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WIAA state track and field: Onalaska girls relays bond after loss

Mar 19, 2023

Onalaska High School senior Alli Thomas comes down the final stretch during the 800-meter relay Saturday at the second day of the WIAA state track and field meet.

Onalaska seniors Josie Blum, Alli Thomas and Taylor Molling show show off bracelets and words written on their forearms to honor late teammate Carmen Roraff at the WIAA state track and field meet.

The smile on the face of Alli Thomas as she crossed the finish line in the Division 1 800-meter relay final last Saturday demonstrated its meaning clearly.

Coaches and competitors often talk about making sure that big events are made to feel normal.

"We want it to be just like any other game," they say.

The Onalaska High School track and field program had no intention of making any part of the previous week normal. Those qualifying for the WIAA state meet saw no point.

It was already as abnormal as could be.

The Hilltoppers were missing a person — a very important person — after the unexpected passing of classmate Carmen Roraff last Tuesday. Roraff made a chunk of a big weekend possible with her contribution to two relay teams that advanced through a sectional five days before she passed.

The incident rocked both the team and community, and the payoff for everything they’d worked together to accomplish was on the horizon. She was also much more than a runner on a relay team. She was a friend and teammate they adored.

"When we were informed, we gathered and we spent a few hours just being together," Onalaska coach Darin Shepardson said. "There were a lot of tears, there was a lot of consoling."

It was, for the lack of a better word, hard.

Thomas, fellow seniors Taylor Molling and Josie Blum and the rest of the team leaned on each other as much as they could.

It hurt to have an empty chair at a team dinner that Wednesday night, and it hurt to have to talk about what was going to be done about Roraff's absence from the 400 and 800 relay lineups at state.

But this was a reason for them to be excited about their accomplishments and the possibility of something bigger to come, and that also had to be a point of emphasis.

"Carmen was so full of enthusiasm all the time," Molling said. "Anytime she would (set a personal record), it was pure excitement. I know she would want us to carry on that enthusiasm and excitement through anything we do."

That poured out after a third-place performance in the 800 relay Saturday afternoon at the Veteran Memorial Field Sports Complex.

Thomas was the one who got to complete the effort, and she quickly ran from the track to the infield to share the time of 1 minute, 42.6 seconds with her friends.

"It meant a lot," Thomas said. "More than what I can describe. I was in tears. I saw Taylor and ran right up to her, and then the rest of our teammates ran across the field.

"None of us had to say anything because we knew what we just did and how important it was to us."

Roraff helped that team qualify, and those she left behind felt like she was able to enjoy it with them. The girls expressed no desire — yet — to move on because it was so new. Roraff's connection to the team's success made them include her in the experience.

They couldn't talk to her or strategize with her or cheer her on. They couldn't hug her in celebration or consolation. But they could be inspired by her.

Roraff's presence was alive in the green ribbons — an offshoot from her love of turtles — made by Thomas as a way to cope and worn by qualifiers and coaches. They also made bracelets and wrote her name on their forearms. Soccer players wore green hair bands last week, and the Mississippi Valley Pride club softball program plans to wear green shoelaces this summer.

"Carmen was and still is a very important part of this team," Thomas said. "She is a driving force behind our whole team, and with our hearts, we knew we could tell Shep that we still wanted to do this."

What the Hilltoppers did on Saturday was win four medals.

The team of Makena McGarry, Molling, Isabella Malecek and Thomas started things off with the third-place finish in the 800 relay.

Kasey Barth, Nicky Odom, Gavin Ridge and Braden Burke followed that up in the very next race with a sixth-place finish and time of 1:28.42 in the same event.

Thomas later placed fourth in the 300 hurdles (44.78) and led off a 1,600 relay that also included Molling, Malecek and Isabela Gutierrez and resulted in another third-place finish and time of 3:55.77.

It was important to compete because it was something they could do together. The medal-winning performances were icing on the cake.

"In some respects, this is therapy." Shepardson said, "and we need this."

Blum, who also qualified in the triple jump and was an inch away from adding to the medal count, said the purpose of competing at the state meet could be multi-purpose.

"We know that what we are doing, we are doing for her," Blum said. "But we’re also doing it for ourselves but in honor for her because we know that's what she’d want.

"She's still here with us."

Todd Sommerfeldt can be reached at [email protected] or via Twitter @SommerfeldtLAX

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Sports editor

Todd Sommerfeldt has covered sports for the La Crosse Tribune since 2003 after doing the same previously in the Fox Cities and Rock County. He can be reached at 608-791-8208.

He was, perhaps, the most unassuming record-breaker the WIAA state track and field meet has ever produced.

It was 12:37 a.m. as Bennett Fried stood with his back to the finish line of the track at the Veterans Memorial Field Sports Complex.

"This is surreal, and I couldn't have asked for a better way to go out," Conzemius said while reflecting back on the four championships.

The sophomore cleared 5 feet, 8 inches to win her second high jump title.

Berths in the state baseball tournament are on the line in two states as WIAA sectionals and MSHSL sections wind down on Tuesday.