SUN PRAIRIE — Prior to practice on the Wednesday before its WIAA Division 1 sectional meet, the Sun Prairie girls cross country team sat in a circle in the high school weight room.
The Cardinals wrote their individual goals on paper and then read them to their teammates. They talked about how those aspirations could bolster Sun Prairie’s quest to repeat as state champion after winning for the first time in 2016.
“We’ve never as a program come off a state title before,” Sun Prairie senior Katie Rose Blachowicz said this week. “It’s a different mindset knowing we have the potential to repeat that. We talked about if we know what the goals are together and if we all do the best we can individually, hopefully, the team title comes.”
The top-ranked Cardinals took the first successful postseason step at last Saturday’s sectional meet in Beloit, crushing the field with a 1-3-4-5-6 finish and a near-perfect score of 19 points — 51 points better than runner-up and second state qualifier Janesville Craig.
Sun Prairie girls coach Matt Roe said he was confident the Cardinals would be one of the Beloit Memorial sectional’s two qualifying teams. But he never envisioned such a dominant performance by his runners.
“They were great,” Roe said. “I didn’t think at a sectional meet we could do that well, especially against a team like Craig, the No. 3 team in the state, and a lot of other quality runners. To take five of the top six spots, we are feeling pretty good about what we are doing right now.”
Blachowicz ran the best race of her prep career, winning the title in a personal-best time of 18 minutes, 00.2 seconds, defeating Janesville Craig senior Peyton Sippy, the Big Eight Conference champion who finished second in 18:09.1.
“I didn’t feel good, but if I’m going as fast as I can, then I shouldn’t feel good — not if I’m pushing myself as hard as I can,” said Blachowicz, who finished second behind Sippy at the conference meet.
Then began the parade of Sun Prairie finishers at the sectional — sophomore Autumn Dushack was third, junior Maddie Thompson fourth, freshman Kate Kopotic fifth and sophomore Hannah Ray sixth.
“The whole team just felt we were ready to go,” Dushack said. “We knew what we wanted to do, what our goal is for the season. It’s going out there and trying to get it.”
That goal, of course, is earning another state championship.
The Cardinals won the first title in program history last year with 82 points, comfortably ahead of second-place Hartland Arrowhead (162). Dushack and Ray finished ninth and 16th, respectively, as freshmen, then-senior Trista Pringle was 25th and Blachowicz was 29th.
The Cardinals’ 19 points at Saturday’s sectional left observers wondering if they could challenge the top state meet results among large-sized schools: Neenah was the 1981 Class A winner with 37 points, Arrowhead was the 2012 Division 1 champion with 41 and Waukesha West was the 1999 Division 1 winner with 44.
Roe dismissed the notion.
“We are not going to score 19 at the state meet,” he said with a laugh, then added: “We aren’t going to try to set records. The girls have goals and they are really supporting each other in those goals. It is helping one another to get to those individual goals. If they all have really, really good days, it should be a really good day for our team.”
Sun Prairie is the favorite in the Division 1 girls 5,000-meter race, scheduled to begin at noon Saturday at the Ridges Golf Course in Wisconsin Rapids. Roe said he believes the chief challengers will be Muskego, ranked second in this week’s state coaches’ poll of qualifying teams, and fourth-ranked Janesville Craig, with third-ranked Waukesha West and seventh-ranked Hudson in the mix.
Junior Claire Darmstadter, 22nd at the sectional meet, and senior Kaylan Marshall, who was 25th, round out the Sun Prairie lineup, which has been consistently strong and generally healthy outside of early-season foot problems for Thompson, Roe said.
“We feel we are in a good spot going into state,” Roe said.
Individually, defending champion Meghan Scott of Milwaukee Divine Savior Holy Angels returns and is expected to be in the top group, which could include area runners Sippy, Blachowicz, Dushack and Waunakee junior Reagan Hoopes and Madison West senior Vivian Hacker, who finished 1-2 in the DeForest sectional.
After Blachowicz, Dushack and Thompson turned in strong track and field performances last spring, Roe anticipated good things from them this fall. For instance, Blachowicz and Dushack were sixth and eighth, respectively, in the 3,200 at the state track and field meet in June in La Crosse.
“I thought Katie Rose, Maddie and Autumn were going to be great,” Roe said. “(Blachowicz) has taken the front on that in most races (this season). To go from finishing in the 20s (at last year’s state meet) to being a legitimate contender for the top spot at the state meet is pretty great. It’s an amazing jump.
“I’m not surprised Katie Rose is the person to do that. But it is always amazing when someone goes that far that quick in a year. But, again, knowing who she is and how hard she works and how mentally tough she is, it’s not a surprise. She really wants to be this great.”
Blachowicz hopes her determination and hard work result in a good finish Saturday.
“I feel good,” she said. “I feel ready. I feel I have the right mindset. We’ll see what happens.”
After WIAA competition is completed, Blachowicz said several of the Sun Prairie girls plan to run at the Nike Cross Regionals on Nov. 12 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The Sun Prairie girls — who will be joined at state for the third consecutive season by the school’s boys team — hope they will be coming off another state title.
“We have so much fun together when we are here,” Dushack said about her teammates. “It’s just awesome. We are just having fun and doing what we love to do.”