 Marquette University recruit Johnny Hyland (33rd at state last year), NCAA Division 1 University of Wisconsin recruit Liam Belson (68th at state) and Mason Meixner (100th at state) from last year’s team that scored 177 points to finish second at the State Meet behind Middleton (76).
Leading the returnees coming into this season were junior Tristan Sernau (47th at state last year), senior Ben Brogan (63rd at state last year), senior Chad Franz (88th at state) and senior Alex Strojny (121st at state).
“Chad and Alex have been terrific, I couldn’t ask more out of these guys,” said Behnke. “They trained in the winter, improved during track season, had a great summer, come in here and just do anything and everything we ask them to do. They’re just wonderful examples for the kids around them, and I couldn’t be happier with those two guys.
“And then on the other hand, unfortunately, our top two returners are not off to a very good start, did not run well at Neenah, and in fact they both got knocked off the varsity,” he said. “Tristan, who’s the No. 13 returner among team runners at the State Meet last year, and Brogan, who’s No. 20 among team runners, are not on our varsity, and that’s unusual. They know they have a lot of work to do if they want to get in the mix, and when we get those two guys back where they ought to be, we have a chance to be a really good team.”
Also earning spots on varsity to open the season for the Panthers have been junior Jake Lepak, freshman Zach Scharbarth, junior Christian Manthey and freshman Eric Boettcher.
“Jake’s finally gotten healthy, had a wonderful track season, really put in some time over the summer, and he’s a legitimate varsity scorer for us,” said Behnke. “Zach ran 17:01 at Neenah in his first varsity race, we’ve only had one guy in the history of the program that has run any faster in his first varsity race, and that was Liam Belson, so he’s got all kinds of potential and absolutely is passionate about this.
“Christian’s taken a really huge step forward, he was a good JV runner for us last fall but now he’s a varsity guy and he ran his lifetime best in his first varsity race, and there’s a great deal of potential there,” he said. “Eric only started running a year ago so he’s a huge surprise, we could see the talent last year, but this summer he got excited and set a goal of being a varsity runner, and he was our sixth runner (at Neenah).”
Junior Daniel Kiefer and freshman James Jacobs will move up to varsity this week for the SPASH Invitational after they finished first and second overall in the junior varsity race at Neenah, while sophomore Jake Bourget, senior foreign exchange student Simone Coli, junior Simon Bushmaker, senior Max Sobczak and junior Johnny Ceplina are among those who will be in the mix for a spot on the eight-member varsity, which drops to seven for the postseason.
“James actually was our best eighth-grader last year, but he had some injury problems in the spring and he’s just beginning to get in shape, and Danny ran very well and won the JV race Friday in Neenah, so he’s taken a big step forward,” said Behnke. “And beyond that, we’ve got five or six guys that are potential varsity runners for us, so it’s pretty exciting.
“Our lineup will change pretty much every week of the year, which is hard for these guys,” he said. “It’s hard for me, because I hate to have to take a kid’s varsity uniform and give it to somebody else, but it makes us a better team, and that’s really what our program’s been about.”
SPASH opened its season at the Neenah Invite last Friday, where Strojny finished third overall, Franz was fourth, Lepak placed sixth, Scharbarth came in seventh and Manthey was 11th to give the Panthers five runners in the Top 11, while Boettcher (20th), Sernau (24th) and Brogan (34th) rounded out the lineup.
That left SPASH with 31 points, as it won the Team Title over Brookfield East (65), Kimberly (79) and Neenah (90), which was without its top two runners, including senior Matt Meinke (fourth at state last year).
Meanwhile, the win was the 300th in program history, as SPASH now has 213 Invitational Titles, 37 Sectional Titles, 40 Conference Titles and 10 State Titles.
“It speaks to how many guys have cycled through this program and been dedicated and worked hard and believed in what we do,” said Behnke, who is in his 41st year as SPASH coach. “And it’s just been fun to watch the next generation come through and follow up on that success.
“Logic tells you that at some point this has to end, that we can’t be this competitive forever, but every year a new group of guys come in and just show up and work hard,” he said. “I’m fortunate to still be here doing what I love, with the help of two great, fellow coaches, Kevin Hopp and John Ceplina.”
The Panthers will be at home Saturday for the SPASH Invitational at Standing Rocks County Park, and then will compete in the Smiley Invite in Wausau Saturday, Sept. 15, before regular-season meets at Manitowoc, Stoughton and Wisconsin Rapids.
That will lead into the Wisconsin Valley Conference (WVC) Meet Oct. 13 at a site to be determined, after SPASH won the Conference Title last fall for the 30th consecutive season and the 40th time in the last 41 years.
“We’ve got three teams in the conference that have a couple of good runners, Everest has two, Marshfield has two, Wausau West has a couple of guys that are pretty good,” said Behnke. “But I don’t see anybody in the conference that has the five guys that they need to compete with us, and we have that advantage that, even if our fifth guy is hurt or sick, there’s a sixth guy right behind him.”
The Panthers will be back home to host the WIAA Division 1 Sectional at Standing Rocks Saturday, Oct. 20, when they will have their sights set on reaching the State Meet for the 13th year in a row.
“Everybody assumes Middleton will walk away with the State Meet again this year,” said Behnke. “They’re ranked No. 1 in the Midwest, they’re ranked nationally, they were 16th at Nationals last year, and they’re a better team this year.
“Neenah’s the team in our Sectional that we’re concerned about, but I think we should get through our Sectional, and our goal is to be among the Top 5 teams in the state,” he said. “Whether that’s doable or not, right now, I don’t know. But we’ve got the pieces here, if this team comes together the way we think that it can.”