The South Dakota High School Track and Field Championships are taking place this weekend in Madison and Sioux Falls, with hundreds of athletes coming together to definitively prove who's the best on the state's biggest stage. There will be no shortage of great performances to watch at all three sites on both days, so here's a quick run-down on what and who to look for...
This weekend's meet gives us all one more chance to watch some of the best athletes in South Dakota high school history, including Alexis Gannon of Brookings breaking her own records in the long jump and triple jump, Jack Lembcke of Roosevelt throwing the shot and disc further than 18 year-olds should be able to, and Brooke Ireland of Sturgis placing in the 100m up through the 800m. (Not surprisingly, each will be continuing their track careers at the collegiate level. Gannon's going east to Chapel Hill to jump for North Carolina, Lembcke's headed west to Seattle to throw at the U of Washington, and Ireland is staying a little closer to home to run in Vermillion at South Dakota.)
It’s also a great opportunity to watch the next generation of legends, specifically Courtney Dowling of Pierre, who’s got an outside shot to break three state records this weekend in the 100m, the 200m and the 400m, and Macy Heinz of Ipswich, who’s favored to win four races, including the 100m, the 400m, the 800m and the 1600m in an incredible - and almost unheard of - display of versatility.
Outside of that group, here are a few more tracksters to look for:
David Mulbah of Sioux Falls Roosevelt is the top seed in the 100m and 200m and is tied with Riley Sears of Pierre and JJ Heyna of Yankton for the top High Jump mark of the year at 6'7". If things go as planned in his individual efforts and in the Riders' 4x100m Relay, he could account for 40 points in the Roosevelt AA title charge.
Two of the biggest reasons that Mulbah and RHS' quest for a first track team title might come up short? The Lincoln duo of Adam Belhaj and Will Lauer. Belhaj has the second-best 200m and 400m marks in the state this year but is only a tenth behind Mulbah in the 200m and trails the defending 400m champ Cam Holmes of Brandon Valley by the same margin in the quarter. It wouldn't be a shock if he wins one (or both) of those races, plus he'll likely anchor the Pats to a win in the 4x400m Relay.
Then there's Lauer, the new Howard Wood Dakota Relays record holder in the 3200m. The Lincoln junior is a massive favorite in that race - he's run 25 seconds faster than his closest competition - and he'll also be in the mix in the 1600m as well, where's he's ranked 2nd behind outstanding Sturgis mid-distance man Jacob Simmons.
Tamara Gorman of Rapid City Stevens is the defending AA 3200m champ and is favored to defend that title, though Yankton's Annie Kruse will likely be right on her heels throughout. Kruse has posted a seed time that's six seconds behind Gorman's best in the two-mile, but she's four seconds better in the 1600m.
Jase Kraft of Wessington Springs is poised to be the king of the long distance events in Class B this weekend, as he's the top seed in the 800m, the 1600m and the 3200m. The University of Sioux Falls recruit was the 2012 State Class B Outstanding Track Athlete, and if things go according to plan, he'll likely have another MVP plaque for his mantle by Saturday afternoon.
Team Title Races
AA Boys: This has the potential to be a close race between Sioux Falls Lincoln and Sioux Falls Roosevelt, with the Cobblers of Rapid City Central looming as a dark horse. Roosevelt won the Metro Conference Meet over LHS earlier this month, and the Riders could win six individual events and a relay or two if things go well, but when you look at the quality and the depth the Patriots possess, it should be enough to carry them to the top of the podium for the first time as a team since 1989. Belhaj, Lauer, Nathan Schroeder, Ned Sudbeck, Free Bump, Caden Quintanilla and William Rose all will put up points for James Jarovski's Patriots, a luxury that the talented but undermanned Riders don't have.
AA Girls: The AA Girls team race was muddled at the start of the spring, but as the season hasn advanced, it’s looking more and more like it will be Rapid City Stevens’ for the taking. Led by Gorman and Emily Person in the distance events and a quartet of sprinters that could combine to win two or three of the relays, Paul Hendry has a deep team that will remind many of the Raider squads who won 15 of 16 titles from 1996-2011.
A Boys: At first glance, this should be a two-team battle for the title. Defending champ Custer won last year’s title by 48 points and are still outstanding and deep in the long distances with the likes of Brennan Witt and Chase Glazier in the 800m and Logan Burns in the 3200m, plus they've got a solid hurdler in Joel Thompsen and a favorite in the field in top-ranked pole-vaulter Clayton Wahlstrom. However, they’ll be tested by Dell Rapids, who have the edge in the sprints and the field behind Cody Schroeder and jumps ace Bret Nichols. In the end, I think Custer repeats as champion, but the winning margin will be half of what it was in 2013.
A Girls: No one's coming close to catching Sioux Falls Christian this weekend. Six different Chargers placed individually at the Class A State Meet last year, not including two places and two wins in the relays, and that success was enough to get them within five points of a state championship. Much of that strength in depth returns in 2014, as nearly the whole Charger squad is back for a run at a state title. Allie Brooks is back to defend her pole vault crown, while Jordyn Oostra and Shelby Zomermaand will be favorited to go 1-2 in both hurdle events after placing in the top five in both in 2013. Seniors Stacy Smidt, Miranda Velgersdyk, Kara Koth and Kristin Stern all return to defend their 4x200m and 4x400m crown, with Velgersdyk holding the top seed time in the 200m and 400m and Koth the best mark in the long and triple jump. Combine that wide range of talent with the step back that defending team champ St. Thomas More will likely take minus 2013 Track MVP Stachia Reuwsaat, and it's easy to tab SFC as the favorites to claim their first girls track championship since 1985.
B Boys: Of the six classes, the Class B Boys team race could shape up to be the closest of all, with defending champ Herried-Selby Area, Freeman and Parker all boasting strong teams. Freeman's Brennan Schmidt is a great quarter-miler and will likely help earn two wins for the Fliers in the open 400m and the 4x4, and Herried-Selby Area boasts top hurdler Austin Iverson, defending high and triple jump champ Dakota Thorstenson, and pole vault favorite Cooper Schaefbauer, but I'm giving Parker the nod here, as they’ve got an edge in depth that will translate into dominance in the relays, especially the 4x8 and the Medley, races they won at the state meet in 2013. The Pheasants also have strong hopes for a top-two finish in the 400m (Tristen Erickson), high jump (Zach Anderson) and distance events (Ryan and Michael Olson), and even if they don't take home a single individual championship, this squad is a classic example of how track and field is a team sport masquerading as an individual one.
B Girls: Two words: Ipswich Tigers. (...Drops mic and walks off stage.) As mentioned above, two-time State Track MVP Macy Heinz will carry the banner for Todd Thorson's squad, but this is more than a one-woman team in every sense. Angela Heinz - Macy's cousin - is ranked 4th in the 100m and tied for 1st in the 200m, plus Angela Heinz - Macy's sister - will lead the way for the Tiger sprint relay efforts. (It's a fast family.) Tori Moore is in good position to defend her 3200m title, as is Autumn Pitz in the pole vault, and while the talent in the throws isn't quite there this year after the graduation of 2013 shot put champ Shekota Myers and discus 3rd-place finisher Madison Kienow, this will still be a massive win for the little school from up north. It's not out of the question that they could win every individual running event - though Gayville-Volin's Laura Nelson (3200m), Dabrisha Stevens of Elkton-Lake Benton and Sara Heyn of Chester Area (200m) will all have something to say about that - plus they should go 1-2 in the pole vault and place in every relay. Will they equal their 116-point total and the 78.5 point margin of victory from last May? Probably not. But those numbers will be of little consequence when they lift the Class B championship trophy for a third-consecutive year on Saturday afternoon.
Trust me when I say that this will be a memorable weekend for athletes, coaches and spectators alike, so if you're in the area (...and even if you're not), do yourself a favor and make it out to HWF on Saturday. You're bound to see something special...
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 John Klemme.