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Competition fuels Middleton's standout distance runner Lauren Pansegrau
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Competition fuels Middleton's standout distance runner Lauren Pansegrau

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MIDDLETON — Middleton junior Lauren Pansegrau welcomes a challenge from other teams’ athletes and her coaches — to run faster and fuel her competitive fire.

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“She wants people to push her,” Middleton girls cross country coach Alexa Richardson said. “She really likes racing.”

And as distance runners go, Richardson relishes coaching the talented Pansegrau, who placed second as a sophomore at the WIAA Division 1 cross country meet in fall 2019 and was second as a freshman in the 3,200-meter race at the Division 1 state track and field meet in spring 2019.

“She’s definitely at another level than I’ve ever coached,” said Richardson, who also coaches the distance runners for the Cardinals’ girls track and field team. “She is like a national-level girl.

“We are going to look for some other high-level races for her, hopefully, this track season, so she has some competition since we are only doing duals for track. It’s not fun for her to go out and run in the front and be by herself all the time. She likes competition.”

Middleton is scheduled to host to one of the four cross country sectionals Saturday in the WIAA’s alternate fall season. The girls races are at 10 a.m. and 10:30 a.m., with the boys races at 11 a.m. and 11:30 a.m., at Glacier Creek Middle School in Cross Plains.

The state meet is May 8 at Blackhawk Country Club in Janesville, overlapping with the spring and track and field season, which began on Tuesday.

“I just want to finish the (cross country) season and run well,” Pansegrau said. “And for track I want to improve my times. I’m definitely more focused on track and just getting through the season healthy, especially because it is so long going straight from cross country into track.”

Pansegrau said she was disappointed Middleton was among schools that didn’t compete in the cross country season last fall due to COVID-19 concerns.

“I’m just happy things are working out now,” she said.

Onalaska senior Kora Malecek won the Division 1 girls cross country state title last fall at Hartland Arrowhead.

Pansegrau finished as runner-up behind Malecek at state in 2019 in Wisconsin Rapids, with Sun Prairie’s Kate Kopotic seventh and Madison West’s Genevieve Nashold eighth.

Pansegrau, sophomore Zaira Malloy-Salgado and senior Bella Chirafisi are the top returners from Middleton’s 2019 state cross country team that finished fourth, one spot behind Sun Prairie.

“Our team is doing pretty good right now,” Pansegrau said. “It’s a small amount of the state that is running in the spring, so it’s not really comparable.”

About 82% of the state’s schools declared for cross country last fall. Right now, the WIAA lists 55 girls cross country teams, covering all divisions, in the single-division alternate season.

That left Pansegrau uncertain who other top contenders statewide will be.

“I’m hoping someone from another school steps up to challenge her a little bit because I think she needs that,” Richardson said. “I’m not sure that will happen. She doesn’t like to lose.”

But Pansegrau is not at all cocky, Richardson said.

“She is very reserved,” Richardson said. “You’d never know she was a national-level distance runner unless you saw her times, because she is a very down-to-earth person and doesn’t talk about herself — which I also think makes her stand out.”

Pansegrau, who began in triathlons, returned to competitive running earlier this year. She said she established personal bests of 4 minutes, 58 seconds in the 1,600 during an indoor race in Chicago and 10:19 in the 3,200 in an outdoor event in Arizona.

“Lauren is looking awesome with training,” Richardson said. “On top of the training, she does a lot of cross training. I think that helps strengthen a lot of different muscles. She’s, knock on wood, been very injury-free. She is very careful not to overdo it with mileage.”

As the abbreviated alternate cross country season wraps up, Pansegrau acknowledged she is looking forward to track and field season.

“I’m just hoping for a really good track season because it actually will be normal,” said Pansegrau, who hopes to compete in track and cross country in college. “It will go later (in June), but the teams will be the same (as usual). And I only did track one year (as a freshman) because track was shut down (in spring 2020).”

Richardson, the former Alexa Renstrom who ran at La Crosse Central and the University of Wisconsin, said she challenged Pansegrau to break her top times, which Richardson said already has occurred.

“She has exceeded all my expectations,” Richardson said. “She is very fun to work with. She is a good leader, too. A lot of times, athletes that are that far ahead aren’t good leaders. She is a very good leader for the rest of the team. That makes my job a lot easier. It is really fun to see someone who is so positive and humble at the same time do so well.”

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Jon Masson covers high school sports for the Wisconsin State Journal. He has covered a variety of sports — including the Green Bay Packers and Wisconsin men's and women's basketball and volleyball — since he first came to the State Journal in 1999.

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