SPASH boys cross country remains among state’s elite
Portage County Gazette
By John Kemmeter
After returning a deep group from a year ago, the Stevens Point Area Senior High School (SPASH) boys cross country team will look to contend with the top teams in the state again this season.
The Panthers returned five of their seven runners from last year’s WIAA Division 1 State Meet, when they placed fifth, and entered last week as the top-ranked team in Division 1 in the Wisconsin Cross Country Coaches Association (WCCCA) Coaches Poll.
“I’m pretty happy with where we’re at, at this point of the season,” said SPASH boys cross country coach Donn Behnke. “There’s just a lot of unknowns, there’s a lot of shifting and jockeying for varsity spots among our group.
“In a normal year, we have maybe eight, nine, 10 guys that take a shot at a varsity spot,” he said. “We may have a dozen guys that could be potentially be varsity, there’s some of the guys that are still on our JV team that are trying to get themselves healthy and work their way up.”
The Panthers lost Chad Franz (15th at state last year) and Alex Strojny (81st at state) from last year’s State Meet, when they placed fifth with 169 points to finish behind Neenah (122), Middleton (131), Germantown (162) and Madison West (165).
Senior Jake Lepak (41st at state last year) and junior Jake Bourget (84th at state) return from last year’s State Meet, along with sophomores Zach Scharbarth (66th at state) and James Jacobs (79th at state), who finished third and fourth among all freshmen at last year’s Division 1 State Meet.
“Jake Lepak had a great track season and he had a terrific summer of training, and he’s about as fit as anybody we’ve ever had at this point in the season,” said Behnke. “Jake Bourget took a big step forward at the very end of cross country season, he had a really nice track season and qualified for state in the two-mile, and he’s become, really an elite runner.
“Zach had just a terrific freshman year, he’s kind of about where he was last year at this point, and I think there’s some really good things that’s going to come out of him,” he said. “James ran really well for us at the end of the State Meet, he’s been dealing with some injury issues, and we’re trying to get him healthy.”
Senior Danny Kiefer (109th) also ran at state last year, and has been joined on varsity this season by senior Christian Manthey, junior Josh Bourget and sophomore Kyle Franz.
“Christian really put in a great summer, he’s really fit and he’s done some good stuff for us so far this year,” said Behnke. “Danny had a really nice summer of training, but he is just not one of those guys that starts the season quickly, some people just need to get a few more races under their belt.
“Josh Bourget has been a bit of a surprise because he did not run varsity for us last year, last year was his first year of cross country, and he’s just a great competitor, but he just doesn’t have much experience,” he said. “And then Kyle is just really determined to get a varsity spot, and there’s pretty intense competition there.”
Senior Ethan Pelot and sophomore Tye Lepak have also run on varsity for SPASH this season, while senior Tristan Sernau, senior Simon Bushmaker, sophomore Eric Boettcher, junior Max Kvatek and freshman Samuel Totzke are among several other runners competing for a spot on varsity.
“We’re going to build a good team, and we’re going to be deep,” said Behnke. “I just don’t know how the whole thing’s going to play out.
“But we’ve had a terrific first four weeks of practice,” he said. “These guys have showed up and have had a great attitude, the guys do the workout the best they can, and we feel real good about the progress we’re making,”
SPASH opened this season as the second-ranked team in Division 1 by the WCCCA, then moved up to No. 1 after it won the Neenah Invite in its first meet Sept. 6.
The Panthers were home for the SPASH Panther Invitational at Standing Rocks County Park Saturday, Sept. 14, where Jake Lepak was out to take the ACT, as Jake Bourget finished fifth to lead the team, followed by Scharbarth (seventh), Josh Bourget (eighth), Jacobs (10th), Manthey (11th), Kiefer (16th), Kyle Franz (21st) and Pelot (25th).
That gave SPASH 36 points, as it won the meet over 14th-ranked Marshfield (56), Wausau West (136), D.C. Everest (145) and Wisconsin Rapids (154).
“Given the weather conditions (70 degrees) and as well as we ran last week, I think we were optimistic that we might run just a little faster times,” said Behnke. “But the fact is that we put them through a pretty tough week of practice.
“Jake Bourget ran really well up front, he ran a little faster than he did last week, the rest of our guys ran a little slower than they did, but we know our course is a little more challenging,” he said. “But the objective was to get in a good week of training, come out here and win a meet.”
The Panthers moved to second in this week’s WCCCA Poll behind reigning State Runner-up Middleton, and will return to action at the Smiley Invitational at Tribute Golf Course in Wausau Saturday, Sept. 21.
SPASH will follow with meets in Manitowoc, Stoughton and Wisconsin Rapids to close the regular season, before the Wisconsin Valley Conference (WVC) Meet in Merrill Oct. 19.
Last year, SPASH finished with 33 points to beat Marshfield (53) and Wisconsin Rapids (85) year to win the WVC Title for the 31st year in a row and the 41st time in the last 42 years.
“This is going to be one of the tougher Conference Meets that we’ll have seen in a while,” said Behnke. “Marshfield’s built a really competitive team, they’re ranked in the state, and it’s been a while since any teams from our conference have been ranked, other than us.
“Ryan Hartman from Wausau West is one of the top returners in the state, there’s always a couple of kids from Everest, and a couple of Rapids kids ran pretty well (Saturday),” he said. “So there’s a little balance to our conference this year.”
The Panthers will be back at Standing Rocks again later next month when they host a WIAA Division 1 Sectional Oct. 26, as they look to reach the State Meet this season for the 41st time in the last 43 years.
“Last year we ran really well at state, and we were disappointed to be fifth,” said Behnke. “And the same could be true this year, that we could run well and finish fifth.
“Our goal is certainly to be in the Top 5, and I think from what it looks like right now, there’s just a lot of really good teams out there,” he said. “So the picture is pretty unclear, if we could talk about doing better than that.”