For the eight Northwestern High School track and field athletes headed to the WIAA Division 2 Track and Field Championships, state competition is nothing new.
Six competed in the state cross country meet during the fall, and two will be making their third trip to the state track and field meet.
All eight Tiger athletes say they’re excited to compete at the state level again, but they’ll be looking for something more at the Track and Field Championships in La Crosse today and Saturday.
“Whenever you reach one mark you’ve got to find the next thing, and for them it’s the school record,” said Phil McGrath, head coach of the Tiger boys.
Competing in the state meet this year are seniors Timmy Heikkila (800 and 4x800 relay), Leo Mack (4x800), Reilly Moore (4x800), Emma Nelson (1,600), Nate Pearson (long jump) and Tim Schultz (shot put); sophomore Donny Pooler (4x800); and freshman Abby Nelson (pole vault).
“It’s a really good group of kids,” said Jennifer Forsythe head coach of the Tiger girls. “They’ve worked really hard, and I think the success from cross country has kind of carried over too.”
School records are in reach for a number of this year’s athletes, but the boys 4x800 team has the most intense focus on eclipsing that top mark.
“We know from last year’s track season to this year’s cross country season that they’re super talented guys,” McGrath said. “They knew what they had to do going into the regional and sectional, and they were ready. They wanted it.”
All four members for the 4x800 team — seniors Heikkila, Mack and Moore and sophomore Pooler — ran on the Tigers’ state cross country team, and the three seniors have previous state relay experience.
Heikkila and Mack ran with the 4x800 relay team during their sophomore season, and Moore was a member of the 4x400 and 4x200 teams last year.
“This is the fastest relay we’ve ever been on,” Mack said.
The 4x800 team has its sights set on Northwestern’s school record from 2007. The Tigers advanced to state that year in the 4x800 and the team of William Koepp, Rett Moreland, Kelsey Moreland and Jarad Stodola finished fourth with a time of 8:03.53, which still stands as the school record.
“I know one of the guys from the previous record team, and I just want to be able to give him a lot of crap for beating it,” Moore said.
This year’s 4x800 relay team enters the state meet with a qualifying time of 8:10.43. The Tigers need to shave seven seconds from their time to break the school record, but Heikkila said that’s a definite possibility.
“I can go a little bit faster, not much, but if Reilly gets down to two flat and Donny gets down to two flat too, that’s basically it,” he said.
The Northwestern 4x800 relay team already showed it was capable of dropping time at last week’s sectional meet.
The Tigers entered the meet with a seed time of 8:24.10, which was fast, but not out of reach for the competition.
Their winning time was nearly 14 seconds faster, and Northwestern crossed the finish line a full 6 seconds ahead of the second-place team.
“We’d never really been tested before that,” Pooler said.
“We normally finished like 20 or 30 seconds ahead” during the regular season, Moore added.
At the sectional race in Medford, Northwestern did not pull away until the final leg.
Moore had the Tigers near the front after the first leg, but a bad handoff dropped them to third.
“The refs weren’t moving us in like they usually had all year, and we actually had to hand it off over a team,” Pooler said. “I actually had to come to a complete stop to get the handoff.”
Pooler and Mack combined to move Northwestern up to second, and Heikkila ran away from the competition on the final handoff.
“Watching Timmy run was funny because you saw him kick in like a full lap before anyone else did,” Schultz said. “He just went full speed for a lap and a half without anyone else being able to do that.”
Heikkila will also be competing in the 800-meter run this weekend. He enters the state meet with the fifth fastest time overall at 1:58.04.
The senior broke Northwestern’s 3,200-meter record earlier this year, and now he’s hoping to take over the 800 record as well.
“In the 800, the school record would be great,” Heikkila said. “The clock at our sectional meet was actually off, so when I got done running at our sectional meet the clock said I had broken our school record. But it was wrong, which was kind of disappointing.”
Steve Tekippe is Northwestern’s current record holder in the 800-meter run. He put up a time of 1:57.6 in 1982.
Emma Nelson will be making her third trip to the WIAA Track and Field Championships. She ran in the 3,200 as a freshman and was a member of the girls 4x800 team along with three seniors. In her sophomore season, Nelson advanced in the 1,600 and the 3,200. She missed the state meet last year after suffering a torn ACL.
“I’ve been to a lot of state meets,” Nelson said. “I got to watch my sister (Tess Nelson) before I was even in high school.
“But I’m just excited that I got to really recover from this surgery (ACL) and that it didn’t hold me back. It’s just really nice being able to achieve my goals. Even from freshman year, this is where I wanted to be.”
Nelson’s seeding time of 5:17.71 puts her in the middle of the pack for the 1,600-meter run. Dana Feyen, of Gale-Ettrick-Trempleau turned in the top time at 5:07.57.
“Since it’s going to be my last race in high school, I just want the best time possible,” Emma Nelson said. “I don’t even want to set a goal time because I want to surpass anything I’ve done. I know the motivation will be there because it’s your last time.”
Abby Nelson has three more years to try for the girls pole vault record of 11 feet, 6 inches, set by Jessica Weyandt when she won a state title in 2005. But by qualifying this year as a freshman, Nelson has already etched her name into Northwestern history.
“My dad said that I’m the first freshman, out of boys and girls pole vault, to ever make it to state out of our school,” Nelson said. “So that’s pretty cool.”
Her father, Bruce Nelson, is Northwestern’s pole vault coach. He still holds the school record in boys pole vault from 1982, when he cleared 14 feet, 9.75 inches.
Abby Nelson’s best height this year is 10 feet, 3 inches. She’s hoping to reach 10-6 at the state meet, which would likely put her in the top five.
Brielle Buechler, of Wrightstown, enters the state meet with a top mark of 11-1.
“My first goal was to make it to state, and now I just want to try new things,” Abby Nelson said. “I’ll have three more years to get better.”
Boys field events
Like Emma Nelson, Pearson will be making his third appearance at the state track and field meet. He ran on the 4x200 relay team his sophomore year and qualified in the long jump, 4x200 and 4x400 relay last year.
This year, Pearson’s sole focus will be the long jump.
“I think it will benefit me,” he said. “Now I’m able to just put everything on long jump and keep my mind straight on long jump. I think in the end it will help.”
Pearson finished seventh in the long jump at state last year. He has the 10th best distance heading into this year’s meet at 20 feet, 9.5 inches. Pearson’s personal record is 22-2, just behind Mark Callaway’s 1985 school record of 22-8.
“My goal is to podium,” Pearson said. “I missed it by a quarter of an inch last year, which got to me a lot. That drove me through this year. So that’s my main goal — to get top six.”
Molly Fletcher, NHS long jump coach, said Pearson has it within him to make the podium in his senior year.
“Working with Nate the past few years has been so great,” she said. “He sets a great example for other athletes. He’s dedicated and he works so hard. He’s really good at taking kids under his wing and getting the younger ones trained in.”
In boys shot put, Schultz will be competing at the state meet for the first time.
He surpassed his seeding mark at the sectional meet in Medford by three feet to qualify for state. He finished two inches ahead of the fifth-place competitor.
“It was heartbreaking for him but the opposite for me,” Schultz said.
Schultz’s sectional mark of 49 feet, 10.75 inches was a personal record.
The energy level was high at the meet, he said, and numerous athletes were setting personal records by three or four feet during warm-ups.
“Going out there in warm-ups I was throwing like 53 feet. I was super excited,” he said. “When I was actually throwing I had to pull back a bit because I didn’t want to scratch.”
At state, Schultz said he hopes to hit 50 feet and make the finals.
“He does well under pressure. He competes,” said Pete Lawton, NHS shot put coach. “He’s been around long enough to understand what it takes to be successful.”
Schultz, who will attend Michigan Tech next year and play football, was Northwestern’s valedictorian this year.
Abby Nelson and Emma Nelson have no relation to each other, but they can claim connections to a host of other Tiger track and field stars.
Half of Northwestern’s state champions are related to either Abby or Emma.
Emma Nelson’s connection is to track. Her older sister, Tess Nelson, was the state champion in the 300-meter hurdles three years in a row (2010, 2011 and 2012).
Abby Nelson’s relatives all claimed state title in the same field event — pole vault. Her uncles Darrell Nelson and Doug Nelson were state champions in 1978 and 1979, respectively; and her father won the state title in 1982.
While the Tigers are hoping to best school records at this weekend’s meet, two other athletes from the Medford Sectional will be looking to add their names the state record books.
In the girls shot put, Hayward’s Katie Taylor is trying for her fourth straight medal. She took third in her freshman year and has finished second the past two years.
Both Taylor and defending champion Tess Keyzers of Little Chute have eclipsed the state record distance of 45 feet, 1.5 inches in meets earlier this year.
Keyzers enters the state meet with the top mark of 47-02.50, and Taylor is next at 44-11.50.
On the boys side, Rice Lake’s Kenny Bednarek could topple both the state 200- and 400-meter dash records.
Bednarek, a sophomore, is a favorite in both races. His seed time of 47.66 seconds in the 400 is already ahead of the state record time of 47.76 seconds, set last year by Freedom’s Collin Hofacker.
Hofacker also broke the 200 record in the preliminary round last season, finishing in 21.32 seconds. Bednarek’s sectional time in the 200 was 21.35 seconds.
“He’ll be in the Olympics at some point, judging by how he’s running right now as a sophomore,” Schultz said.
* McGrath and Forsythe are in their first year as co-head coaches of the Tiger track and field team, but they’ve had plenty of help this season.
“We still get insight from Coach (John) Woodbury, who is in the Hall of Fame,” Forsythe said. “He was both of our coach, and I still talk to him all the time.
“And we’ve brought in other coaches like Darrell Nelson, who was a coach when we were both in high school.”
Nelson worked with the Tiger sprinters this year. In all, the Tigers had 11 coaches assisting the team this year.
“We have amazing volunteer coaches,” Forsythe said. “We have so many people that give up time and love this program.”
* “Donny Pooler is the first kid, in school history I think, to go to state in three sports in one year,” McGrath said.
In addition to track, the sophomore advanced to state in the fall with the boys cross country team and then qualified for the state wrestling championships as individual during the winter sports season.
* In both of his trips to the state meet, Heikkila has competed in two events. He ran in the 3,200 and 4x800 relay his sophomore year and will compete in the 800 and 4x800 relay this year.