SPASH boys cross country advances to Nationals
Portage County Gazette
By John Kemmeter
For the first time in program history, the Stevens Point Area Senior High School (SPASH) boys cross country team qualified for Nationals.
A week after placing second at the State Meet, the runners from SPASH beat WIAA Division 1 State Champion Middleton and finished second at the Nike Cross Regionals (NXR) Heartland in Sioux Falls, S.D., Sunday, Nov. 10.
That earned the SPASH runners a trip to the 16th annual Nike Cross Nationals (NXN) in Portland, Ore., where they will be one of 22 teams from across the country that will compete for the National Title Saturday, Dec. 7.
“It means the world,” said senior Christian Manthey. “This is everything I ever could’ve hoped for”
“In the history of our program, we’ve done a lot of really amazing things,” said 43rd-year SPASH boys cross country coach Donn Behnke, who has guided the Panthers to 10 WIAA State Titles and nine State Runner-up finishes. “But this is one that, I really didn’t think that we’d ever be able to compete at this level, so I’m surprised by this.
“And I’m just so happy for these guys, that they get to travel out to Portland and experience this,” he said. “This is the highest level that you can attain as a high school athlete.”
Ranked No. 1 in the Wisconsin Cross Country Coaches Association Poll, SPASH totaled 116 points to finish as the State Runner-up behind second-ranked Middleton (104) at the State Meet in Wisconsin Rapids Saturday, Nov. 2.
Runners from both teams met again at the NXR in South Dakota last weekend, where the top teams from Wisconsin, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota competed for two automatic berths to Nationals.
The SPASH runners competed as Stevens Point, as Behnke was not allowed to coach the team at the NXR under WIAA rules, and he watched the race online back in Stevens Point.
At Yankton Trail Park in Sioux Falls Sunday afternoon, senior Jake Lepak finished 34th in 15:51.1 to lead Stevens Point, while junior Jake Bourget was 55th in 15:58.1, and sophomore James Jacobs placed 83rd in 16:10.1.
Manthey was next in 84th in 16:10.6 and senior Tristan Sernau finished 94th in 16:13.9 to close the team’s scoring, followed by sophomore Zach Scharbarth (122nd) and junior Josh Bourget (146th).
After the race, team scores were announced from 31st place up to first, and as it reached the Final 4 teams, Middleton Miles Project CLUB XC was in fourth place with 227 points, following back-to-back trips to Nationals for the team.
“We were kind of disappointed at state, coming in second, and we knew that we could beat them, because we did it earlier in the season,” said Scharbarth. “We put our hearts out there in the race (Sunday), and we showed that we were the better team.”
That left Stevens Point as one of the three remaining teams, along with Minnesota State Runner-up Eden Prairie and Minnesota State Champion Mounds View, as the first name of the runners from each team were read before the team name was given.
Eden Prairie XC was announced next in third place with 188 points, as Stevens Point finished second with 177, and Mounds View XC Club had 125 points to win the Heartland Regional Title for the second year in a row.
“It’s surreal,” said Josh Bourget. “When they were calling up the third-place team, to see who would go to Portland, they said ‘Zach, and then Jake and then Tristan.’
“And we have Zach, Jake and Tristan on our team, so we thought it was us,” he said. “But then they said ‘Mohamed.’”
“We were kind of disappointed,” said Jacobs. “But then we were like, ‘oh wait, we don’t have a Mohamed.’”
It was the first team from SPASH to qualify for NXN and the fifth from Wisconsin since 2004, joining Madison West (2004), Hartland Arrowhead (2011) and Middleton (2017 and 2018).
“All of the work that’s been put in for the past two, three, four years is finally paying off for us seniors,” said Sernau. “This is our last hurrah, and there couldn’t have been a better way to say goodbye.”
“I’m just proud because we all worked so hard and we got what we worked for,” said Lepak. “For me, it was a dream come true. I watched YouTube videos of people going to NXN, and getting treated by Nike, and they would go the Nike headquarters.
“They’re treated like royalty, and last year when I was watching those videos, I was like, ‘wow, that’s my dream, to be there and just be treated like that,’” he said. “And here we are.”
The National Finals will be held at Glendoveer Golf Course in Portland Dec. 7 at 12:05 p.m. Central, with a webcast to begin at 11:30 a.m. at nxn.runnerspace.com.
There, the runners from SPASH will have one more chance to team up this season, as they compete for a National Championship.
“Because of all of the hard work that we put in, we really trusted in our training during the season, so we knew we could do better than we did at state,” said Jake Bourget. “And just because we lost at state, it didn’t bring us down, it only made us better.
“All year, we only experienced winning, and I think state was a big wake-up call for us,” he said. “That gave us enough fire to come back and make it to NXN, and I think if we win state, we might not have even have gotten to NXN, because we wouldn’t have had that same fire of losing to Middleton.”
“If you look at the teams that qualify, they’re almost all from big metropolitan areas, where they have a big population base to draw from, it’s almost never a smaller city like ours,” said Behnke. “It’s a very uneven playing field to qualify for this, a lot of the teams, I believe, are out recruiting kids from other school districts into these mega teams that are out there, and so I think we’re fairly unique in that respect.
“But they’re just a group of guys that believe in themselves, they went out there to chase down Middleton, and it’s hard for me to comprehend how fast they ran,” he said. “Our Top 5 guys averaged 16:04, after averaging 16:32 a week ago.
“We know this course is much faster than our state course, but I don’t think anybody thought we were going to run that much faster, especially under what they told me was really cold, windy conditions,” he said. “I’m just incredibly proud of these young men, this is one of the top moments in the history of our program.”