By Mike Granlund
Special to the Telegram
MAPLE — Each year high school athletes dream of making it to the state tournament. For the Northwestern Tigers track and field team, it’s not just a dream, but a tradition.
This year 10 athletes in seven events qualified for the WIAA State Track and Field Meet today and Saturday at Veterans Memorial Stadium Complex at UW-La Crosse. Former Tiger coach John Woodbury has been around since 1976 and can only remember one year when no Tigers qualified for the state meet.
Current coach Noah Jurek has an abundance of talent on both the boys and the girls teams. This resulted in three relays teams making it to state. When senior runner Travis Abrahamzon injured his knee and had to be replaced in the 4x200-meter relay, the revised foursome of Nate Pearson, Mitch Graskey, Ryan Pufall and Carter Shelafoe turned it up a notch and not only won a sectional championship, but established a new school record in the process, breaking the old mark set by Zak Anttila, Alex Reynolds, Mike Parkins, and Mike Naumann in 2012.
Tigers competing today include Kelly Erkkila in the pole vault and Emma Nelson in the 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs for the girls. Tim Heikkila will run the boys 3,200 and the relay teams are comprised of Pufall, Graskey, Shelafoe and Pearson in the 4x200 relay, Pufall, Graskey, Shelafoe and Mason Lombard in the 4x400 relay, and Lombard, Bret Little, Heikkila and Leo Mack in the 4x800. Alternates joining the team in La Crosse include Abrahamzon, Jonathon Nelson, Conner Johnson, Nathan Johnson and David Rautio.
Competing at state is no new thing for six of the 10 Tigers as Nelson, Erkkila, Lombard, Little, Mack and Heikkila all were members of the Northwestern cross country teams that were at the state meet last fall in Wisconsin Rapids. For Lombard, it was his fourth straight state trip in cross country.
The Tigers were understandably fired up Wednesday on their last practice on the track at the Gordon L. Nelson Athletic Complex. Each provided a one-word response to their feelings.
Both girls said “awesome.”
Mack said it felt “good.”
Little said “cool.”
Lombard went with “thrilling.”
Pearson called it “amazing.”
Graskey called it “exciting.”
Pufall just said “run.”
Heikkila called it a “blessing.”
Shelafoe kept his one word a long one, with “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”
Jurek likes the word “opportunity” as many of the athletes did not start out in track and field as freshmen.
Once they got the opportunity, they made the most of it. All the coaches credit the facilities at Northwestern for factoring into the success.
Over the years the Tigers have not just been content with getting to state, but placing well is another goal. Twelve times Tigers have gone to the podium to receive the gold medal as state champions to put frosting on the cake.
It began with Sue Krivinchuk in the 100-yard dash in 1975. In 1978 Darrell Nelson won the pole vault. The next year his brother, Doug Nelson, was state champion, and three years later another brother, current coach Bruce Nelson, soared 14-feet-6 to become state champion. Steve Tekippe won the 800 in 1983 and then it was 12 years before a Tiger champion was crowned when Tom Burke captured the discus title in 1995.
In 2005 Northwestern got another pole vault championship when Jessie Weyandt won the girls’ title. In 2006 Nicole Hughes won the 400 and then anchored the 4x-200 relay with Laura Johnson, Naomi Nelson and Kristina Anderson. (Naomi is Darrell’s daughter).
The past three years were especially satisfying to Tess Nelson as she ran to three consecutive state titles in the 300 hurdles. Tess is Emma’s sister and runs for Division I UW-Milwaukee.
TIGER TALES: More than 10,000 spectators are expected to attend Saturday’s finals. … Jurek’s assistant coaches this year are Pete Lawton, Mollie Fletcher, Phil McGrath, Bruce Nelson, and Jenny Forsythe. Jen Rossmann was a volunteer coach and the legendary former coach John Woodbury never strays too far from the track. … South Shore High School will be represented by two athletes in field events as junior Megan Gustafson, who will play basketball at the University of Iowa, will compete in the discus and shot put, and sophomore Alyssa Kavajecz will vie in the high jump. They compete for the South Shore-Washburn co-op team. … The meet will be carried a live stream on foxsportswisconsin.com.