Track and Field: Cats rock and roll at state
River Falls junior Emily Banitt could feel the runner from Divine Savior Holy Angels breathing down her neck.
"I knew there was some girl trying to pass me so I knew I had to just latch on and keep going," she said.
Banitt, the anchor on the Wildcat girls 4x400 meter relay at the WIAA State Track and Field Championships in La Crosse Saturday, June 2, hit the jets on the final straightaway, pulled away from her challenger, and clinched the sixth and final podium spot for her and teammates Sarah Langlois, Sarah Schneckenberger and Rachel Randleman with a time of 3 minutes, 58.88 seconds, nearly a full second ahead of seventh place DSHA.
The race capped a historic weekend at state for the Wildcats that also included new school records from Sofia Naranjo Mata in the 100 meter dash and the girls 4x100 meter relay team, and an eighth place finish from Jared Creen in the boys triple jump.
In all, 27 athletes, including alternates, represented River Falls in 10 events at the 123rd WIAA Track and Field Championships at Veterans Memorial Stadium on the campus of UW-La Crosse. And there were plenty of firsts for the Wildcats.
"I think Sofia and the 4x100 girls were the first to make state finals in the 100 and 4x100 in our program history," boys coach Matt Kumershek noted. "I also think this is the first boys 4x200 in a long time, or ever, to make a trip to state."
The girls 4x400 team of Banitt, Langlois, Schneckenberger and Randleman is the first Wildcat girls relay to place at state since 2004. Girls coach Kristi Wagner said she didn't know where to start when asked to talk about the foursome.
"We have been to state (in the 4x400) the past six years straight, and to the finals in five of those six," she noted. "Each year we have crept closer to the podium, but have come away empty. I am so happy for each of those kids. I love each of them. They are very special, and how they pulled it off was absolutely fantastic."
How they pulled it off was by qualifying for the finals with the sixth fastest time of 3:59.097 in Friday's preliminaries, using a lineup of Banitt, Schneckenberger, Langlois and Randleman. They switched things up for Saturday's finals, with Langlois running the opening leg followed by Schneckenberger, Randleman and Banitt.
"I knew I had to start strong and get us in the race right away and give us something to hold on to," Langlois said about her opening lap before handing the baton to Schneckenberger, who said she knew she just had to keep up the pace.
"She set me up and I knew I had to keep it and get it to Rachel so she could get it to our anchor Emily," Schneckenberger said.
Randleman, a freshman in her first state meet, had the unenviable task of taking the baton for the third leg while jostling for position among the other runners.
"It's kind of confusing because there's so much going on around you, but you just have to find your person and go," she said. "It was crazy. There's so much happening and so much emotion."
Banitt did the rest, and the four celebrated in the sixth place spot on the podium just a few minutes later.
"When Emily received the baton, we were in seventh, but in contact," Wagner said. "Mission accomplished. The first three did their job, they set her up, and then she went beast mode; 57.4 split, her fastest ever."
Wagner said there is far more strategy involved in relays than people realize, but the girls executed perfectly.
"In this case, relay order is everything," she said. "We try to consider each athlete's physical strengths, but also delve into individual personalities. We think we nailed it. Perfect order, each day."
The Cats also had the perfect order in Friday's 4x100 preliminaries when Sam Krueger, Banitt, Madison Berg and Naranjo Mata qualified for the finals by finishing second in their heat with a new school record time of 49.04 seconds.
After taking the baton from Berg for the final 100 meters of the race, Naranjo Mata said she knew the Cats had a chance.
"I remember getting the baton and I was like, oh my gosh, we're in second place, and I just bolted," she said. "Then I looked up and I thought, that's a school record for sure, and I was just super happy."
Krueger said clean handoffs were key to setting the record.
"Handoffs are the scary part," she said. "You can run fast but when it comes to a relay, it doesn't matter how fast you run, if you can't get the person the baton and do it well it doesn't matter."
Again Wagner said the Wildcats' strategy paid off.
"Kumershek and I spoke of perhaps getting shorter stride lengths on the turns of the 4x100, and Sammy and Madison Berg fit perfectly," she said. "Combine that with the taller Bannit and Sofia flying the straights, and we were pretty excited about the potential. They nailed the handoffs, and it was all over."
The Wildcat handoffs weren't as smooth in Saturday's final, and they wound up being disqualified. Still, Wagner said she was thrilled with what they accomplished.
"Those four girls were each in the perfect spot to load that relay and produce the school record," she said. "I love them and their efforts to pull that off on the big stage."
Earlier Friday Naranjo Mata broke her own school record in the 100 meter dash with a time of 12.22 seconds to finish fourth in her heat and earn a spot in Saturday's finals, where she placed tenth in 12.78. She also competed in Friday's triple jump and finished 16th with a leap of 35-06.75.
The Wildcat boys also had a busy weekend with Jared Creen competing in three events, two Cats running in the 400 meter dash, two relays and Logan Graetz in the 110 meter hurdles.
Creen, the school record holder in the long jump and triple jump, placed eighth in Friday's long jump competition with a leap of 21-06.75, and 14th in Saturday's triple jump wit a distance of 42-05.75. He also teamed up with Jack Hines, Andrew Bevens and Stefan Klechefski for a 14th place time of 1:29.97 in Friday's 4x200 meter relay prelims.
"Jared Creen had an amazing season, breaking four records and qualifying for state in three events," Kumershek said. "It was great to see him make finals and score in the long jump. Coach (Chelsea) Truttman and (Eric) Leigel have done a great job with him and his jumps. The whole state competition and atmosphere gives Jared valuable experience that he will no doubt use his senior year. I'm excited to see what he will accomplish."
Niko Zoller and Payton Flood both lowered their sectional 400 times in Friday's preliminaries but fell short of qualifying for the finals. Zoller finished 18th overall in 51.13 seconds and Flood was 20th in 51.84, while Graetz placed 22nd in the 110 meter hurdles in his first year out for the team.
"For Logan to get to state in his first year of doing hurdles is a great success," Kumershek said.
Jared Syverson, Brayden Richison, Joshua Linton and Tyler Cernohous kicked off the final day of the state meet Saturday with a 19th place time of 8:18.91.
Both Kumereshek and Wagner are excited about how far the Wildcats raised the bar at the state meet. And only three of the Cats' state competitors are seniors-- Richison and Cernohous on the boys side, and Krueger for the girls-- making the future look bright.
"Overall, a great season," Wagner said, "Our team made big strides getting so many to state. It is sort of becoming an expectation, and the kids are really feeling it. We return very strong teams in both boys and girls, so our future looks pretty exciting."