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As a freshman last year, Wisconsin Dells’ Laura Beghin finished second in the WIAA Division 2 state meet, crossing the line 15 seconds behind the champion.

Just four years before that, Beghin had never run a cross country race in her life.

A friend convinced her to go out for the team in sixth grade. Beghin didn’t think much of it then. She was a middle-of-the-pack runner, just looking for a way to spend time with friends.

It wasn’t until the following year that her times started to drop.

“It’s crazy to think that when I first went out, I just wanted to have fun and not start walking in the middle of running,” Beghin said. “It’s turned into practically my whole life. Every decision I make or what I think about revolves around running and how much I care about it.”

Beghin has come quite a long way, helping to usher in a new culture at Wisconsin Dells.

Coach Dean Knetter said the program now expects a standard of excellence, thanks to Beghin’s outstanding performance over her first two years.

Knetter couldn’t be happier to have Beghin in the program.

“Laura is a once-in-a-lifetime runner. I can’t believe that two years is over, because you can coach for 50 more years and not have someone of her caliber,” Knetter said. “I always tell people it’s like playing poker with an ace every time you play.”

That ace that Knetter is holding has also made his entire hand better.

Taylor Campbell, the only senior on the team, is another leader for the Chiefs. She finished 20th at state last year and is determined to improve upon that — partly because of Beghin.

“Seeing her on the podium shifted a weight in my eyes to want to do better,” Campbell said.

And it isn’t just Campbell who turns to Beghin for inspiration, it’s the entire Wisconsin Dells program.

“I don’t know if she realizes this, but the girls look up to her so much. So do the guys,” Campbell said. “Seeing Laura on her elite level pushes us all to do so much better.”

The two have grown close over the years, starting with a friendship in middle school that has blossomed into a sister-like relationship.

This is indicative of the whole team. Beghin, who has aspirations to run for an NCAA Division I program, said the girls are emotional after every race because of how much they care about each other.

“All the girls on the team mean so much. We’re bawling after every meet,” Beghin said. “I wouldn’t trade my team for the world.”

On Saturday, Beghin will lead Wisconsin Dells into a WIAA Division 2 sectional at Westby, where the Chiefs will look to repeat as champions.

Wisconsin Dells finish fifth as a team at state last year. When the Chiefs met prior to this year’s campaign, they came up with three goals: Win the South Central Conference (which they accomplished), repeat as sectional champions and earn a top-three state finish.

But Knetter said that third goal has changed. The team now has its sights set on climbing to the top of the podium.

“The ladies want to come away with a state championship,” Knetter said. “That’s what we’re training for, to win it all.”

Either way, that race will be an emotional one for Beghin and Campbell, who will run for the final time together.

“I think those are going to be the most tears we’ve shed, but of joy, hopefully,” Campbell said. “It will be a moment I’ll never forget, no matter what happens.”