Local athletes off and running to UW-MilwaukeeSuperior High School senior Leah Holmes and Northwestern High School senior Tess Nelson both signed national letters of intent Thursday to join the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Panthers for the 2013-14 season.
By: Emily Kram, Superior Telegram
Northern Wisconsin can now boast two more Division I athletes.
Superior High School senior Leah Holmes and Northwestern High School senior Tess Nelson both signed national letters of intent Thursday to join the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Panthers for the 2013-14 season.
“That’s cool that they’re going to be running for the same track team,” said Phil Roe, SHS girls track coach. “Talking to the (UW-Milwaukee) head coach, he saw the talent in both those girls.”
Holmes is a four-time participant in the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA) state cross country meet and a two-time participant in the state track meet. At the collegiate level, she’ll continue to run both sports.
“I will be running both, so when fall comes we’ll see how that goes,” Holmes said. “I’m pretty excited. The teams, when I met them, they were all super nice; and they’re all excited for the new freshmen.”
In track, Holmes said she has no idea what distances she’ll run for the Panthers. She could run anything from 800 meters to 5 kilometers.
UW-Milwaukee first contacted Holmes following the 2012 track season, and the school watched her throughout the cross country season. The night before Holmes left to compete in the Division 1 state cross country meet, she made her decision to commit.
“I loved the city,” Holmes said. “When I was a freshman, I always said I wanted to go to school in a big city. I’d never been to Milwaukee and it’s literally the best of both worlds. It’s a (big) city but you have parks an all this recreation stuff. And you have a lake there, so it’s kind of like home.”
Holmes is the only cross country athlete from Superior ever to qualify for the WIAA Division 1 state meet in four consecutive seasons. She is the only Spartan girl to advance more than once.
On the track, Holmes holds the school record at the 1,600-meter distance. She set the mark at the 2012 state track meet with a time of 5:02.43.
“Out of all the athletes I coach, she’s one of the most humble about her accomplishments,” Roe said. “She’s a phenomenal runner. She’s the first Division I track athlete that we’ve had out of this school in a long time, and that says something in itself.”
Roe spoke often with the UW-Milwaukee coaches as they worked to recruit Holmes. During one meeting he also mentioned another local track star — a two-time defending state champion in the 300 hurdles.
“It actually kind of came from Leah because a representative talked to one of their (Superior’s) coaches, and since my mom worked there he actually brought me up,” Nelson said.
UW-Milwaukee contacted Nelson shortly afterward and she made her initial visit to the campus.
“I really liked it and felt like I fit well down there,” Nelson said. “I’ll be doing hurdles, and they also mentioned me maybe doing a multi; and I might do a little bit of cross country too.”
Nelson is the first track athlete from Northwestern to receive a scholarship to a Division I school since Jessica Weyandt in 2005. Weyandt, a pole vaulter, also attended UW-Milwaukee. She is seventh all-time on the UW-Milwaukee outdoor record list with a height of 3.55 meters (11 feet, 7 ¾ inches) in 2008.
Nelson is hoping to get into the Panthers’ record books herself. She already holds a piece of Northwestern history as the first girls track athlete to win back-to-back state titles.
“She’s a standout athlete,” said Phil McGrath, NHS hurdles coach. “She has so much natural talent, and then she has an incredible work ethic. She’s spent so many hours lifting weights and training in the offseason; she’s really put the time in.
“And she likes to compete. She likes winning,” McGrath continued. “That’s one thing you can’t teach or coach. She just hates losing, and that’s the perfect combination: she has talent, she works hard and she wants to compete.”
As a sophomore, Nelson won her first state title in the 300 hurdles. She finished in 45.02 seconds and was one of only two sophomores to make the finals.
Last season she claimed the title again, finishing in 45.66 seconds.
This year, Nelson hopes to go for the three-peat and a new record.
The current Division 2 state record time is 44.03 seconds, set by Melissa Talbot of Freedom. It has stood since 2002.
“Instead of playing basketball this winter I’ve been doing lots of lifting and lots of training,” Nelson said. “I really feel I can cut off that last second this year. It’s definitely still a goal.”
Nelson would also like to make the podium in the 100-meter hurdles at state. She finished eighth last season in 15.71 seconds
“I don’t want to count your chickens before they hatch, but I think she’ll be able to go to state again,” McGrath said. “She really wants to go for the third time being a state champion. The second time (winning the title) was the first time it’s ever happened in our school, and if she goes three, that’s going to be a record that’s going to stand probably forever.”
Holmes is also hoping to go out on top in her senior year. One goal is to finish the 1,600-meter race in less than five minutes.
“I want to beat that barrier,” Holmes said. “It would be such a relief.”
She also hopes to make the podium at state. That has been a goal since her freshman year, Holmes said, and this is her last chance to achieve it.
“When you get a special athlete, you know as a coach that it might be a once in a lifetime experience to coach an athlete like that,” Roe said. “I still remember her just being this raw talent at the eighth-grade Track-O-Rama. … Then once she had a full season of track she got her mile time down to 5:11 at state her freshman year.
“It will be sad to see her go, but Milwaukee is a great fit.”
Holmes plans to pursue a career in physical therapy. She is enrolled in the College of Health Sciences and will major in kinesiology.
Nelson said she is still undecided about her college major.
“We’re not going to see the peak of her performance in high school, for sure,” McGrath said. “She’s going to keep improving, and what they’re going to do in Milwaukee, her time will come down even more. I don’t think she’s reached her full potential yet.”