Outside of the respective North and South Dakota state meets, there simply isn't a better showcase of track and field talent in this area than the Howard Wood Dakota Relays. It's an event that's taken place in Sioux Falls (nearly) every spring since 1923, and the scope of it as a premier competition has only grown over the years.
This past weekend, over 3,000 athletes from the region's colleges, high schools and even middle schools gathered on the north side of the city for the annual event. For some athletes, the mid-season meet offered the best competition they'll go up against all year, while for others, it provided an opportunity to establish or cement a legacy.
With so much happening on the track and in the field on Friday and Saturday, let's take a look back at the events and performances that really stood out.
Boys Special 800m: Witt Injured, Lily Shines
The Boys Special 800m was pegged as a battle between the top mid-distance runners from the quad-state area, with Minnesota, Iowa, and North and South Dakota all represented in the field. And while it lived up to that distinction - each state placed at least one finisher in the top five - the top South Dakota representation was different than most would've guessed at the meet's outset. With three straight Class A 800m titles and a top seed time of 1:53.36, Brennan Witt of Custer was understandably earmarked by most as the pre-race favorite, yet the hamstring tightness that hit the NDSU recruit midway through the first lap would extinguish any hope of a real challenge; Witt would finish at the back of the pack in a still-impressive mark of 2:01.62, especially given the injury.
In Witt's stead at the front of the South Dakota contingent was Wessington Springs' Jase Kraft, a multiple champion at the state meet in his own right, though in Class B and in longer distances. (Kraft won the 1600m and 3200m in 2012.) Despite being seeded 7th, the University of Sioux Falls-bound senior quickly headed to the front of the pack and stayed there throughout the race, showing great determination and heart to keep pace in a distance that he's less suited to. He would finish in 3rd place by a mere five-tenths of a second behind the long strides of Bismarck's Dylan Werner.
Kraft's grit was admirable, but the race belonged to Sioux City East's Carter Lily from the beginning. The Black Raider senior, who had won the 800m at the Drake Relays in record-setting time a week ago, took the initiative from the outset, as he charged to the front from his starting position in Lane 3 and never relinquished the lead. Despite challenges from Kraft throughout and especially from Werner in the final 50 meters, the future Iowa Hawkeye runner was able to hold off all comers to claim his second major prize in back-to-back weeks, winning in a time of 1:55.80.
Girls Special 200m: No One Like Dowling
While the Boys Special 800m was a toss-up going into Friday night, the outcome of the Girls Special 200m was much less in doubt, especially for those who had seen Pierre's Cortney Dowling on the track this spring. The Pierre sophomore had only gotten better since winning the AA 100m and 200m the year previous, and after besting two of the top Special 200m challengers (Sturgis' Brooke Ireland and RC Central's Alaina Klapperich) on her home track the week previous, it appeared the Dakota Relays would be more a coronation than a competition. In the end, Dowling delivered, breaking the 25-second mark in the process and besting all comers to confirm her spot at the top of the podium for the foreseeable future.
In all fairness, Dowling was tested by Watertown's Macy Denzer, a great sophomore sprinter in her own right who placed in the top four in the three sprint events at the State AAs in 2013. Starting in Lace 7, Denzer had the best start of anyone in the field and was virtually even with Dowling through the first 100 meters, yet the Cap City's finest had too much speed on the final stretch, pulling away to win in a time of 24.78, a full seven-tenths better than Denzer. (A reminder: in the distance events, 0.7 of a second is nothing. In a sprint? It's an eternity.)
Central's Klapperich would put in a strong performance to finish 3rd, while Sioux Falls Christian's Miranda Velgersdyk would pick up a surprising 4th place finish for the Chargers. After her SFC teammate, Stacy Smidt, was forced to withdraw from the Special 200m earlier in the week with lingering doubts about a recurring hamstring problem, race alternate Velgersdyk was asked to step in to fill her spot. While she couldn't quite conjure shades of SFC alternate-turned-champion Colin Koth from the Special 400m in 2008, she still did herself - and her injured teammate - more than proud.
Elsewhere on the Track
While the Dakota Relays Special Events receive a large portion of the Howard Wood spotlight, they were by no means the only source of excitement from the two-day event. Lots of great performances were on display this past weekend, though the meet-record breaking performances of Will Lauer of Sioux Falls Lincoln, Landon Jochim of Bismarck Century and Alexis Gannon of Brookings initially come to mind.
Gannon emphatically showed again this weekend that she’s the best jumper in the state, winning the Long Jump by over half a foot and setting a new meet record in the Triple Jump at 39’ 8 ½”, besting the old mark set in 1995 by 11”. (There’s a reason she’ll be jumping in the ACC next year for the Tar Heels of UNC.) Coming into this season, the AA girls Triple competition looked to be a toss-up between Gannon and Rapid City Central's Colette Christensen, as each had won a state title in the event in the previous two years, but if the Bobcat senior continues performing like this, there will be little chance of that crown changing hands when the two jump at Howard Wood again in three weeks' time.
Jochim's record-breaking effort came in the 400m, where he outlasted a top field that included Lincoln's Adam Belhaj and reigning AA 400m champ Cam Holmes of Brandon Valley to take the crown in a time of 47.78, nearly a second better than his previous PR and good enough to set a new North Dakota state record in the process. While the record the Century senior broke Saturday afternoon wasn't nearly as old as the 3200m mark Lauer cleared Friday night, it was just as hallowed, as the old top time was set with the aforementioned "Ghost in Lane 8" run of 48.33 from Koth in 2008. Jochim, who's committed to NDSU and who currently holds the top time in North Dakota in the 200m and the 400m and the second-best mark in the 100m, also anchored the Patriots' 4x400m Relay team to victory over strong competition from Lincoln and Rapid City Central to complete an outstanding weekend.
The most unexpected record breaker of the meet was Lauer, who captured the boys 3200m crown and walked into the record books in the process. With a previous best at the two-mile distance at 9:22, few would've pegged Lauer to make history, yet the combination of the calm, mild evening on Friday and the strong pace set by Hopkins' Joseph Klecker and Bismarck's Matt Gotta helped push the Patriot junior to new heights. His run of 9:07.58 put him a second under the time set by Huron's (and later, America's) Rod DeHaven in 1984, a Dakota Relays mark many thought DeHaven's son, Addison, would have a go at this season. (Unfortunately, the younger DeHaven, who runs for Brookings and is slated to attend the U of Wisconsin this fall, was held out of action this weekend with nagging hamstring and hip injuries.) Lauer also took helped the Pats win the AA 4x800m relay and was 4th in the 1600m as well; he'll be a major factor in the Lincoln's AA title aspirations at the end of May.
Good Times: High School Boys Edition
Hudson Priebe, Chamberlain - No one was better in the hurdles at the Dakota Relays than the Cubs' Priebe; the Drake-bound senior won both the 110s (14.97) and the 300s (39.01) over Sioux Falls Washington standout Dan Marlette (3rd and 2nd, respectively) and his main Class A rival Austin Schreurs of Canton (2nd and 4th). After falling in both events at last year's state meet to the now-graduated Jared Thomsen (then of Custer, now of SDSU), Priebe looks to be on a mission to finish his career with another championship (or two) to go with his 110m title from 2012.
Brennan Schmidt, Freeman - The junior sprinter had a great weekend, placing 4th in the open 400m behind the best competition in the region and anchoring the Flyers to wins in the Class B 4x200m, 4x400m and a putting in a strong 400m leg to help his team to a second-place finish in the Medley. After finishing 5th at state a year ago, Freeman will be a serious contender for the Class B title this May, and a large part of that is thanks to the emergence of Schmidt.
Jack Lembcke, Roosevelt - The University of Washington recruit won the Shot Put again this weekend over Bismarck's Jon Tharaldsen, the best thrower in North Dakota, and was only two feet off a new meet record in the Discus after going 189’ 8". He'll be a massive favorite to repeat his performance from the weekend at the State AAs, where he won both events a year ago.
Brett Nichols, Dell Rapids - The Quarrier senior bested a loaded field in the Long Jump, going 21’ 10” to win the event and to cap a dominating performance from Class A athletes, as they took three of the top four spots on the podium. (Madison's Tayler Anderson was 3rd behind AA Roosevelt's Taryn Christion, while Priebe of Chamberlain was 4th.) Nichols wasn't the only Quarrier who shone at the weekend; Zach Schroeder had a strong showing as well, leading Dells to 4x100m and 4x200m victories while making the finals in the 100m before pulling out with a muscle strain. Performances like this will make Dell Rapids a factor alongside Custer in the Class A field.
Good Times: High School Girls Edition
Lauren Sokolowski, Irene-Wakonda - The junior sprint hurdler specialist entered the weekend with the best seed time in the shorter of the two hurdle disciplines, though few thought the 2013 State B champ would take the title over Roosevelt's Valerie Moos, Mitchell's Ellie Rew, or one of the Sioux Falls Christian contingent. Yet in the end, Sokolowski dominated, posting the best marks in both the prelims and the semis before winning the final by nearly three-tenths over Harrisburg's Haley Bruggeman, the reigning Class A sprint hurdle champ. Her time of 14.78 was nearly sixth-tenths better than her state-winning time of a year ago.
Kiana Phelps, Kingsley-Pierson-Woodbury Central - Michaela Mayer of Washington took the Shot Put title by four feet over her nearest competitor, but the big splash in the throwing events came from Phelps in the Discus. Phelps, a sophomore from northwest Iowa, put up a near-record setting throw of 155’, only three feet off the all-time mark set back in 2003. The most impressive part? Her closest competition, Stephanie Gemar of Mobridge-Pollock, was over 25’ behind Phelps’ toss.
Everyone from Sioux Falls Christian - Break up the Chargers! The class of Class A came as close as you can get to a team title in 2013, but they'll likely be in position to take the final step up the podium this May if they continue in the form they were in this weekend. Their relays squads won the 4x200m and the 4x400m, breaking two meet records in the process, with one - the 4x2 - a mark they'd set themselves the year before. Jordyn Oostra won the 300m Hurdles and placed in the 100s, while her hurdle mate Shelby Zomermaand was in the top three of Class A finishers in both events. Kara Koth was 2nd behind only Alexis Gannon in the Long Jump, and as mentioned above, Miranda Velgersdyk took 4th in the Special 200m in a loaded field. Incredibly, Bob Garry's Chargers accomplished all this without arguably their best runner in Stacy Smidt; imagine what they can do if the Minnesota State recruit is fully fit on the last weekend in May.
Everyone from Ipswich - Much like SFC, the Tigers squad simply did everything right this weekend, winning three Class B relays (4x100m, 4x200m and 4x400m) and placing 4th in the 4x800m, the only other one they entered. Freshman sensation Macy Heinz was at her usual best, finishing 2nd only behind defending AA champ Brooke Ireland of Sturgis in the open 400m while running a leg in all three relay wins, including anchoring a tremendous comeback in the 4x4. Defending Class B Pole Vault champ Autumn Pitz went 10' Saturday to place 6th among all classes. Angela Heinz posted the best Class B time in the 100m and just missed out on the final, while Tori Moore had the second-best Class B time in the 3200m, an event she won at state a year ago. It's incredible to think, but with Angela and cousin Tara Heinz in the 100m and 200m, Macy Heinz in the 400m, the 800m and the 1600m, and Moore in the 3200m, Ipswich has a decent chance to win every individual running event at the state meet this year. Granted, there are a few athletes out there - namely Sierra Stotz of Eureka/Bowdle in the sprints and Laura Nelson of Gayville-Volin in the distance events - who will have a massive say in that attempt, but it's always fun to speculate.
For full highlights and a recap of this year's Howard Wood Dakota Relays, check out the following links from this week's edition of "Varsity Sports Now!": Special Events Highlights, Meet Highlights, Meet Analysis
Alex Heinert is a producer at Midco Sports Network and covers the Summit League, the NSIC and North and South Dakota high school sports. He lives in Sioux Falls, SD.
Photography courtesy of Jon Klemme