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Pooler, Nelson return to state

Donny Pooler, left, and Abby Nelson will represent Northwestern High School at this weekend’s WIAA State Track and Field Championships at UW-La Crosse. Pooler will run in the 800 at state and Nelson will compete in the pole vault. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

The Northwestern High School track and field team won’t be shipping its customary busload of athletes to the WIAA Division 2 Track and Field Championships in La Crosse this year, but the two athletes competing both bring past experience.

Junior Donny Pooler and sophomore Abby Nelson are both making their second consecutive trips to the state track and field meet.

Pooler ran as a member of the 4x800 relay team last season, while Nelson advanced in the pole vault.

Nelson is back again in the pole vault this season, and Pooler will compete as an individual in the 1,600-meter run.

“In general, our sectional is really tough,” said Jenny Forsythe, co-head coach of the Tigers. “It pushes us to be better and kind of reach for new heights, but it’s tough.

“We’ve got other kids that, in other years, would have qualified for state but didn’t this year.”

The two Northwestern athletes who did qualify, however, are both exceptional in Forsythe’s opinion.

“I am just incredible proud of both of them. I think all of the coaches would say that,” Forsythe said. “They have been leaders on our team, and the great thing is they constantly are asking, ‘What can I do for my team?’ ”

The WIAA Division 2 girls pole vault and the boys 1,600-meter run are both for Saturday morning at Veterans Memorial Stadium Complex in La Crosse.

Donny Pooler

As he prepares to compete as an individual at the state meet for the first time, Pooler is grateful simply to be healthy.

His junior year has been one long string of medical issues. The latest complaint began just as Pooler was preparing for the Heart O’ North Conference wrestling tournament, and it landed him in the hospital for five days with a staph infection.

“It was originally an emergency room visit to get what I thought was just some fluid in my knee drained before the conference tournament and the postseason,” Pooler said. “I went in, and it just ended up being a lot worse than anybody ever anticipated.”

Pooler’s condition worsened after his initial emergency room visit, and within days he was admitted to the hospital and placed on IV antibiotics.

“It was a long, long stay after that,” Pooler said.

He had two surgeries on his knee and spent about three weeks on crutches — costing him a chance to return to the state wrestling tournament.

Pooler was cleared to begin running again about five days before the start of the track and field season, and he then began the challenge of returning to form.

“It was a familiar place for me because I missed over half the cross country season because of my shoulder injury,” Pooler said. “I was kind of bummed, but at the same time you can’t sit there and think about it and dwell on it.”

So Pooler threw himself into preparations for the track season.

The first two weeks of training were brutal, he said. Then over spring break, he paid a visit to former Tiger Timmy Heikkila, now in his first year running for North Dakota State University. Pooler struggled to keep pace with his former teammate, and that cemented his resolve to rebound from his health issues.

“We had our first indoor meet, and I just wanted to lay it all out there and prove that I can come back for the second time,” Pooler said. “This wasn’t going to hold me back this season. I wasn’t going to let it be an excuse to not run well.”

Pooler ended up tying his personal record in the mile from last season.

That success gave him the boost he needed to stay positive for the rest of the season, even after he faced two more bouts with staph.

“It kind of drains your body and depletes your energy,” Pooler said. “You feel tired 24-7 and it’s hard to make it through the whole school day staying awake.”

Pooler is healthy now, though, and he’s hopeful the trend will continue.

At last week’s sectional meet in Medford, the junior ran his best race of the season. He ran a personal best 4:29.55 in the 1,600 to qualify for state and also had a personal best in the 3,200-meter race.

Pooler said his time in the 1,600 is about 14 seconds faster than last year.

“I know once I’m around good competition — somebody to push me — that I can go faster,” Pooler said.

The good competition that propelled Pooler to the state meet this year came from Ashland.

In both the regional and sectional 1,600-meter races, Pooler finished between twins Walker and Maury Miller. For the state meet, the three enter the race with sequential seed times. Walker Miller ranks ninth with his time of 4:28.84, followed by Pooler in 10th (4:29.55) and Maury Miller in 11th (4:30.20).

 “The plan at sectionals was to get out in the mile and just stay up there,” Pooler said. “I knew that they’re both really talented runners, so if I stuck with them I was going to go. … If I can see both Ashland boys and I’m right by them, I know I’m going to go to state.”

In La Crosse, Pooler is hoping the higher level of competition will continue to push him.

The top time in Division 2 belongs to Luke Bailey of Xavier (4:15.02).

Pooler said he hopes to shave a few more seconds from his personal record at the state meet to earn a place on the podium.

“He’s just one of those kids that if you push him back down, he jumps up higher,” Forsythe said. “He just is a really inspiring kids to watch, and I tell him all the time that he’s one of the toughest kids that I’ve ever worked with because he’s constantly pushing what the boundary is.”

Abby Nelson

Northwestern’s pole vaulting dynasty is well-established, and in that dynasty, no name carries more weight than “Nelson.”

“If you look at our Top 10 board, it’s a lot of Nelsons,” Forsythe said.

Abby Nelson, who last year became the first freshman in school history to advance to state in the pole vault, is just the latest Nelson to claim a place in the pole vaulting pantheon.

Her father, Bruce, along with her uncles, Doug and Darrell, were all state champions in pole vault for the Tigers.

Bruce Nelson, who is Northwestern’s pole vault coach, remains the school record holder in the boys pole vault. He cleared 14 feet, 9.75 inches in 1982.

Now Abby Nelson has her eye on the girls record.

“I’m three inches away from the girls record,” she said.

At this year’s Heart O’ North Conference Meet, Nelson took the conference record with a vault of 10-9 — her personal best. Former Tiger Jessica Weyandt had held the previous record of 10-3 since 2004.

Weyandt remains the overall school record holder in the event and is the only Tiger girl to claim a state pole vault title. She won the Division 2 title in 2005 with a vault of 11 feet. Weyandt also took second in 2004 with a vault of 10-6.

Nelson hopes to reach 11 feet at the state meet this year, but the sophomore realizes she has potentially two more years to reach her goal.

“Abby, I still think she’s got a ton left,” Forsythe said. “And just Bruce does a phenomenal job with those kids. In every year, he sends somebody.”

Nelson is again one of the youngest competitors in the Division 2 pole vault field this season. One freshman advanced to state in the event, and Nelson is one of only two sophomores to qualify.

Nelson, however, is not intimidated.

“We’re all there to compete,” she said.

Nelson expects the winning height to be around 11-6 at the state meet, but anyone with a vault of at least 10-6 is likely to place.

Senior Brielle Buechler, of Wrightstown, and junior Gabrielle Kennedy, of St. Thomas More, share the top seed at the state meet with a height of 11-6. Buechler won the Division 2 pole vault title in 2015 and finished second last year.

TIGER TALES: Nelson, a self-professed fan of superhero movies, is easy to spot at meets. Her socks routinely sport a bit of superhero flair. During the cross country season Nelson wears Captain America socks, and for track and field she wears Superman. “Captain America runs, so I was like, ‘OK, I’ll wear them when I run.’ And then for pole vault, I was like, ‘Superman can fly.’ So I just wear them for pole vault,” Nelson said. … At least one Tiger has competed in pole vault at the state meet in 15 of the last 16 seasons. Northwestern’s 13-year streak of sending an athlete to state in pole vault was snapped in 2015, but Abby Nelson has begun a new steak by qualifying the past two seasons.

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