OSHKOSH — When Paul Brown became the cross country coach at Lourdes Academy (Oshkosh) in 2013, he was surprised by a comment from his best friend, Cal Kromm, cross country coach at Ashwaubenon High School.
“He said, ‘You know, you are going to win state.’ I thought, ‘You are crazy.’ I had no idea how good the team was going to be,” said Brown, who formerly coached at UW-Oshkosh.
The Lourdes girls’ cross country team has been better than good. The Knights have won three consecutive WIAA Division 3 state championships with Brown at the helm. The program has captured state titles in five of the last six years, including top finishes in 2010 and 2011.
“Oshkosh is a great running community,” said Brown. “We’ve been spoiled at a small school like this to have a lot of really good athletes go out for cross country and some really good running families send their kids to this school.”
The Lourdes girls are favored to win another state championship. All seven team members that ran at the state meet last year are back, although no spots on the team are guaranteed.
“It’s going to be a battle to make our top seven,” said Brown. “We are fortunate to have that competition in practice.
“We all have to earn our spots,” said senior Emily Foley, who along with classmate Katie Van Scyoc, is seeking her fourth consecutive state championship medal. “Even though five runners score at each meet, all seven of us matter and the girls on JV push us to be better. They play a big role on our team.”
Brown runs the team like a college program. September serves as a training camp with the emphasis more on practice days than races.
“We only race once a week,” he explained. “We focus on training. If we can put in the work in practice, it’s going to pay off during the part of the season when it really matters.”
The team doesn’t shy away from good competition.
“We go up against a lot of Division 1 and Division 2 teams during early parts of the season,” said Van Scyoc, who is also a basketball standout. “We usually get our heads handed to us, but it’s good practice competing against runners that are extremely good; teams that will do well at state.”
Westby, state runner-up behind Lourdes the last two seasons, has moved to Division 2. Last year, the Knights were not considered favorites following the graduation of top runner Nora Keller, now a sophomore at Marquette University, and the loss of senior Angela Moore to injury. Westby was leading until the final 400 meters. A strong finish by Foley propelled Lourdes to victory.
“Emily is definitely more of a track athlete,” said Brown. “I don’t think she knows her potential in cross country. She has battled some injuries. If she didn’t finish the way she did, we don’t win. She had the best kick out of anybody in the last mile in Division 3. She passed 15 people in the last 400 meters.”
“I’m still kind of in shock of our three-peat last year,” said Foley. “That was kind of crazy. I like track, the 800 and mile, so the kick is a habit.”
Foley, Van Scyoc and junior teammate Carly Vandenhouten added a state championship in track last spring. The three along with Moore, who was able to return for the track and field season, won the 4 x 800 meter title in Division 3.
Work for the 2016 cross country season began in the summer. The team met twice a week — once to run together and a second day for a workout session. The girls also trained individually.
“I put it on them,” said Brown. “You can tell who worked hard in the summer. If you are willing to work hard, you are going to be successful. You can’t fake it. Hard work pays off.”
The team, which regularly practices with the boys’ cross country squad,also continues a training tradition on Saturday mornings in season.
“We meet at the cemetery,” said junior Andrea Beecher, who has competed at state the last two years. “It sounds weird, but we meet at Riverside Cemetery. We do a workout and then go to breakfast together.”
“Being together and being part of a team is always fun,” said Van Scyoc. “The girls we have on the team are extremely close. We hang out outside of cross country.”
Fun is even incorporated into the team prayer. Brown says a few words before a team member leads.
“Sometimes we do ‘nose goes,’” said Foley with a laugh. “It’s usually the older team members who lead prayer. We do our strides and at the middle of the starting line we say a prayer, usually running related.”
The current team members want to uphold the winning tradition. The Knights embrace high expectations, said Vandenhouten, a member of the last two state lineups.
“We just need to understand that it is not given to us,” she said. “We have to work really hard. We can’t assume that the season is going to be easy. Every workout counts.”
Lourdes will rely on the depth of its roster again this season. Last season, at the state meet in Wisconsin Rapids, less than a minute separated the Knights top finisher, Foley (20:29:36), and fifth finisher, Beecher (21:27:56).
“There’s no pressure,” said Brown. “We know that we have talent. They are very close, very humble and come from great families. They know that it’s not just going to be handed to you.”