There is an undeniable tradition of success that surrounds the Viroqua cross country program.

The Blackhawk boys have been first or second in the Coulee Conference in each of the last six seasons. The Viroqua girls have been Coulee champions for three consecutive years.

Viroqua coach Scott Benzing is entering his 14th season as head cross country coach. He’s built a program that has brought out a large number of participants.

The Blackhawks have taken advantage of a travel incentive for all cross country runners. Once each four years, the cross country team travels to a meet in Hawaii — meaning that once in their cross country careers, students have a chance at taking a once-in-a-lifetime trip.

While Viroqua doesn’t have Hawaii on its schedule this season, it does have a number of key returning runners on both the boys and girls teams that give the Blackhawks an edge on the competition. Benzing called this year’s team “talented and motivated.”

“We are setting high goals, working extremely hard to achieve those goals, and we plan to have a lot of fun along the way,” Benzing said. “No matter what happens at the end of the season, as long as our athletes focus on consistent improvement while working hard to improve as leaders, this will be a season of significance.”

The boys team is flat-out loaded. They return last season’s individual conference champion, senior Isaiah Abt, who also was a state qualifier.

All-conference runners senior JJ McClelland, Jeremy Lee, Ethan Ackman and senior Alex Maldonado are also back. This means Benzing already has five all-conference runners who could potentially make up the team’s top five in any given meet.

While having these scorers back is huge; Benzing also sees big returns from senior Keaton Nemes.

“Keaton Nemes is possibly one of the most improved runners with whom I have ever worked,” Benzing said.

Another senior for the boys is Jack Poshepny.

The girls also return five all-conference runners in senior Mackenzie Schneider, senior Madelyn Wiltrout, Jessica Abt, Samantha Dach and Joslyn Dearborn. Schneider, Wiltrout and Abt all were individual state qualifiers. Schneider is a two-time state qualifier.

Pushing that group is returning runner Olivia Amrhein, who was consistently in the top seven of all runners for Viroqua last year.

Among the seniors for the Viroqua girls are Brianna Abt, Jessica Bomkamp and Katie Fitzwater.

One interesting note is that Isaiah Abt and Jessica Abt are siblings — and both state qualifiers from a year ago.

Westby, Arcadia and West Salem have all put out quality teams on a regular basis in the Coulee. Benzing says competition will be fierce.

“In the conference championships last year, the top three or four teams were separated by just a few points,” Benzing said. “I am looking forward to how the conference championships will come together this season. It should be a very tight and competitive race. Our goal is to be competitive with the top teams and to continue improving as the season progresses.”

Benzing is happy to have the returning all-conference runners, but not just because of their scoring potential. Instead, Benzing sees them as leaders who can teach a strong work ethic to more than 15 runners who are new to the program.

“Our biggest goals are for our runners to dedicate themselves to constant improvement while displaying characteristics that will reflect positively on our school and our community,” Benzing said.

The message to runners is to “Set high goals, work hard, have fun, and enjoy this time because it goes by fast,” Benzing said.

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