Tiny tweak has Raiders clear for takeoff

Sarah Ann Jump/The Herald
Southridge’s Sidney Bartelt, left, and Kenzie Neukam have taken their end-of-season rise all the way to Bloomington for the state finals along with 400-meter relay teammates Grace Meece and Alexis Brady. Raider throwers Karli Meyer and Tori Tretter are also state-bound along with Heritage Hills’ Jenna Burns.


No one really believed it would work, but after a string of disappointing finishes, the Southridge girls 400-meter relay team decided to give it a shot.

Their coach, Ted O’Brien, suggested altering the style of their handoffs. The change really only amounted to each runner shifting over a couple inches in the lane. Turns out, that was enough to boost a Raider team consisting of three freshmen and a sophomore to a sectional title, and now, an appearance in Saturday’s state finals in Bloomington. The Raider relay of sophomore Kenzie Neukam and freshmen Sidney Bartelt, Alexis Brady and Grace Meece will have company at state from Southridge’s pair of throwers, Tori Tretter and Karli Meyer. Tretter will compete in the discus, while Meyer will participate in shot put and Heritage Hills sophomore Jenna Burns will also race in the 200.

“I doubted it at first,” Bartelt said. “It was out of my comfort zone. I didn’t think it would help us at all, but then after giving it a go, here we are.”

What changed is where each Raider stands in the lane during baton exchanges. If she’s running a straightaway, she sprints on the outside of the lane with the baton in her left hand. She hands to a teammate running the curve on the inside of the track, and she’ll carry the baton in her right hand. Before, they all carried the baton in their right hands, resulting in clunkier handoffs and each girl running on the outside of her lane.



“By cutting in, you’d be surprised, it cuts off quite a few seconds,” Meece said.

It’s trimmed three seconds, to be exact, which in the sprinting world can be a massive dip in the course of a month. It’s dropped the team’s time to within a half-second of the school record of 50.85 from 1985. When the Raiders claimed the sectional title, they sprinted to a 51.23. Still, the new handoff style isn’t entirely comfortable just yet.

“It’s not as flexible,” Brady said. “It feels like we might drop it more often than we could have at the beginning of the year.”

Still, Brady said, the Raiders haven’t botched an exchange yet or come close to doing so since the adjustment. What has happened has been more surprising. Now, the Raiders simply feel quicker.

“We noticed we were actually a lot faster than we thought,” Meece said. “Then whenever we started winning at meets and started getting really close to the school record, I think we really started to come up with the idea we had a big change so we started changing a few things to get faster.”

All four said the fact they’re competing in the state finals is still a little hard to believe. They recognize the achievement was in reaching this weekend in the first place.

After their sectional win, Bartelt said other teams were asking her if the Raiders picked up a new runner on the relay. The last time most teams had competed against them came in the Southridge Invitational, where the Raiders took sixth. A month later, the young group is competing with the state’s best.

“It’s pretty cool because I don’t think many teams have three freshmen and a sophomore,” Brady said. “Most have a couple juniors and seniors and they’re pretty up there in skill. Just to throw a couple freshmen together that don’t really know what they’re doing this year is pretty great.”

So, was there ever a thought they could reach this point?

The unanimous answer, without much hesitation: Not a chance.

“I wanted to move on from sectional, that was my goal,” Neukam said. “I’m sure a lot of other kids set goals like that, but I really didn’t think we were going to make it to state. It’s very shocking for me.”

Each Raider agreed: this has all been a bit stunning. Especially since it all came down to simply  shifting a couple inches in a lane. Neukam had just started assuming the Raiders weren’t that fast, while Brady said “I really didn’t think we were that fast as a team together.” But once the change was instituted, the difference was felt immediately.

Bartelt said it was just before the Pocket Athletic Conference meet when they realized just how much faster they were running.

“We all knew we were fast, but I’ve been doing hurdles so I’ve never been in a 100 race before,” Meece said. “Just to put us all together really got a good team by finding how fast all four of us were and how well all of our handoffs work together. I think we found a really good team there.”

Once the Raiders really started to realize just how fast they had a chance to go, that’s when they fully bought into O’Brien’s suggestion. After the team started winning meets, the idea of winning sectional started creeping in, and the belief of placing well at regional sprouted.

Now, there’s one more step left to take.

“Our main goal is going to beat the school record,” Meece said. “We got really close so we’re hoping to beat it at state, because it would be really cool to say ‘We beat the record at state as freshmen.’”

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