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Prep cross country: Superior’s McMeekin won’t let knee issues slow her down

Spartans sophomore standout is gradually returning to her state-caliber form.

Superior’s Tayler McMeekin runs along the trail behind Wessman Arena
Superior’s Tayler McMeekin runs along the trail behind Wessman Arena on the UW-Superior campus during Spartan cross country practice Tuesday morning, Aug. 23, 2022.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
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SUPERIOR — Tayler McMeekin used to run just for fun and as a way to stay in shape for soccer, but it didn’t take the Superior athlete long to figure out she might be pretty good at it when she went out for cross country for the first time as a freshman last August.

The first hints were in practice when she was running with the boys, and then came the first meet in Ashland, where she finished second to Barron star Fran Peterson.

“I was surprised,” McMeekin said.

McMeekin followed that first race with a run through the Lake Superior Conference en route to a 19th-place finish at the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association Division 1 state cross country meet Oct. 30 at the Ridges Golf Course in Wisconsin Rapids.

McMeekin’s strong performance overshadowed knee issues that just got worse into her spring soccer season.

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“I felt like the more I used it, the worse it got,” McMeekin said.

McMeekin went to the doctor over the summer to get her knees checked out.

“They said my growth plate is still open, and just because of how open it is, the patellar tendon is just kind of pulling at it,” she said.

McMeekin had to do physical therapy. She scaled back on her offseason training and hit the pool for low-impact water workouts.

That has left McMeekin with a little catching up to do this cross country season. She hasn’t been quite as strong as last year, with sixth and fourth-place finishes through two meets going into the Spartans’ home meet at 4 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 8, at Pattison Park Golf Course.

But she’s getting there.

“The knees have been feeling good right now, so I’m just getting back into my stride,” McMeekin said.

Superior’s Tayler McMeekin, right, catches members of the boys team as she runs towards the woods during speed workouts on the trail behind Wessman Arena
Superior’s Tayler McMeekin, right, catches members of the boys team as she runs towards the woods during speed workouts on the trail behind Wessman Arena on the UW-Superior campus during Spartan cross country practice Tuesday morning, Aug. 23, 2022.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Good news for her, bad news for the rest of the conference.

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“Tayler appears confident and hungry,” Spartans coach Lee Sims said.

In addition to McMeekin, Superior returns most of its girls squad, including senior Savannah Leopold.

Sims expects Proctor and Hibbing’s girls squads to be pretty tough again this year after being fairly young last year. For the boys, the Spartans have a strong junior class, with four runners who will likely be in their top five, as well as senior Ed Hakanson.

“I think Superior’s boys team will be very competitive at conference, and on the girls side, as a team, I am still waiting to see where we’re at,” Sims said.

McMeekin hopes for a return trip to the state meet and would like to better her personal record of 19 minutes, 11 seconds, by running a sub-19.

After a year of highs and lows, she feels like her best is yet to come.

“It was very frustrating, for sure, just because I want to push myself more,” McMeekin said. “They’re thinking at this time next year I should be pain free, and I’m not going to have any long-term damage, so that is nice to know. Now I’m getting back up to speed because I know I’m not going to hurt myself anymore.”

Superior’s Kanayo Onwudiegwu, left, keeps pace behind his coach, Lee Sims, during a speed workout on the trail behind Wessman Arena
Superior’s Kanayo Onwudiegwu, left, keeps pace behind his coach, Lee Sims, during a speed workout on the trail behind Wessman Arena on the UW-Superior campus during Spartan cross country practice Tuesday morning, Aug. 23, 2022.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

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Best of the rest

Duluth Denfeld graduated ten seniors and the bulk of its boys varsity. Depth will be the biggest challenge for both squads. The boys return two standouts in senior and four-year varsity performer Charlie Juntunen and junior Luke Rosholt.

“Charlie will be in the top five or ten all year and can reach his goal of going to state and be a real contender for the top spot in the LSC,” said Hunters coach Mike Scrignoli. “He is as driven a runner as anyone I’ve coached at Denfeld. He had a great summer training and just has to avoid the nagging injuries that have plagued him the past two years.

“Luke really came on strong late last year and just needs more racing experience and could be a sleeper in the conference and section. Luke also put in a solid summer of running.”

Senior Stylianos Regas will be the No. 3 boys runner in his sixth cross country season. For the girls, senior Grace McCormick is coming off a runner-up performance at last year’s Section 7AA meet, qualifying for the state meet.

“Grace is fit and ready to go in a very competitive girls section,” Scrignoli said. “Grace’s best running days are in her future, and her ceiling for success is very high.”

Senior Lilly Paul will be Denfeld’s No. 2 girls runner. She struggled with injuries last year but is feeling good to start the season.

Duluth East returns senior state qualifier Oliver Miatke, junior Sam Blaszic and seniors Mark Kaczmarczyk, Tyler Stark and Addison Kent. The Greyhounds' top girls are junior state qualifier Rowan Bixler and sophomore Anna-Britta Helmer.

Coach Dave Wicker expects Farmington to field a very strong Section 7AAA girls team. With Minnesota going to three classes last year, East is the Northland’s lone Class AAA team.

“We don’t have any natural rivals around here anymore,” Wicker said.

Duluth Marshall returns sophomore Stella Lozano after she just missed qualifying for the girls state meet last year. The Hilltoppers also have junior captain Norah Shultz and sophomore Naida Hutchinson. The boys squad is small, not enough to be a scoring team, but they do return senior captain Tyler Zupancich (12) and junior Edward Buck (11), with freshman Ezra Rude joining the varsity.

Proctor returns the bulk of its girls team from last year, including state qualifiers and LSC first-team selections Lizzy Harnell and Della Bettendorf. The Rails also have LSC second-team selections Paisley Kleiman and Paige Evans. The boys return junior all-conference selection Elijah Wozniak.

Cloquet coach Chandra Allen returns a squad that includes boys Miles Fischer, Calvin Snesrud, Benjamin Sanders, Ian Berube, Gage Allen and girls Elise Cawcutt, Bri LaCore, Adrianna Nelson, Audrey Berube, Victoria Nelson, Lily Summar and Charlotte Ripp, who is dealing with an injury. Cloquet’s boys qualified for the state meet last fall.

Both the boys and girls teams have track athletes who made it to the state meet and can make an impact this year. The Lumberjacks also have strong eighth and ninth-grade groups that could make a difference.

“Both teams are young, but that is good for the future years,” Allen said. “Many of our athletes are multi-sport athletes and keep active throughout the summer. We also had a group of athletes that met regularly in the summer to run together. As always, we hope to stay healthy and injury free. We lost some seniors that had been on varsity for years and look to replace their leadership and experience.”

Greenway/Nashwauk-Keewatin and Esko graduated their share of runners but should field strong boys teams after finishing fourth and 14th, respectively, at last year’s Class A meet.

Esko returns senior Ben Meysembourg and sophomores Ethan Gamache and Alec Halvorson from its 2022 state-qualifying boys team. The Eskomos will have a younger and more inexperienced running group than in years past but coach Jerimy Hallsten is looking forward to seeing how this group progresses. “While they will definitely be a better team at the end of October than they are now, just how much they progress and where they end up remains to be seen,” he said.

The Eskomos return sophomores Aspen Berg and Evie Peterson and freshman Elly Barta from their Section 7A girls squad. The overall numbers are lower and much younger than previous years but do have four seventh graders out. “It’ll be fun to watch them grow and become more experienced as runners and as a team,” Hallsten said. “My hope is for them to be competitive with other teams by the time October rolls around.”

Hermantown has only one senior in Aidan Petrich while eighth-grader Cooper Lucarelli is the fastest on the team, followed by sophomore Charlie Marchand. Eighth-grader Ferrah LaLone and freshman Grace Nichols are the fastest girls. Sophomore Caitlin Cox and junior Ryan Monte are athletes who have been running with the program for many years and are back again this year. Both of them started when Kevin Leonard was still coaching.

“We have a younger team again this year, but are already showing more strength at the start of this season versus last season,” coach Madeline Armbruster said. “We’re really excited to see where the team will go.”

Cromwell-Wright/Floodwood senior Noah Foster is back for his senior year after finishing fourth among Class A boys in 16:26.03. Junior state qualifier Emaleigh Olesiak is back to lead the Cardinals girls.

Northwestern graduated a bunch from last year but returns a solid, slimmed-down team. The boys are led by seniors Emmett Johnson, Ian Kalin, and Mark Jarmen.

The Tigers are looking to retake the Heart O’ North Conference title after falling short last year; they had held the title since 2009 and also have aspirations for a return to the state meet. The Northwestern girls have a solid seven runners, with five varsity returners from last year. That includes senior leader Alison Raboin and standouts Jenna Hursh and Shayna Wick.

Solon Springs/Northwood returns junior Dylan Taggart, who placed 26th among Wisconsin Division 3 boys runners in 17:28.5. Seniors Zach Meyers and Max Polkoski, juniors Tarver Sellwood, Abe Ahlberg, Owen Smith and Brandt Larson, sophomores Silas Kidder and Isaac Dickenson, and freshman Isaiah Ahlberg, Emmett Patel, Sam Fromm and Nick Roatch round out the squad.

“The goal is to win our sixth conference title in the last seven years and qualify for state,” coach Dale Rajala said. “The last time we did that as a team was 2017. We’re excited for this season and look forward to competing at a very high level.”

Solon Springs/Northwood only has two varsity girls running this year in juniors Aubre Guttormson and Maritza Sarino-Orozco but the numbers for middle school boys and girls are high.

Moose Lake/Willow River/Barnum senior Shawn Bailey is back after finishing 67th among Class A boys last fall.

North Shore returns Olya Wright and Lamar Gordon to lead the girls team and Ian Thorpe to lead the boys. Coach April Wahlstrom said the Storm have about 60 kids out, 40 from Cook County, five from Silver Bay and 15 from Two Harbors.

“It’s a big crew of young, motivated energy,” she said.

Hibbing, despite being very young, finished 10th among Class AA girls teams last fall while North Shore was 11th. The Bluejackets’ top finisher last year was Mileena Sladek, who finished 54th overall as a sophomore in 20:30.01.

South Ridge returns four of its top seven from its boys team and all but one varsity runner on its girls team, which led the Northland with a 12th-place finish among Class A girls teams in 2021.

The top returning boys are Alex Burckhardt, Sawyer FierkeLepp, and Tyler Morse and the top returning girl is Alex’s twin sister Addison Burckhardt. Evelyn Brodeen is the No. 2 girls runner, and there are up-and-coming seventh and eighth graders ready to fill the ranks.

“They had excellent track seasons and should be ready to go this fall,” coach Jeremy Polson said.

Carlton/Wrenshall came in two spots behind South Ridge among Class A girls teams last fall with a 14th-place finish as then-sophomore Brielle Simula led the way with an 82nd-place individual finish.

Rock Ridge senior Cameron Stocke, a two-time state champion in the 1,600 meters in track, is back after finishing a Northland-best sixth at the Class AA cross country meet last fall in 16:11.31.

The Wolverines return a strong supporting cast after finishing fifth among Class AA boys teams in 2021. Rock Ridge also had the Northland’s top Class AA girls individual last fall as Lexi Lamppa, as an eighth-grader, finished 27th in 19:52.51.

Superior head cross country coach Lee Sims, left, Jacob Lind, center, and Kanayo Onwudiegwu run into the woods behind Wessman Arena
Superior head cross country coach Lee Sims, left, Jacob Lind, center, and Kanayo Onwudiegwu run into the woods behind Wessman Arena on the UW-Superior campus during a speed workout at practice Tuesday morning, Aug. 23, 2022.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
Superior’s Tayler McMeekin runs along the trail behind Wessman Arena
Superior’s Tayler McMeekin runs along the trail behind Wessman Arena practice Tuesday morning, Aug. 23, 2022.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
Superior’s Grace Lemke leads a pack of runners during a speed workout
Superior’s Grace Lemke leads a pack of runners during a speed workout behind Wessman Arena Tuesday morning, Aug. 23, 2022.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnews.com or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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