High School Cross Country: Richard Mitchell Invitational

Aquinas’ Mitch Ellis, center, trails West Salem’s Charlie McKinney and leads teammate Andrew Skemp Thursday in the Richard Mitchell Invitational at Pettibone Park.

The Aquinas High School boys cross country team took things to a new level in 2018.

The Blugolds had won an MVC championship before. They had even advanced to the WIAA state meet as sectional champions. But they had never finished a season with a clean title sweep before last fall.

Aquinas basked in the glory of the successful season, but this year and the chance to follow up the performance came with a pair of unknowns after the team’s top two runners — Ethan Gregg and Peter Glodosky — graduated.

The open spots created some questions, but the team got its answer in the form of juniors Mitch Ellis and Andrew Skemp and is ranked second in Division 3 by state coaches.

High School Cross Country: Richard Mitchell Invitational

Aquinas’ Andrew Skemp runs Thursday in the Richard Mitchell Invitational at Pettibone Park.

“Last year we did really well, but we lost our top two guys, and it feels a little emptier without them,” Ellis said. “Filling in those spots just kind of happened naturally with me and (Andrew) Skemp. There’s not too much of a difference, but we miss their personality and vibe that they brought to the team.”

The Ellis-Skemp duo has been leading the team both physically and mentally. Ellis secured a fifth-place finish in the Dick Mitchell Invitational at Pettibone Park last week with a time of 17 minutes, 11.7 seconds. And even though Skemp (17:37.1) was battling an illness during the meet, he still managed to place 11th.

As a whole, the Blugolds have still managed to stay on pace for a successful year. Besides the state ranking, Aquinas won the Dick Mitchell Invitational with a team score of 60 thanks to four top-15 finishes. Senior Zachary Degroot (17:31.3) finished ninth, and sophomore Alex Taylor (17:49.0) came in 15th.

Then, it won the Chileda Classic on Monday with all of its scoring runners finishing among the top 10 and runner-up Ellis (17:16.3) leading the way.

The Blugolds started the 2019 season on the right foot by winning the Gale Johnson Invitational with a score of 47, which was comfortably ahead of second place Onalaska (101).

Skemp won the meet with a time of 16:37.1, and Ellis (16:59.1) placed third with his best time of the season.

The team’s success so far stems off of last season’s high of winning state, according to 19-year coach Geoff Wilhelmy. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t added pressure to live up to the hype.

“The kids had so much fun winning state last year that they want to do it again this year, which was shown through their productive summer training,” Wilhelmy said. “Of course there’s high expectations, though. But I think that’s countered by the fact that they just really going running, and we’re so fortunate of the environment we have to train in, which is Hixon Forest. You can’t get any better than that.”

Ellis doesn’t mind the high expectations, but paying attention to state rankings and top-place finishes is something that gets put on the back burner. His, ‘think over know,’ philosophy is something that takes precedence over rankings.

“For me personally, I don’t really care much for something like state rankings,” he said. “The team likes it, and I sometimes do, too. But in a way I don’t like to be up there because that can kind of limit you.

“If you know you can do something you’re going to try a little bit less, but if you think you can do something you’re probably going to try a lot more.”