Cathy Branta-Easker is Wisconsin distance running royalty.
In the iteration of Wisconsin girls prep distance running excellence in the late 1970s and early 1980s, before Lori Wolter and before Suzy Favor, this dynamo from Slinger won six WIAA Class B state titles, three each in the mile/1,600 and two-mile/3,200, breaking state records almost every time out.
She traded records and compared notes with fellow legends like Katie Ishmael of Madison Memorial (a future Wisconsin teammate) and Margaret Davis of Brookwood.
Branta would go on to Wisconsin where she won the individual title and led the Badgers to the women’s NCAA D1 national cross country title in 1984 (with Ishmael’s help). She also helped the US team win the gold medal in the World Cross Country Championships in both 1984 and 1985 and in 1985 she was second individually only to the great Zola Budde of South Africa.
And before she was done with school, Branta-Easker would earn 11 All-American citations and five Big 10 Conference titles.
Then to further burnish her credentials, she fell in love and married fellow Badger All-American John Easker, who had played a major role in the Wisconsin men winning NCAA team CC titles in 1982 and 1985. She and John had three children and she continues to influence young runners by teaching and coach in the Wittenberg-Birnamwood School District where Easker is from.
So Ashley Beutler of Belleville/New Glarus knew how high the mountain of legendary greatness she was trying to scale in the 2007 state track meet. The tall long striding junior had won the D2 1,600 in 2006 and finished second in the 800. She then dominated girls state cross country in the fall, winning the D2 title by almost a minute with an all-classes best 4,000 meter time by 14:13.2.
She chose to do the 1,600/3,200 double in 2007 and was heavy favorite to win both, which she did, but she also had other goals in mind.
One of which was taking down Branta-Easker’s laid-in-concrete D2 1,600 record of 4:51.86 from 1981, which she did in astounding fashion, turning in a 4:48.37 time that had the large La Crosse crowd roaring with approval on a cool and drippy Friday first day.
She won the race by an astounding 15 seconds and also claimed the 3,200 by close to 23 seconds in securing state Athlete of the Year (AOY) honors.
“It’s the neatest thing in the world,” said Beutler after the 1,600, “because everytime I come here I want to do my best and try and break a record. …It’s amazing when you can hit the finish line and be as happy as i was (looking at the clock).
“You’re thinking ‘I’m not supposed to get that kind of time’ but then you do.”
And Beutler, who would only get faster in the future, has entered legendary status herself, as her D2 1,600 mark still stands as the record to this day.
PERKINS AIMS AT WINZENRIED
State boys AOY Andrew Perkins of Watertown too had a looming presence he needed to scale. Monroe and Wisconsin legend Mark Winzenried had owned the best 800 meter time in state history for 40 years by the time the 2007 state meet rolled around.
Winzenried’s time (1:50.3) was hand-held and not run at state but has long been held a Grail for all prep middle distance runners in Wisconsin to take aim at and strive for.
And in his junior year Perkins, who had originally hailed from Sheboygan where other middle distance runners were doing amazing things (see below), had many things to get done this year.
He had fallen to graduated two-time D1 state 800 champ Steve Markson of Whitefish Bay in both 2005 and 2006. He had, with some chutzpah, tried the distance triple as a sophomore in 2006, medaling in the top three in all three races.
He had taken a major step forward in the fall of 2006, claiming the WIAA state cross country title, but track was where he sought true redemption as he narrowed his focus to the 800 and 1,600 races.
Perkins got a big chunk of relief on that damp first day of state track in June, where he won the 1,600 in a swift 4:11.87. Then on a sunny Saturday second day, he fought off Monroe’s Aron Kehoe, who had anchored the Cheesemakers’ record setting 4 x 800 relay the day before, to claim the 800 in a withering time of 1:52.33.
He said he would never forget the 800 finish.
“Fans were screaming,” he said.
Then a week later, Perkins set off to chase down the legend himself and did so, taking down Winzenried’s 40-year old mark with an all-time state best 800 of 1:50.17 at the Midwest Distance Galas in Illinois.
That time still stands.
GIRLS RULE THIS YEAR
And on both the girls and boys fronts, both Beutler and Perkins had sturdy challengers for their AOY positions in 2007. In fact, on the girls side, it was extraordinary year as one female athlete after another set long-standing records, helped their team win state team titles or did both.
One of Beutler’s top competitors that year was also in division 2 as 2006 champ Becca Buchholtz of East Troy broke a four-way log jam for the D2 high jump record at 5-7 when she cleared an impressive, all classes best of 5-9. It was the second of what would be three straight titles for Buchholtz in the event.
She also went on to win the triple jump and take second in the long jump. Her stratospheric effort in the high jump is still the division record.
Also competing for girls AOY honors was D1 sprinter Akaili Cabell of Racine Case, who took great advantage of the graduation of four-time 200 and 400 champ Joanna Schultz of Holmen, by coming within .02 of a second of a sweep of the 100, 200 and 400 dashes.
She won the 100 and 400 titles but was just nudged out for the 200 crown by Bradley Tech’s Jasmyn Hudgins who denied Cabell the sprint sweep by .02 of a second on a sprinter’s gift of a glorious and warm Saturday.
Cabell was philosophical about her near miss of the sweep.
“It’s a game of catch-up in the sprints,” she said. “You just have to keep going. Sometimes the race doesn’t come together until the last five meters and it could be just two steps this way or two steps that way (that separates winning from losing).”
TEAM TITLES FOR SENAYA AND GRONNING
And the margins were narrow in the D2 girls team race, as distance oriented West Salem and sprint-based Brown Deer were unlikely co-champs with 39 points each.
The Falcons were led by D2 record-holder in the 100 and 200 dashes Kaya Senaya, who repeated as champion in both events and then anchored the 4 x 100 to an easy win. She also earned a valuable fourth in the long jump that was pivotal in Brown Deer sharing its first title since 1987.
“We were keeping tabs on the points and where we were,” said Donisha Weightman who was on both the winning 4 x 100 and the fifth place 4 x 200 relays, “but we never imagined this. I never thought we’d win state. It’s just surreal. It’s flipping awesome!”
Oh yes, and for good measure, just as she did in 2006, Senaya had a crazy good off-season, turning in an amazing 11.78 in the 100 and lightning quick 24.12 in the 200 in a pair of national meets. She did this all despite battling Scollosis in her back, which had been bothering her for a year.
“I had back pain and I felt pretty dead all meet,” Senaya said at state, “but I just wanted to help the team.”
Hannah Gronning of Shell Lake also helped her team in a big way.
Gronning, the dynamic, powerful and remarkably fast thrower without peer for Shell Lake, like Senaya, almost single-handedly willed the Lakers to the D3 title with a series of efforts that proved she had stamina and heart to spare.
She won her third straight D3 discus crown with an all-classes best throw of 150-1 that broke the four-year old class record. It was not quite as far as the state top 10 159-9 she had thrown earlier in the year but got the job done.
Gronning then repeated as shot put champion, took third in the 100 dash, and just as she had done the previous year, helped the Shell Lake 4 x 100 relay win a state title of its own.
Gronning’s efforts led the way for the game 10-woman strong Shell Lake team to defeat Whitehall, 43-39, for its first state title.
The exhausted but pleased Gronning was elated.
“We were second in conference and second in (WIAA) regional,” she said. “It’s hard to win these things with such small numbers. We just wanted to do our best. …I think we surprised ourselves.”
Gronning headed up a strong group of superior D3 athletes.
MOVING UP THE LINE
Megan Rennhack of Dodgleand was another. She had broken through with her first title in the 300 low hurdles in 2006. She followed that up with her first title in the 100 highs in 2007, but saved her best efforts for the 300s, making history in a spectacular way.
She took down Shari Hafenstein of Waterloo’s 21-year old D3 class record of 44.98, with an amazing 44.44 in the preliminaries. Her time of 44.7 in the finals would have also been good enough to take down Hafenstein’s record.
But a year later in 2008 Rennhack would carve her name in history permanently.
Also in D3, Aileen Lemanski of Florence turned in a unique feat, repeating in and setting a new division record of 18-2 1/4 in the long jump. The record she broke was the 11-year old mark of another Florence legend Jaclynn Kriegel.
Kriegel won the long jump three times (she also won the 200 four times en route to amassing 10 total state championships), while with her 2007 long jump win, Lemanski was halfway home to an event four-peat and would break the division mark two more times before she was done.
Also in the mix for girls AOY was Jamie Dittmar of Wausau East. She had run one of the fastest 800 times in state history in winning the D1 title in 2006 (2:11.35).
She came back in 2007 even more determined. She anchored the Lumberjills 4 x 800 relay to a narrow win over Waukesha West in a time of 9:18.86, the fastest time the event had seen since Marinette’s amazing 9:03 state record set in the first year of the event in 1994.
Dittmar then turned in another amazing winning effort in taking the 800 again and in a brilliant finish to the girls 2007 track season, she came up an eyelash short in reeling in the Arrowhead anchor Kallie Seneczko in the 4 x 400 final as the Warhawks won by .01 of a second.
In fact, the top four teams in that race were separated by just .46 of a second and Mark Foos’s dynamic, intense photo of that finish was one of the best track pictures of 2007.
“That was pretty sweet,” Dittmar said of the 4 x 800 win. “We were ninth in that race last year with just one different gal. …It’s amazing to share something like this with teammates. To take it (a relay) to state and to win it with some of the greatest people in the world.”
Also of note in the girls’ competition was the effort of Emily Worden of La Crosse Logan in the long jump. The sophomore had leaped a state best (and top five all time) 19-1 1/4 in the regional meet but stumbled at sectional, barely qualifying for state with a 16-7 3/4 showing.
But coming out of the first flight of the preliminaries, Worden regained her form and obliterated the field with a stupendous 18-10 showing that was only 1 1/2 inches away from Brittany Rusch of Wausau East’s 13-year state record. Worden also wound up beating her teammate Emily Betz, who had won the event title in 2006.
Two non-winners were among those earning the biggest applause this weekend.
Milwaukee Vincent 4 x 200 relay anchor for Kennaye Lewis was one of them. The Vikings had set the record in the event the year before and were favored again, but close to the finish line and in a dual with City Conference rival King, Lewis’ hamstring gave out. She bravely hobbled home as King won the race earning a great deal of appreciation from the fans at Memorial Stadium.
And back in 2002, the Brookfield Central boys 4 x 800 relay team did the impossible by winning the D1 state championship out of the slow heat. That almost happened in the D1 girls 1,600 in 2007.
Germantown’s Kate Lydy was a solid runner, having taken 14th in the state CC meet in the fall after taking second in the 3,200 in state track in 2006, but she and her event coach Andy Bavlnka knew she was due for a break-out. She got it at state track in 2007 by clobbering the field in the slow heat of the 1,600 with a very quick 4:57.91 time.
So quick, in fact, that people had to wait to the finish of the fast heat of the 1,600 to see if Kate Sanft of Wausau East would be fast enough to take the title away from Lydy. She was just barely, clocking a winning time of 4:56.77.
Lydy’s finish was a big reward after months of hard training.
“It takes a strong kid to stay with the training,” said Bavlnka. “It tells her she’s going to run tired and run tired for the next three months. It takes a leap of faith on her part to believe in that.
“I just didn’t know that she had that kind of time in her.”
And of heartbreaking and bittersweet note was the baggage that D1 100 hurdles champ Stacey Trzcinski of Oak Creek was carrying en route to her crown.
Her good friend and former classmate, as well as UW-La Crosse basketball player Sarah Stachula had been killed in an auto accident on May 27, scarcely a week before state. So fresh were things that at the time Stachula’s picture still hung in nearby Mitchell Hall as part of a display for La Crosse’s women’s basketball team.
After Trzcinski won a photo finish with Neenah’s Kalen Sumnicht, she let all her emotions out.
“This has been a crazy week,” she said. “I hurt my hamstring (just before sectionals) and then I lost my friend. I tried to pull this out (getting to state) just for her.
“I saw her at a softball game last week and she said ‘Good luck’. It’s crazy. I wanted to do this just for her.”
And at that moment, Trzcinski turned to wipe away a tear.
ANNEAR TAKES A LEAP FORWARD
On the boys side of the equation, Perkins’ primary challenger for AOY was Richland Center’s jumper without peer Paul Annear. Already a three-time state champ and halfway to his four-peat in the high jump, he proved himself ready by clearing 6-10-1/4 in a pre-season meet.
He would then earn his third state D2 title in the event with a 6-10 showing. Then he went out and helped the Hornets earn the D2 team title by claiming both the long jump and the triple jump, as Richland Center won the state D2 title with 45 points, well ahead of Catholic Memorial and Arcadia, which tied for second with 32 points.
The team-first Annear was more interested in talking about teammate Garrett Vetesnik‘s victory in the pole vault, which wound up being the key to the Hornets’ title.
“I came into the triple jump and it had just happened (Vetesnik’s winning vault),” said Annear. “I heard the crowd and that really pumped me up. This (the state team title) is just surreal. It’s just so cool to see how this is all worked out.
“The coaches did a great job of putting us in positions where we could succeed.”
GLORY IS FOREVER, SCARS ARE COOL
And speaking of success, it took seven years before Whitefish Bay took more than two seconds off of Verona’s D1 4 x 800 record in 2006, but only a year later Monroe took close to two seconds off that mark with a big boost from medical miracle Patrick Klein.
Klein had helped the Cheesemakers win the D2 title in the event a year earlier and was off to a good start to his 2007 season when he came down with appendicitis in early April. He had surgery immediately, but his doctor told him the recovery would take at least a month, not good news in a shortened Wisconsin prep track season.
But in about just half that time, he was out there running again. It wasn’t easy, he said, but there he was on that drippy June 1 toeing the line with teammates Brandon Miles, Brett DeNure and Kehoe. Kehoe’s blistering 1:52 800 split put the final touches on a 7:42.91 time that was not only a new state record but was ranked second nationally for the season.
Even more impressive, it was the same group which had won the D2 title in 2006, but this time around they went an astounding 12 seconds faster.
For Klein, who happily lifted his singlet to show everyone in the press room his scar, all the pain and sacrifice was worth it.
“We just wanted to win,” he said, “and to get the record, that’s just great. We wanted it, we knew we could chase it down and with Aron’s strong anchor we knew we had a chance. We’re this small school in D1, so we stressed a lot of firsts in everything.
“Being the first to move up from D2 to D1 and win and then the record itself. That part really hasn’t sunk in yet.”
PAIN IS NO ISSUE
Also enduring pain for eternal glory was Brown Deer sprinter Justin Austin. He was already a four-time state D2 champion in the sprints. He and the Falcons were Woodland triple crown champions and looking to try to make a run at D2 team title this year, but an injury to returning 300 hurdles champ Isiah Gray and a relay fiasco during qualifying put a kibosh on those thoughts.
Further, Austin had tweaked his hamstrings in regional qualifying so he had to be very careful that he didn’t jeopardize his chances at defending his 100 and 200 titles. He made it to Saturday’s finals in one piece and won the 100 comfortably.
But when getting ready for the start of the 200 final, his blocks collapsed. The idea of trying to push his tender hamstrings off of questionable blocks a second time was out of the question, so Austin just did it the old-fashioned way, from a standing start.
Which was still good enough to earn another state title. It wasn’t the perfect state meet, but Austin looked at the glass half full.
“I’m the kind of kid who wants to break records and then come back and break them again,” he said. “I was really ready to eat that curve up (on the 200), but I’m a competitor first and I’m going to go out there and compete whether I’m hurt or not.”
For Zach Hassenstein and Peter Bolgert of the Sheboygan Lutheran D3 4 x 800 relay team the state meet was old hat by now and the duo went out as champions for the third year in a row, breaking their division record again with a 7:57.64 time that still stands to this day. Adam Lang, Sean Hassenstein and Adam Lang all also helped out in the three-year title run for the Crusader relay.
Furthermore, Bolgert successfully defended his D3 1,600 title and won the 800 for the first time too. He left high school with six state titles and a profound sense of always respecting his competition.
“We know that our faith (in God) is always a big help,” he said, “but this was interesting. You never know what will happen here exactly. Sometimes the seed times don’t mean that much. Sometimes people come out of nowhere. They PR by five seconds and win. One of my old teammates (Lang) did that in the 800 last year.”
And sometimes champions just have their moments. Quentin Luttrell of D1 boys team champion Milwaukee Marshall, had won the 100 in 2006, but then came back in 2007 with bigger goals. He repeated in the 100, helped the Eagles 4 x 100 earn a second place finish and then won the 200.
Combined with the winning effort of Zachary Sharkey-Ketner in the 300 hurdles that was more than enough for the Eagles to win their first state team title.
Luttrell said the pressure and atmosphere was similar to last year only bigger.
“There were a lot of things pushing me, motivating me,” he said. “I had a lot of people chasing me this year and I took that as a compliment.
“These were hot wins today. I really feel like I accomplished something big. In the heat of competition like this you can’t catch a cold.”
No one seemed to this weekend.
UP NEXT: The 800 relay, the race, the myth, the legend; Annear and Marcus Jenkins chase records as Homestead’s field event festival goes big; Rennhack owns the hurdles and Dezera Bryant makes her first appearance at state as Bradley Tech returns to the limelight.