Homestead cross country runner and now three-time North Shore Conference individual champion Leane Willemse didn’t have a freshman season in 2017 due to untimely injury.

And she nearly didn’t have one in her senior year in 2020 because of the COVID pandemic either.

But because everyone adapted well to the late start of the WIAA season due to still evolving start-of-school protocols, there was the senior Willemse on a warm and windy Oct. 9 day happily claiming her third straight NSC individual girls CC title at Tendick Park in Saukville.

Teams were socially distanced with their tents and blankets and backpacks and there were reminders everywhere to wear masks and to please not cheer so loud for fear of spreading disease carrying droplets. Buses were not used as transport and almost everyone made the trip separately to reduce the risk of communal spread.

However, Willemse and almost everyone else at Tendick was not complaining as the conference successfully staged both varsity and junior races for both the boys and the girls, which in this sad, awkward pandemic world we are living in, was a small miracle.

As for Willemse, she covered the redesigned 5,000-meter Tendick course in 18 minutes, 48 seconds, some 35 seconds ahead of freshman Lily Kriegel of now 22-time team champion Whitefish Bay (yes, the Blue Dukes’ streak is about seven years older than Kriegel is, think about that for a moment).

Afterward, Willemse was smiling and happy to have gotten what she considers a heck of a season in, when through the latter part of summer, with school starts and protocols up in the air throughout the state, was a concept very much in doubt.

But she did have one small quibble this day, one that many other runners no doubt agreed with.

“It’s so hot and humid out (it was unseasonable well north of 70 degrees that day),” she said with a laugh. “Last weekend when we ran (at UW-Parkside), it was perfect.”

But in keeping perspective, she was very happy to have had this day, this season to run.

“Oh, for sure,” she said. “We were not sure we were going to get this season at all. We weren’t sure if we were going to have conference at all, either and here we were able to get six races in. It was just great for everyone.”

Yes, it was, as the leaves were still on the trees and the kids, who started their seasons about a month later than normally due to the pandemic, adapted brilliantly.

The meet, with Bay as the host, had the varsity running in the early afternoon and the junior varsity going later in the day, opposite the usual schedule.

Bay coach Mike Miller said he was trying to optimize course conditions for the varsity runners in case of muddy or rainy conditions, but admitted the plan backfired a bit as the younger runners got the better weather.

“The varsity kids wound up running in the hottest part of the day,” he said. “By the time JV kids ran, it was about 15 degrees cooler.”

Despite that, the boys varsity race was still a spirited affair as Homestead, behind individual runner-up Owen Bosley edged defending champion Bay, 63-64 as Slinger, which was led by now two-time individual NSC champ Cael Grotenhuis, was third with 75.

That individual win was gratifying in a different way for the long, lean returning WIAA state individual runner-up Grotenhuis, who has committed to NCAA D1 national power Northern Arizona where Bosley’s older brother, two-time WIAA state champ Drew Bosley, leads a strong contingent of Wisconsin-based runners.

“This was only my third race because of injury issues,” Grotenhuis said. “It turns out that I’m still growing and I had some issues with my growth plates. It’s taken me a couple of weeks but I think I have it under control at the right time.

“…(At this point) the individual honors are not as important to me. Our goal was to win the conference title and we fell a little short, but this (this conference meet) was still something that we could all be grateful for.”

The Bay girls were certainly grateful.

It has been an interesting two-plus decades at the top of the NSC cross country pyramid for the Blue Dukes, with some curious turns and twists along the way. Hardly any, however, were as intriguing as all the leaping through hoops Bay and every other team had to do to get to this point this season.

The Blue Dukes suffered through injuries this fall and saw two runners drop out due to the weather this day, but they still had enough of their characteristic depth to put all all of their scoring runners in the top 13 to claim the title.

They scored 46 points to outlast Slinger with 55 while Willemse’s Homestead squad was third with 79.

“It was something,” said Miller, who has been the Blue Dukes’ mentor for all 22 of those championships. “It was a rough day in some aspects, but still here we are. I was always thinking that once we got school started that we’d never get this far, that we’d get shut down (due to COVID), but we got five meets in and a conference championship.

“That’s really something.”

Kriegel, the daughter of former Grafton track and cross country coach Kevin Kriegel, who is now assisting on Miller’s staff, was clocked in 19:23 for her spot. She got help in the scoring ranks from fellow frosh Josie Anzia in ninth (20:50), sophomore Maya Stevic in 10th (20:56), sophomore Natalie Miller in 12th (21:18) and senior Kealan McNally in 13th (21:32).

Miller said he was happy for Lily Kriegel, whose family moved from the Cedarburg/Grafton area before school started this year.

“Lily is a hell of a competitor,” he said, “and she’s adapted pretty well. Our goal now is to keep her healthy and happy.”

Others in the girls top 10 included Mya Bunke of Slinger in third (19:46), Caitlyn O’Neil of Cedarburg in fourth (19:50), Anna Nguyen of Homestead in fifth (20:03), Summer Schuster of Slinger in sixth (20:06), Audrey Grimm of Cedarburg in seventh (20:32), and Violet Schulteis of Slinger in eighth (20:44).

Miller, who is also being assisted this season by the star of the 2005 Blue Duke boys state championship squad Steve Markson, estimated that the heat and humidity did not bother the top runners as much but thought the others may have lost as much as a minute in time due to its effects.

“It was tough out there,” he said of the conditions.

Meanwhile for Willemse, a math junkie who has aspirations of being a chief financial officer for a major company someday, the numbers are starting to add up as she prepares for a new set of WIAA sub-sectional and sectional qualifying meets next week.

“I’m feeling really strong mentally and physically,” she said. “I’ve had a series of PRs this year and I’m ready for more.”

And though the conditions were challenging, the Homestead boys were not complaining, as they earned their first NSC title since Drew Bosley led them to back-to-back titles in 2015 and 2016.

It was something that Highlander coach Andy Bosley could see coming.

“This is great,” he said. “The guys have been on a two-week hot streak. We were down at Parkside last week and we turned in eight PRs (personal records) and earlier we ran 3,200s (meters) on the track at Wisco (Wisconsin Lutheran) and they (the varsity group) all PRed there too.

“This has all been very exciting. The guys all came in ready to roll (after the late start). …For us, we knew conference would be our biggest meet of the year. They trained hard and got fit. They avoided injuries and COVID issues.

“They’re really excited about this. They knew they ran fast.”

Grotenhuis won his second individual crown in 16:33, 20 seconds ahead of Homestead’s Owen Bosley (16:53). Dad and coach Andy Bosley was pleased with Owen’s race as Owen hung with Grotenhuis until Grotenhuis pulled away in the last mile.

“We told Owen, when Cael drops you, just hang on for second,” said Andy Bosley.

The team race itself was a great one as Homestead and Bay boys were running virtually side-by-side the whole route. The Blue Dukes were one point ahead of the Highlanders after the fourth runner, but Homestead’s Adam Dolan finished two spots and four seconds ahead of Bay’s fifth runner in 25th (18:19) to secure the one-point team win.

“This was a great season,” said Andy Bosley. “Our numbers were still solid despite everything (about 40 runners) and we didn’t have a single issue with the kids. They did a great job following the protocols.”

Other scoring runners for the Highlanders included Dominic Sihol in 10th (17:36), Kyle Knutson in 14th (17:50), and Cullen Boyle in 15th (17:51).

Also in the top 10 in the boys race were Nathan Baker of Grafton in third (17:04), Jonathan Lukas of Bay in fourth (17:16), Will MacCudden of Slinger in fifth (17:17), Jacob Anzia of Bay in sixth (17:19), Thomas Conklin of West Bend East in seventh (17:24), Dwight Hosni of Cedarburg in eighth (17:27), and James Weseman of Nicolet in ninth (17:30).

As for Grotenhuis, he said he was proud of his Slinger team and what it accomplished this year through all the adversity.

“These guys really adapted well to all the highs and lows, they have really made it a joy for me these last four years,” Grotenhuis said.

He is looking forward to whatever kind of state test the WIAA can cobble together beginning with the new format qualifying meets. Grotenhuis knows that many good runners from the Madison area and the Fox River Valley areas will not be taking part as their schools have opted for the spring CC season the WIAA is offering.

“I’ll just see what happens,” he said.

As for his future, he is excited about joining the multi-time NCAA champion Northern Arizona program next fall. Drew Bosley, who celebrated his 20th birthday last week, is there too, as well as Caleb Easton from Middleton. Jack Scherer from Oshkosh North, another highly regarded senior this year, has also committed to NAU too.

“I just want to be the best runner I can be,” said Grotenhuis. “In the best environment possible.”

Heck, it’s just great to have kids out there running as carefully and as competitively as possible in a year where not many thought that was going to happen at all!