The Onalaska High School girls cross country team runs deeper than the eye-opening talent of Malecek triplets.

The Hilltoppers placed third in Saturday’s WIAA Division 1 state cross country meet, and all seven runners on the team were freshmen.

But, there were a couple runners who didn’t run at Ridges Golf Course in Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., who bring just as much value.

Jenny Harding was Onalaska’s No. 1 runner last year as a freshman. She’s now its No. 9 runner after suffering a stress response in one of her feet before the season began.

Harding has adapted to her role with the team. She hasn’t allowed herself to feel sympathy. She’s actually felt determined to get back running with the third-place team and compete with them in 2018 season.

“She has a heart the size of Texas,” Onalaska coach Darin Shepardson said. “She wants to be a phenomenal runner. To be No. 1 last year and now be No. 9 this year, that could really discourage a person. I did not have to coddle Jenny one bit. The other girls that came in, (and) they really embraced Jenny.”

Doctors told Harding she could run with the stress response, but it could have turned into a fracture.

So, the injury sidelined her for six weeks in the summer, which is a crucial time for runners to get their aerobic fitness in top shape.

She started coming back at the beginning of the season, but not at the caliber to be with a runner like Kora Malecek.

Shepardson doesn’t believe Harding is quite back to 100 percent, but when she does, that can make the Hilltoppers lineup that much stronger.

“She’s got the opportunity to train with some of the best runners in the state,” the Onalaska coach said. “She did a great job getting back into shape. Everyone has their little journey. She’s a really good runner and she wants to be really good.”

Last season, Harding received second-team all-conference honors by finishing 11th at the MVC meet in 20 minutes, 59 seconds. She and then-Logan freshman Marlie Voigt were the only two in their class to be on the first or second team. This year, there were seven freshman in the top 14 conference finishers.

Harding was 51st in last year’s sectional meet, and no Hilltoppers girls made it to state.

Freshman Olivia Delgado is the No. 8 runner for Onalaska. Delgado ran a few varsity meets and won the conference junior varsity race by 20 seconds at 21:24.

The runner-up? Harding, who ran a 21:44.

Of course, the Nos. 4 through 7 runners made a big impact behind the triplets this season.

The other four Onalaska runners that completed the team were Carolin Kearns, Aubrey Clements, Ellie Smith and Rachel Hosch.

Smith finished fourth among Hilltoppers runners with a 52nd-place finish in 19:54. Clements, Kearns and Hosch all dropped below the top 100 but all three of them improved their positioning from the 1-mile marker to the finish line.

“Not one of those teams at state would be where they are without their three top runners,” Shepardson said. “In the same token, not one team could do what they did without their next four runners.

“When I saw these girls run in middle school, they had the potential,” Shepardson added. “They had to buy into the concept that this is bigger than just them. They have to be a team. You can’t get it done with individuals. They did a great job of buying into the pillars of making a really good cross country team.”

Kearns was tabbed as the No. 4 runner before Saturday’s race. She, along with Harding, dealt with foot problems.

The Hilltoppers coaching staff had to pull the reins on Kearns’s practice regiment, and Shepardson admitted that Kearns didn’t run much leading up to the MVC meet.

Albeit the light running, Kearns ran a 21:06 that got her 14th at Maple Grove earlier this month. Even though she finished in the top 15, she was seventh among Onalaska runners.

But, at the state meet Saturday, Shepardson thought the three back runners got caught in a pack they couldn’t get out of.

“I think they got a little bit tentative and got out a bit more conservatively,” he said. “I wanted them to get out with the triplets. Ellie did that. Aubrey was a little upset because she got out too conservatively, and the other two felt the same way.”

They’re just freshmen. They have plenty of opportunities to run at Ridges again. But, the training has to be done year-round, not just in the summer.

“The key to running is consistent training,” Shepardson said. “What that group needs to do — ask (Gale-Ettrick-Trempealeau’s) Dana (Feyen) or (Luther’s David) Vannuchi — they live the life of a boring distance runner. They do the things when no one is looking and champions do that over the course of a a whole year.”

CASHTON ENDS SEASON STRONG: Cashton’s Gracey Mlsna believed Saturday’s performance was her best and most nervewracking yet.

The Cashton sophomore finished in 21:05, which got her a 42nd-place spot in the Division 3 race.

“I was strong throughout the entire race,” Mlsna said. “I was confident in what I was doing.”

Emma Schlesner was 90th (22:18), while freshman Izzi Mason just missed the top 100 (101, 22:33).

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