Prep cross country is an inherently individual sport.
There’s only one winner who crosses the finish line ahead of everyone else and can say they were first. However, within that idiosyncratic competition lies the team struggle; seven runners each pushing to finish higher up the leaderboard to bolster the score of the group.
Putting the collective success ahead of one’s own has been the calling card for the Poynette boys cross country team this season. Coming off a first WIAA team state berth since 2011 last year, the Pumas and their six senior returnees put in plenty of work collectively in the offseason and have seen it pay off so far this year with no worse than a runner-up team finish in their six invitationals so far.
It has Poynette believing it has what it takes to make another deep postseason run later this month.
“Having coached basketball before, the difference between this sport and that is you just can’t walk out there and be the best runner; you really do have to do the work when no one is watching,” Poynette coach Kevin Frehner said. “As a group of seniors, they’ve done that and we’ve also had our younger guys fall in line, and it’s from the example they set.
“They put in all the work this summer. They’re guys that are experienced, know what it takes, do the work and they have the expectation of being good.”
That expectation has become reality this fall as the Pumas have clawed their way to three team titles at their host Poynette Invite on Sept. 9, Baraboo Thunderbird Challenge on Sept. 21, and most recently this past Saturday at the Albany Baertschi Invitational when the Pumas won the Small Schools Division going away with 57 points, well ahead of the host Comets (101) and third-place Clinton (121).
Logging the miles in the offseason
The success this season has stemmed from the hard work this summer, which in turn was spurred on by the Pumas’ run to the state meet last fall. Senior Tucker Johnson admitted that last summer “it was maybe a little harder to get out,” given the fact things were still in the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, that success at state last year — Poynette finished 10th in Division 2 for its best-ever team finish — helped make things easier this fall.
“It gave more motivation, where even if you didn’t want to go out, you’d think of the team and be like ‘If I don’t go out today, and I keep doing that, how much is that going to negatively impact the team,” Johnson said.
“Back then we never summer trained,” senior Trent Chadwick added of the Pumas’ previous habits. “and last year was kind of the first year we got people out and going, and even then I wasn’t training that hard.
“Then this past summer we just got a big group of people out every Monday night just to run and then people on their own running as well.”
The Pumas certainly have a big group.
Along with Johnson and Chadwick, Poynette also returned seniors Trent Sickenberger, Carter Hansen, Austin Kruger and Cash Stewart, all of whom raced at state last year. Also back are junior Isaiah Gauer, who rounded out the state participants, seniors Brady Wentz, Wyatt Mclaughlin and Aven Purves; juniors Lucas Prince, Garret Johnson and Dominic Graeme; and sophomore Tanis Crawford.
Frehner touted the team’s depth, believing the Pumas “have 10 guys that could be varsity runners at a lot of places.”
Fueling each other’s success
It’s definitely made for quite the competitive atmosphere among the ranks. And while that could lead to some resentment among the team, the Pumas insist it couldn’t be farther from the truth.
“It’s not like one person pushes themselves, we see another person and we’re to push ourselves to be as good as them,” said Stewart, the first state wrestling champion in Poynette school history.
“You never know who’s going to pop off, one day or the other,” added Hansen, a member of the Pumas’ baseball team. “You never know who is going to come and take your spot, so every race you’re competing, even if it’s a race that doesn’t necessarily matter in our books.”
The competition hasn’t just been among the Pumas however, as Poynette has ran against some stiff competition this season. The Pumas finished second to just Shorewood at the season-opening CamRock Invite, beating the likes of Madison East, Milwaukee King and Madison Edgewood.
Poynette later took second to only rival Lodi at the Fall River/Rio Rebel Invite, and finished runners-up to DeForest at the Portage Invite. Competing against bigger schools is something the Pumas got a taste of last fall after making the jump from Div. 3 to Div. 2 for the postseason, and it’s a challenge they’ve been more than eager to take on this season.
“I think it’s great because a lot of these D1 schools are racing like 30-40 schools every meet they’re going to,” Sickenberger said. “As a smaller school we don’t really see that a lot, so when we get that opportunity, it’s almost like ‘Let’s give it all we’ve got, go at it and see how we compare to everybody else.’”
“We’re not shying away from anybody and we’re not afraid to race them,” Frehner added.
That goes for the individuals themselves.
Johnson won both the Poynette and Rebel Invites and has finished inside the top-10 in every race this season, including at the Baertschi Invite as he was sixth in the overall race with a time of 17 minutes, 20.8 seconds, good for second in the Small School Division.
Close behind has been Chadwick, who had four top-10 finishes prior to Saturday when he was fourth among Small Schools and 12th overall at 17:45.5. Sickenberger and Kruger both have top-10 finishes under their belts as well.
Carrying that pack mentality over from practices has definitely played a factor.
Kruger said the Pumas, if they’re bottled up together on the course, have been “using one another to make our way up.”
“So if I’m struggling, Carter can come up to me and help make our way towards the front,” he added.
“We all know we’re going to have on days and off days; some of us are better on some courses than others, so if I’m struggling on a hilly course and Carter is doing really well, I just know I have to stick with him and do whatever it takes. We just all have to do it together.”
Still pushing to improve
That togetherness is what could power them to a history-making postseason run as they eye a second straight team state appearance for the first time in program history. It definitely wasn’t in the cards early on as Frehner will admit.
While the senior group was “good runners and you could see they were going to get better,” as freshmen, state was a far ways away. According to Frehner, Johnson initially ran in the 21’s as a freshman, but now has broken 17 minutes this season depending on the course.
“All of those guys have put in the time and that’s fun as a coach when you get to see them grow like that,” he added.
The Pumas have no intention on letting that growth stop either. Following its win at the Baertschi Invite, Poynette will head to Brandt Quirk Park in Watertown this weekend for the Capitol Conference Meet followed by the Div. 3 Albany sectional on Oct. 23 at Baertschi Farm.
Frehner knows that getting the chance to run the sectional course before it truly matters is a huge advantage for the Pumas, especially since they defeated nine of their future sectional opponents in the Baertschi Invite.
That still doesn’t mean Poynette can rest on its laurels.
“They know that what we do this weekend doesn’t exactly have a ton of bearing on what’s going to happen in two weeks. We have to get it done on that day, and we expect to be better in two weeks than we are today,” Frehner said.
“Our guys also know, at this point, we haven’t accomplished anything yet because everything we want to do is in the next month.”
What’s in store could be a best-ever finish at the state meet as a team, something that the group would definitely relish in closing the final chapter on their four years together.
“It would be awesome and it’s what we’ve been shooting for ever since our sophomore year, when people started progressing and getting better, we realized we’d have a shot at this,” Hansen said. “So then summer training last year and this year, we took it to the next level in really pushing ourselves. It would be a big reward if we made it (back).”
Follow Sean Davis on Twitter @SDavis_PDR or contact him at 608-745-3512.