Of the state meet, head coach Cliff Boos said that what impressed him the most was how his teams’ times “improved so dramatically from the first time we were there” in Sheridan, back in early September.
As for Merritt and Kolpitcke earning All-State honors — after winning All-Conference honors the week before — it “just points out how consistent they’ve been all season,” Boos said.
“They expected to be up there with the top runners and that’s what they did right up to the end of the season,” the coach said.
As a team, the Panthers finished sixth with a total of 173 points. Star Valley won with 22, Cody was second with 78, Worland was third with 108, Mountain View was fourth with 129 and Lander was fifth with 133.
Boos said finishing sixth at both conference and state “was impressive.”
Merritt earned All-State honors and eighth place with a time of 17:20.46 — cutting about 33 seconds off his time from the previous race in Sheridan. Merritt said that he finds running “really rewarding because you can work hard and see the product of your work.”
Freshman Joey Hernandez was second on the team with a 36th place finish with a time of 18:22.72, an improvement of two seconds from earlier in the season.
Fellow freshman Tyler Pfeifer was third for PHS, finishing 38th in 18:24.24. That was a nearly 50-second improvement.
Junior Jayden Yates finished in 40th place with a time of 18:27.06, down from his previous time of 19:42.
Senior Jesse Erickson finished 55th in 19:17.68 — cutting almost two minutes off his previous time of 21:09. Boos said Erickson “has continued to improve throughout the season.”
“I’m thankful for the coaches,” said Erickson. “They really work hard to push us in practice everyday and really care about us. With coaches like that, it is really easy to come to practice everyday and work really hard.”
Boos also described Erickson as a good leader, explaining the girls wouldn’t line up for their race until Erickson gave them a pep talk.
Senior Eyob Robirds finished 65th with a time of 19:41.15, which was a dramatic improvement on his previous time of 21:53.
“Glad I got to come out and compete again,” said Robirds, who was unable to compete last year because of an injury.
“So glad he was able to come back physically this season,” said Boos, describing Robirds as an athlete with a tremendous personality who cares for everyone.
For the season, Robirds said he “thought we had a great season, thought we really came out and competed awesome.”
Sophomore Colin Queen finished 70th with a time of 20:00.21.
The eighth member of the team, who attended as an alternate, was senior Brian Brazelton. This was Brazelton’s second year of competing in cross country and he said he came out last year to get in shape for wrestling.
“Coaches are great and make it fun,” he said. Brazelton said he’d recommend any winter sports athletes who aren’t participating in a fall sport go out for cross country.
Coach Boos said that Brazelton was an important part of the program the last two years and will be missed.
“All seniors will be missed,” said Boos.
The Lady Panthers finished 12th as a team and Boos said the long distance runners showed “real improvement.”
The coach said he was “proud of each of the Lady Panthers in their own way because each one has battled an injury or sickness all season.”
Kolpitcke, a sophomore, earned All-State honors with her fifth place finish in 20:09.69, taking almost a minute off her previous time in Sheridan.
“I didn’t think I was going to run that fast and I thought the wind was going to slow me down a bunch. But it just pushed me harder,” Kolpitcke said. She added that, “this is the best team; we all have so much fun together.”
Senior Gracen Curtis — who competed in cross country for the first time this season — finished 51st in 23:30.93. Her previous race time was 24:13.
Boos said he was glad Curtis came out for the season — and that it was neat to see someone who’d never competed before keep battling and remain positive throughout her physical ailments; Curtis was out for about three weeks due to a hip injury and an IT band issue.
“I loved it,” Curtis said. “It was just a different atmosphere, great coaches, a great team.”
Sophomore Natalie Dillivan finished 64th with a time of 24:24.03, nearly a three-minute improvement on her previous time of 27:23.
Coach Boos said it was the “most solid” Dillivan had run all season.
Freshman Madelyn Horton finished in 65th place, posting a time of 24:26.94. That was a substantial improvement from her previous time of 26.54.
Freshman Abby Landwehr took 70th in 24:37.03, an almost five minute improvement from her previous time in Sheridan of 29.26.
And freshman Jenna Merritt — who’d been unable to compete in Sheridan earlier in the year due to an ailment — finished 86th with a time of 26:20.94.
All the athletes interviewed indicated that the cross country teams are a family. As an example, with assistant Coach Ashley Hildebrand unable to attend due to a family emergency, the boys’ and girls’ teams dedicated their races to her, sent flowers and called her before and after the competitions.
Coach Boos said both teams are just positive and with the number of freshmen who competed, he is “very optimistic” about the future.
“I just think they are going to continue to improve,” said Boos. “Going to be fun to see how much they improve next year.”