Verona boys cross country coach Randy Marks thought his team could crack the top five at the Big Eight Conference meet last season.
The Wildcats avoided injuries, but couldn’t shake the flu.
The illness started to affect the team in the second week of practice and continued throughout the season. Verona ended up seventh at the conference meet and did not qualify an individual for the Division 1 state meet.
“Every week, there was a new flurry of illnesses,” Marks said. “We had a great meet at Oshkosh midseason where we had the whole team healthy, but it was never like that again. Even if someone wasn’t sick, they weren’t running like they had been.”
The Wildcats lost three of their top seven runners and six letterwinners, but are healthy and looking to mix experienced veterans with young talent. Four of the five returning letterwinners were starters last season.
“It’s a smaller team than last year, but I think we have a little more cohesiveness,” Marks said. “There’s some goal-oriented guys who really want to improve.”
Marks anticipates his top three consisting of seniors Nathan Neitzel and Luka DiMaggio and sophomore Aidan Manning. Seniors Mulu Johnson and Alan Zheng are also expected to contribute.
Neitzel has registered a two-mile personal best of 9:51, and DiMaggio has run the mile in 4:35. Manning comes into this season with personal bests of 2:02 in the 800 meters and 4:40 in the mile. Johnson and Zheng have clocked times of 17:16 and 18:01 in 5-kilometer races.
The fifth spot in Verona’s varsity lineup remains open for competition. Sophomore triathlete Noah Serrault could challenge for the spot, as well as three freshmen who were near the five-minute mark as eighth graders — Ryan Cassidy, Max Metcalf and Blake Olson.
“If our young runners develop, this team can be very solid and will be a handful by midseason,” said Marks, who is entering his 55th season at the helm. “Our sophomores were the best freshmen in the conference last season if you go by personal bests. Then we’ve got a couple freshmen who are going to be tough.”
Verona starts its season Saturday at the Glenn Herold Invitational in Watertown against 15 other teams. The Wildcats will host a 22-team invitational Sept. 7, including conference foes Madison Memorial, Madison West, Madison LaFollette, Middleton and Sun Prairie.
Verona will compete twice against an all-Big Eight field at Rockport Park in Janesville – Sept. 17 in the Grade Level Challenge and the conference meet Oct. 19. Madison West will host sectionals.
Middleton finished second at the Division 1 state meet last season, while West was fourth and Sun Prairie took 12th. West, Middleton and Badger Conference powerhouse Monona Grove are in the Wildcats’ sectional this season.
“Madison West and Middleton have pretty much ruled the conference over the past few years,” Marks said. “Middleton, at least for this year, look invincible again. We would like to think we are among the teams chasing West for that No. 2 spot. If we can avoid the massive loss from illness that hit us last year, we will have a good shot of challenging for the top three.”