Coach Josh Jaeger’s vision for his Rhinelander girls and boys cross country teams this fall is clear.
“I want to be conference champions,” he said. “That’s my goal.”
Great numbers of athletes coming out to run should aid in the cause. Jaeger will field 24 girls and 22 boys.
“It’s nice to have these guys come out that I didn’t expect to come out,” he said. “It’s a good sense and helps us build a solid team. It’s a good problem to have.”
On the girls side, the Hodags will look to improve on a third-place finish.
“I feel the girls are going to be very competitive in conference,” Jaeger said. “I feel like they’re going to compete against Lakeland, Tomahawk, or Antigo near the top.”
Tomahawk easily won last year’s conference meet, but the Hodags have plenty of talent returning. The team is led by Alyssa Price and Hillary Wall, the first two four-year seniors under Jaeger’s regime.
“Building the program with those two-they’ve been there four years-has been extremely helpful along the way and has helped me build the program to where it is,” he said.
Claire Tracy is the third senior on varsity, but an early performance shows a freshman-with a unique fall-sports twist-may be the quickest runner on the team. Eva O’Melia was the fastest Hodag girl at the season-opening Hodag Invitational, but she didn’t run in Tuesday’s second meet at Mosinee. The catch? O’Melia is a two-sport athlete, also a member of Rhinelander’s girls tennis team in the fall.
The athlete-sharing arrangement was worked out after Jaeger talked with tennis coach Bob Heideman.
“First off, we wanted to see if Eva could do it, and secondly, we didn’t want to do something that would negatively affect our cross country team and the girls tennis team,” Jaeger said.
So far, it appears it’s working.
“Some people are built naturally to run, and I think Eva has that build where she’s made to be a runner,” Jaeger said.
Furthermore, he sees the opportunity for more two-sport stars in the same season if O’Melia’s arrangement ends in success.
“I’m hoping that it opens the door for some other athletes to go and help out some other programs,” he said.
Annika Hempel, Alexa Paddock and Emily Babcock are among the other returners for the Rhinelander girls.
Hodag boys runners are led by a junior and a senior, Sam O’Melia and Austin Bowman.
“Throughout the year, I think those two are going to set the pace for the varsity,” Jaeger said.
While that was true for the first two meets of the year, Jaeger is also counting on the contributions of some new faces to the team.
Tyler Thorson joined the team for the first time and quickly established himself as the third runner, while Isaac Wendt, Trent Wild, Lou Bassette, Drew Stafford and John Incha appear to be contenders to be consistent scorers for the team.
Medford looks like it may be the team to chase in a conference that saw a great deal of turnover from last year.
While winning the conference is a goal within reach, starting to make Rhinelander a household name in cross country is on the mind as well.
“We have some teams [in our Sectional] that, you say their name, and they’re known for cross country running. I don’t think Rhinelander is there yet,” said Jaeger. “To be there, we need to drop a minute, minute fifteen off everybody’s time to where we’re competing for State.”
The Hodags have nine meets on the schedule to make that name for themselves this year.