Seniors’ legacyFour years ago, a group of freshmen entered the limelight at Northwestern High School. These were the kids to watch, coaches said. When they graduated, they’d leave behind an enduring legacy for the track and field program.
By: Emily Kram, Superior Telegram
Four years ago, a group of freshmen entered the limelight at Northwestern High School. These were the kids to watch, coaches said. When they graduated, they’d leave behind an enduring legacy for the track and field program.
This weekend, five athletes from that group will compete for the Tigers one final time at the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association Division 2 Track and Field Championships at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
“Everybody always refers to a year with great athletes coming through,” said Noah Jurek, head coach of the Northwestern track and field team; but this group has lived up to expectations.
Leading the seniors are Jordan Johnson and Tess Nelson.
Johnson is a perfect 8-for-8 as she closes out her high school career, qualifying for state in both cross country and track every year. She holds school records in both the 1,600- and 800-meter runs and will compete for Northwestern in the 1,600 and the 4x800 relay today and Saturday.
“To break Sarah Anderson’s 1,600 record and Nicole Hughes’ 800 record — that’s how good she is,” said John Woodbury, NHS assistant coach. “I don’t think people realize just how good she is.”
Nelson is looking for a piece of history as she goes for her third consecutive state title in the 300-meter hurdles. Her goal was in jeopardy after a disqualification at the regional meet, but the call was overturned and Nelson registered her best time of the season to win the sectional race.
“I think it probably added a little fuel to the fire, just knowing that anticipation of possibly not getting it,” Jurek said. “I mean she blew the field away (at the sectional race). She had 100 meters to go and she was pulling away. She won by a second and a half, and she looks as good as she ever has.”
Nelson said the stress of the disqualification and subsequent appeal gave her a new perspective heading into the state meet.
“Because it really can’t get any worse than that,” she said.
Between them, Johnson and Nelson have 14 state appearances in cross country and track. The resumes of their classmates are no less impressive.
Logan Holly keeps Northwestern’s pole vaulting tradition alive this season with her third straight trip to the state meet.
On the 4x800 relay team, Angela Snow and Olivia Amber both bring a wealth of experience.
Snow is a three-year state competitor in cross country and ran with Johnson on the state 4x800 relay team during their freshman and sophomore seasons.
Amber ran in two state cross country meets and was an alternate for the state relay team before she shifted her focus from running to cross country skiing. As a skier, Amber finished second in the state this season and earned All-American status at the 2013 Junior National Cross Country Ski Championships in Fairbanks, Alaska.
This year’s alternates for the 4x800 relay team, senior Beth Gurske and sophomore Michaela Ruhman can also boast state experience in either track or cross country.
“I think this speaks volumes of this senior class that we’ve had,” Jurek said. “They set a precedent. I hope that after they’re gone people will be looking back up to what they’ve done and trying to add to that.”
Three athletes will compete in two events each for Northwestern this weekend.
Tess Nelson will run for another state title in the 300 hurdles and hopes to improve on her eighth-place finish in the 100-meter hurdles from last year. Her sister, freshman Emma Nelson, makes her state debut in the 3,200-meter run and the 4x800 relay.
“She’s right on track to have a great career,” Tess Nelson said.
Johnson will anchor the Tigers’ 4x800 relay team and compete in the 1,600-meter run. She finished ninth in the 1,600 last year with a time of 5:10.73.
At her sectional race in Bloomer, Johnson finished half a second behind Ladysmith’s Andrea Ostenso, who claimed the state title in the 1,600-meter run in 2011. Johnson’s qualifying time in the 1,600 is the ninth fastest in the field. She dropped nearly 12 seconds from her seed time at last year’s state meet.
“I think having a drive — wanting to succeed and wanting do to well — has really helped me,” Johnson said.
She hopes to place within the top six at state in the 1,600 to reach the podium. Her goal is also to finish the race in less than five minutes.
Tess Nelson has the third fastest seed in the 300-meter hurdles and the sixth fastest in the 100 hurdles. She is less than one second behind the top seed in the 300 hurdles and is one of only two seniors in the race. Seven in the field of 17 are freshmen.
Emma Nelson is one of just four freshmen running in the 3,200-meter race. She’ll run with the 4x800 relay team before competing in her individual event.
“I’m pretty excited actually,” Emma Nelson said. “I know how big of a deal it is because I’ve watched Tess run in it twice now.”
Emma was in the stands to watch both of her sister’s state championship races in the 300 hurdles, and Tess Nelson said she’s happy to see her sister get a chance of her own.
“It’s awesome. I love it,” Tess Nelson said. “I love watching her and cheering her on. It’s more than I could have asked for.”
The Tigers’ 4x800 relay team is a mix of old and new. Snow and Johnson have run together before on two state relay teams and three state cross country teams.
Emma Nelson is brand new to the team, but she ran with Johnson and Snow at the state cross country meet in the fall.
“We’ve all known her because she’s Tess’ little sister, and we’ve been friends with Tess forever,” Johnson said. “(Emma) is so easy to get along with, and she’s a great person. She helps push us.”
“I’m used to being around them. I’ve actually known some of them my whole life pretty much,” Emma Nelson said.
The team’s final member, Amber, is returning to track after running with her senior teammates for their first two years of high school.
“I missed running with this group of girls,” Amber said. “They’re just such a fun group of girls to train with, and it was a really fun transition. I’m glad I made the decision” to come back.
Amber ran the first leg of the relay for Northwestern at the sectional meet. The pace was fast to start, and the top six runners bunched together and remained in a pack when she handed the baton off to Snow.
“I was worried after my leg,” Amber said. “But once I handed the baton off to (Snow) I knew we were OK because she had a really strong leg and definitely made her move.”
Snow said she felt anxious when she got the baton and saw runners in front of her.
“So I took off super fast and I passed a couple of girls right away,” she said. “My first lap was way too fast, and then my second lap I hit that last 100 and I died. But no one passed me, so that was good.”
Emma Nelson said she was comfortable with Northwestern’s position when she got the handoff. She pushed herself to pass the runner in front of her and then gave the baton to Johnson to secure a trip to state.
“It’s one of those things were we all wanted to make it to state so bad, and we just pushed,” Johnson said.
“(At state) I want us to crush our old school record from two years ago, and I want us to get in the top 10,” Johnson said. “I know we can do it; we’ve just got to push ourselves. They’re a really hard-working group of girls. They’re all driven.”
Girls pole vault
The first half of the track and field season was a waiting game for Holly.
Every week she’d prepared for her first real practice outside, and every week the ground would get a fresh covering of snow.
“I really wasn’t able to go out until a week before conference,” Holly said. “So I had basically no practices, just stuff from last year.”
Holly said she was lucky she could pick up where she left off last year. If she’d needed to work on her form, the delayed start to the season could have been disastrous.
“We only got five meets in before the state meet, but coming out of all the snow, our team has really done well for the amount of training and practice we’ve been able to get in,” Holly said.
At state this year, she’s hoping to reach 10-6 or maybe 11 feet.
Bonnie Draxler of Wrightstown leads the field with a height of 13 feet. Draxler has won the event the past two years and already holds the state meet record for the girls pole vault.
Maybe next year
For the first time in many years, the Tigers find themselves without any boys competing in the state track and field meet.
Woodbury, who coached the Tigers for three decades before moving to an assistant coaching position in 2010, struggled to think of the last time Northwestern had not sent at least one male athlete to the state meet.
“It would have to go way back,” Woodbury said. “In the ’90s we had Tom Burke, and we had relay teams with the Pelkeys and the Pearsons and those guys in the later ’90s.”
Woodbury made a few calls and soon had an answer. According to his source, the Tiger boys’ last absence from the state meet came in 1993.
“We had a good boys team though,” said, assistant coach Phil McGrath. “That statistic doesn’t really reflect how good the boys were.”
Sophomore David Rautio missed advancing to state by a fraction of a second with a fifth-place finish in the 300-meter hurdles. Mitch Graskey, a junior, also came up just shy of a state berth in the triple jump, going 41 feet, 4.5 inches for seventh place.
“It’s kind of sad that the guys didn’t get to go,” Johnson said. “But I’m sure they’ll make it next year.”
NOTES: Tess Nelson and Amber will compete for Division I teams next year. Nelson will continue her track career with UW-Milwaukee. Amber will go to Colby College in Maine, where she will ski for the NCAA Division I women’s Nordic team. Johnson will attend the College of St. Scholastica and will run for both the track and cross country teams. She intends to major in exercise physiology with a career in physical therapy in mind.