Squads look to preserve, progress in new year

Photos by Rachel Mummey/The Herald
Jasper’s Karlie Eckert, left, helped hoist Haley Kilian into the air after the Wildcats claimed their third straight sectional last May in Leopold. Jasper, Southridge, Northeast Dubois and Heritage Hills all return individual sectional champions, Forest Park looks to build upon last year’s second-place finish at sectional and the Cats and Raiders look to replace state finalists.

Herald Sports Writer

For any team that’s experienced success, a coach’s fear might be the unalterable swerve toward complacency.

However, when Jasper coach Dean Jerger brought a handful of Wildcats to the Hoosier State Relays a couple weeks ago in Marion, any angst about his girls becoming satisfied with past prosperity — three straight sectional titles and 10 straight Big Eight Conference crowns — quickly faded.

“We definitely have to get a lot better. They realized they weren’t in the type of shape they have to be in,” Jerger said. “The girls came back (from Marion) motivated and ready to get better in practice. And in that sense, it was a very successful day.”

So far, Jerger has seen a great attitude out of his group of 48, which welds a sturdy 10-girl senior class with some budding underclassmen.

Defending 400-meter sectional champion Haley Kilian returns to anchor Jasper’s middle-distance crew, while three runners from the sectional-winning 400 relay team — senior Karlie Eckert and sophomores Hannah Sibrel and Ally Metzger — are back as well.

Seniors should be scattered everywhere. Alyssa Lawyer (seventh in sectional shot put) and Wanda Bolaños will be looked at to pick up points in throwing events, while Annie Stenftenagel (pole vault) and Alex Hurm, who finished fourth in high jump at last year’s sectional, should solidify Jasper’s field events.

Senior Laura Renner will fuse with classmate Sydney Berger and a crop of other cross country runners fresh off a trip to the state finals to form the Cats’ distance crew. Hannah Welsh, who finished third in the 1,600 at last spring’s sectional, is recovering well from a stress fracture in her leg and should help along with freshman Tara Cassidy, Hannah’s twin sister Rachael and a cast of others. Sophomore Erin Leinenbach, junior Madeline Hurst and freshman Annie Stout could factor into the middle-distance plan, though Jerger may also team Stout with Sibrel in sprint events, where the team must replace 2013 graduate and five-time state finalist Darian Mehne.

Three sectionals in three years. However, Jerger stresses, results don’t just materialize.

“There’s not guarantees,” Jerger said. “I don’t want them to think it’s a matter of just showing up. We have to work to achieve (a sectional title). But as long as they keep working like they have, I think we’ll be all right.”

With this year’s Raider squad, it’s a similar scene. With one glaring exception.

With the graduation of thrower Morgan Meyer, a two-time state finalist, Southridge looks to fill that void while also working with an 18-girl crew that’s still young but very talented, Raider coach Elaine Main feels.

It starts with sophomore Kadie Dearing and junior Aubrey Main. Dearing placed second behind Jasper’s Mehne in the 200 and Kilian in the 400 at sectional while also swiping third in the 100, and looks to be the Raiders’ only true sprinter. Main, who finished fourth in the 800 at regional, might also be thrown into some sprint races as well. To boot, Main soared 5 feet, 7 inches in the high jump qualifications at the Hoosier State Relays — four inches higher than her best last spring — before winning the event with a leap of 5-5.

The Raiders also return their hurdling tandem of junior Sidney Eckert and sophomore Taylor Neukam, who also returns as the squad’s pole vaulter. Meanwhile, sophomores Haley Barnett and Sydney Altmeyer will head the throwing events. With the distance races, sophomore Casey Lamb will log miles alongside German exchange student Judith Ott and freshman Lauren Meyer.

While patching the void left by Meyer still remains the top priority for the Raiders, Elaine Main said with a group that still looks quite similar, expectations should stay resemblant as well.

The checklist stays the same: a winning season, aim for a Pocket Athletic Conference crown, take as many girls as they can to regional and push at least one on to the state finals, where the Raiders have had at least one representative the past nine seasons.

“We’re hoping to keep that going,” Main said.

Southridge’s Aubrey Main will look to defend her sectional titles in the 800-meter run and high jump.

Ranger coach Rachel Hinson’s group has been doing things no other Forest Park team has ever done this preseason.

By Hinson’s count, the team is the first to have steeplechased over mounds of snow that cluttered the track and have become pioneers of Ranger ice skating to reach melted parts of the track to run on.

“I think that was the first time in school history we’ve had to do that,” Hinson kidded.

OK, so the “firsts” are a bit misleading. But they’re also quite telling of the intentness her 33-girl team possesses. It’s a group that’s heavy in both the senior and freshman classes, which “provides a depth we haven’t had before,” Hinson said.

The Rangers’ biggest strength arises in sprints, where senior Tori Lange looks to be a frontrunner in the 100 after capturing second at sectional last year. She’ll be joined by freshman Madisyn Hunt, who had a great sprint career in junior high, where the Rangers won their first middle school PAC title last spring.

Hinson lauded the work ethic of senior Chloe Dilger (hurdles) and juniors Taylor Tretter (pole vault) and Lydia Schnieders (throwing), who hit the weights particularly hard this offseason.

Sophomore Emma Fraze, who was hampered by shin splints last spring, appears ready to guide the middle-distance crew and could also factor into the 1,600, while freshman Shelby Louden could provide similar flexibility.

What’s stood out most to Hinson has been the senior core’s guidance. Savanna Haas, Demi Jahn, Claire Dooley and Madi Boeglin, who’s nearing the end of her rehab from a torn ACL, have all stepped up as part of a senior class that’s “just been phenomenal about how they lead,” Hinson said.

If there’s one thing Jeep coach Tammy Schulthies doesn’t need to be told, it’s that her squad’s got talent.

Problem is, she just wishes it came with a bit more abundance.

It’s the perpetual struggle of a small school, she reckons, albeit one that collared several top-three sectional finishes as well last spring, and a championship in the 100 hurdles by Alicia Betz.

Betz, a senior, returns to defend her crown, while classmate Kateland Bailey looks to better her school pole vault record, which she set with her 10-foot, fifth-place mark at last year’s regional.

Betz and Bailey are among a senior class that helped the Jeeps capture their sixth straight Blue Chip Conference title last spring. And now, Schulthies has seen the team’s veterans not only elevate their own marks but hoist the underclassmen up with them.

“These seniors have become really good leaders,” Schulthies said. “They’ve taken the younger kids under their wings and really encouraged them.”

Betz has tutored some freshmen and sophomores in the hurdles, while classmate Latesha Merkel, who anchors the distance brigade, has helped the younger Jeeps get acclimated to farther distances.

Rachel Breitwieser will likely trade in her post in the 400 for the 800, where Schulthies has been pleased with the senior’s progress. Meanwhile, junior Brynn Hoffman will likely stay put in sprints and the long jump,  events in which she competed at the regional as a sophomore. Ashton Knies will compete in the high jump and offers flexibility elsewhere, while fellow junior Kelli Reutman (pole vault, hurdles) and senior Kaytlynn Dodd (shot put) should boost the Jeeps as well.

In a sport with so much turnover, the most reassuring thing for Patriot coach Dawn Mix is how familiar the faces are she sees at practice.

The Pats’ nine seniors have all stayed with the track team since middle school, a testament to longevity and commitment Mix hopes her 10 freshmen catch wind of.

“I hope the underclassmen see that and use them as role models when they move up to be seniors,” Mix said.

And they could be models for more than just loyalty by season’s end, given their contributions at sectional and PAC as Heritage Hills finished third in both last spring.

While Heritage Hills graduated Kandace Buechler, who climbed to a sectional-record 10 feet in last year’s pole vault competition, the Patriots do bring back a bevy of capable contributors.

Junior Sienna Crews, a two-time defending sectional champ and state finals entrant in the 1,600, will be counted on to steer the Patriot distance crew, while senior Nikki Welch should also work into the 1,600 race and 3,200 relay, in which she and Crews helped the Pats place runner-up at last May’s sectional.

Haley Pierson should be the team’s go-to in the pole vault after the senior worked with Buechler the past three seasons. Fellow senior Gabby Yeager, who placed second behind Jasper’s Mehne in the long jump at sectional, returns as well.

Seniors Mary Ellen Laughlin and Stephanie Schaeffer could find their way into a relay this spring, while classmates Allison Smith, who’s been willing to run wherever Mix needs her, Bailey Pierson (hurdles, long jump), Aubrey Marrs (pole vault) and Morgan Neighbors (thrower) have all blended nicely into the mix so far.

Contact Joe Jasinski

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