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Cross country team counting on youngsters to help during rebuilding season

News Photo by James Andersen The Alpena High cross country team is in a rebuilding phase this season, but coach Joy Bullis likes her team’s potential. Alpena’s girls team is led by a quartet of juniors including Madi Szymanski and Alpena’s boys team is led by a mix of returning runners, including four seniors and five juniors.

When Joy Bullis looks at this season’s Alpena High cross country team, she’s reminded of her earliest days coaching the Wildcats; working with an up-and-coming team with lots of potential.

After graduating a number of experienced runners, Bullis will be counting on her returning veterans, but also knows there will be lots of opportunities for younger runners to step up.

“I am in a rebuilding phase for sure,” Bullis said. “I have some freshmen girls that have to fill varsity spots and that’s a big step for some of them.”

Alpena’s girls team has no seniors, but Bullis has a quartet of juniors with plenty of experience and leadership ability. Among the junior returners is Madi Szymanski, who will look to follow up on a solid sophomore season. Szymanski quickly became a standout last year and is already off to a good start in 2020 after winning the girls race at the Rau Invitational in West Branch last week.

Alpena brought home a trophy last week and had three medalists at the Rau Invite.

The Wildcats’ other returning juniors are Veronica Zaborney, Karlin Decker and Grace Mitchell.

Alpena’s freshmen runners include Cailyn Burrone, Alison Borowski, Samantha Zolierek, Hannah Tracey and Emma Dickins, who was Alpena’s top freshman finisher in last week’s season opener.

Bullis said her newcomers are working hard and several of them will ultimately help fill out Alpena’s varsity seven.

Alpena’s boys team has four seniors–Brendan Stepaniak, Ben Poli, Eli Rondeau and Blake Macdonald–who will provide depth as the Wildcats’ figure out their lineup going forward.

“I feel like we have a good core of about four or five right now,” Bullis said.

Alpena’s other returners include juniors Jacob Kochanski, Reed Sexton, Matthew Guest, Tom Sheridan and Hayden Allen and sophomores Hunter Hitzelberger, Owen Mendel and Eli Allen.

Hayden Allen led Alpena in last week’s opener with a second place finish, Kochanski finished sixth and Stepaniak won the JV race. In all Alpena brought home a trophy and 10 medals.

For the early part of the season, Alpena’s lineup also included several football players, who joined the team to stay conditioned with the early postponement of the football season.

The Michigan High School Athletic Association reinstated football for the fall last week, so Ryan Voltz, Zachary Kunath and a few other players will likely be headed back to the gridiron.

Kunath and Voltz finished third and fourth respectively in the JV race.

Due to concerns about COVID-19 and efforts to deter its spread, competing in races looks a little different this season.

Races in other spots in Northern Michigan have seen teams spaced apart at the starting line, multiple races depending on the number of competing teams and course modifications aimed at keeping runners from bunching up on the course.

Runners must also wear masks on the course in accordance with an executive order issued last week that mandates masks at during all practices and competitions.

The Michigan High School Athletic Association is currently seeking clarification on this point as part of its Return to Play guidelines.

It’s been an uncertain time for teams in all sports across the state, with constant schedule changes and shifting safety protocols, but Bullis is thankful her team has the chance to compete this season.

“Now that they’re here, they’re excited to race. But it’s been a goat rodeo because I didn’t release a schedule to parents. It’s changing daily,” Bullis said.

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