“To make some noise at the state meet, the girls will need to run the best they have all year. Our goals are to get Ella around 19 minutes, Payton around 20:30, the twins (Gwen and Olivia Steffen) around 21 minutes, then we need one of the other three to hit something at or below 22 minutes." - Panorama head coach Greg Thompson 

Riding the back of one of the state’s top runners is certainly a blessing. But a deep talent pool may be the ultimate deciding factor as Panorama makes a push toward glory. 

The Panther girls’ cross country team embarks on yet another journey to the top during Saturday’s Class 2A state meet, as they try to build off last year’s runner-up finish. 

Granted, that success 12 months ago came in a lower class, the unit is still just as talented and maybe even a little more seasoned. 

Fifth-ranked Panorama’s crown jewel is of course, the record-setting Ella Waddle, who’s fresh off a dominant state qualifying meet victory Oct. 18, but she’s also got a slew of teammates who back her up quite well. After losing two instrumental seniors from last year’s near-miss runner-up squad, the Panthers’ have barely missed a beat thanks to a flock of veterans as well as several newcomers. 

“I knew coming in this year that we had a strong freshman class that had the potential to replace those seniors, unfortunately, one switched to volleyball (Laci Rishel),” Panorama head coach Greg Thompson said. “Laci and Payton were very close competitively in placing and in performance as 8th graders last season.”

PHS even got better amongst their most veteran athletes, as Payton Beckman made a move to the top-tier, regularly finishing in the top 10 this fall along with Waddle. 

“(She) has really made a big difference to this team,” Thompson said. “She has come in and done a nice job being our No. 2 runner. That was actually a surprise. I thought she would be a top five runner for us, but I was expecting her to be a No. 3 or No. 4 runner.”

The taste of last year’s success still lingers as the girls’ take aim at the 2A title this fall. A familiarity with the Fort Dodge Lakeside Course and all the emotions that surround a state meet will only assist the girls as they step to the starting line Saturday afternoon. 

“I know what the atmosphere is like,” Waddle said. “I know what the crowd is like. There are parts of the course when the crowd is really loud.”

Waddle powered Panorama’s state qualifying title by capturing victory with a time of 19:38.68, which is the ninth-best qualifying time in the field. That number would be the top qualifying run in all of 1A, where she competed last year. Payton Beckman was fifth with a time of 21:40.56, Olivia Steffen was eighth with a time of 22:02.98 while Gwen Steffen was 11th at 22:05.35

The Panthers won the team title with 55 points, adding to a continuously growing pool of titles, out-lasting 14th-ranked Shenandoah by 47 points. Waddle continues to extend her school record win total, which now sits at six, thanks to five triumphs this fall alone. 

A top-tier finish Saturday is the expectation, and the Panthers have a solid shot at doing so. They’ll compete against defending champion Mid-Prairie and top-ranked Marie Hostetter, second-ranked Williamsburg, third-ranked WC-KP, fifth-ranked Cascade and sixth-ranked Jesup. All of Class 2A’s top 10 will be present Saturday, including Aplington-Parkersburg, Dike-New Hartford, Crestwood and Waukon as well as a slew of ranked individuals. 

The competition will be fierce, which is why head coach Greg Thompson will have his girls ready.  

“To make some noise at the state meet, the girls will need to run the best they have all year,” Thompson said. “Our goals are to get Ella around 19 minutes, Payton around 20:30, the twins (Gwen and Olivia Steffen) around 21 minutes, then we need one of the other three to hit something at or below 22 minutes. 

If we can do that, we will score about the same as last year which would put us in the top five in 2A.  Our goal is to be top five, but would be happy with top 10.”

Getting safely through the opening stretch of the Lakeside Course and into the heart of the route will be key. A fast jump off the line will do wonders for a hungry and thriving Panorama squad. 

“I know the start and have a good idea what to do at the start with the caliber of the field,” Chloe Webster said. “The start is the worst part.”

As Saturday nears, Thompson will continue to push his girls in practice, but not without a little reward for their success to this point. The Panthers will pop up to Deal’s Orchard outside of Jefferson as one last hurrah before the state meet. Then, it’s back to focusing on the goal at hand. 

“We will keep the intensity but lower the mileage,” the coach said. “I’ve done a complete taper in the past, and we ended up not running well. Last year, we ran very well, so I am following a very similar plan.”