BY JOSH SIGLER KOKOMO TRIBUNE
---- — The 2013 Howard County girls track and field season was a wildly successful campaign, one that figures to be highly difficult to top in the near future.
The county boasted three state champions and seven podium (top nine) finishes.
But, five state finalist from a year ago return for the 2014 campaign. And, with heavy graduation losses for two-time defending sectional champion Eastern, the field appears wide open for this year’s Madison-Grant Sectional title, a crown which has resided in-county dating all the way back to 1994.
The following is a season outlook for each county school, by order of finish in last season’s sectional.
2013 was a season of a lifetime for the Comets, claiming three state titles while boasting another pair of podium finishes.
Eastern said goodbye to the athletes who did the bulk of the heavy lifting on that squad, which placed fourth as a team, with Bethany and Brittany Neeley moving on to compete at Indiana and Sarah Wagner continuing her career at Lipscomb.
The 2014 Comets will obviously have a different look than recent years, but with a pair of state qualifiers back in the fold, coach Michael Goodspeed is pleased with what he’s seeing.
“We enjoyed that time. It was a great run,” Goodspeed said. “We are rebuilding, and we have a good crop of freshmen. We are led by our returning All-Staters Jessie Sprinkles and Avery Ewing. They are very capable middle-distance runners, and we are looking to build some pieces and role players around those girls. We are extremely young with freshmen at almost every spot.”
Sprinkles, a sophomore, qualified for the state finals in the 800-meter run and ran a leg on the Comets’ state-record-setting 4x800 relay team a year ago, while Ewing, a junior, joined Sprinkles on the 4x400 relay team which finished fifth in the state finals. Those two, along with junior Carly Jones, will lead the distance crew, where they will be joined by freshmen Kaylie Forgrave and Sydnie Hill.
That foursome will also make up the squad’s 4x400 and 4x800 relay teams.
Freshmen Brooke Haalck and Kaylee Gebhart will be the squad’s top sprinters. They will likely be joined by sophomores Maya Valadez and Melanie Nicholson on the 4x100 relay.
Freshman Arienna Ewing was slated to be the squad’s top pole vaulter before breaking her arm in the Comets’ season-opening meet with Northwestern. Ewing will not be able to compete in the pole vault for the remainder of the season, but will remain as the team’s primary hurdler.
Juniors Jenni Keith and Danielle Reed will anchor the throws, while Haalck will handle long jumping duties and junior Alicia Eckart will hold down the high jump for the Comets.
“We’re just looking to get better every meet right now,” Goodspeed said. “We are used to winning the conference, so that will continue to be the aim until someone knocks us off. But, we understand Northwestern is going to be a really stiff challenge for us. But, we are just going to do our best. We want to be at the top of our conference. And, if we’re not first we want to be second, and if not second, we want to be third. I think that’s our approach.”
After tying for runner-up honors with Northwestern in the sectional a season ago, the Wildkats return a a solid of core of state finalists, which gives second-year head coach K.O. Jackson a high level of confidence heading into Season 2.
“We plan to be competing on the first day in June in Bloomington,” Jackson said. “We plan to be in the state meet making noise and scoring points. That’s our plan. That’s our goal. That’s our mission. It’s why we work so hard. ... We are at the point where we expect to be in big meets. Now we have to get to the point where we expect to win big meets. That’s the mental part of track and field. That’s why I love it.”
The Kats are led by a pair of perennial state qualifiers in seniors Summer Blackamore and Anh Pham.
Blackamore, an Indiana State recruit, is a three-time state qualifier in the shot put, finishing fifth a season ago. She also finished seventh in the discus at the state finals, and will lead the throwing crew.
Pham is a two-time state qualifier in the pole vault, and is hoping for a little bit better luck this season after entering the state finals with injuries the past two seasons.
Seniors Brianna Lancaster and Raven Pugh return to a 4x100 relay team which finished 17th in the state finals a season ago. They will be joined in the sprints by junior Jania Eddington, a transfer from Taylor, as well as sophomores Nabria Richardson and Quaynika Merriweather and freshman Jayda Andrews.
Pugh and Lancaster are also the team’s top hurdlers.
Freshman Lana Pham and sophomore Deju Miller are the team’s top high jumpers. Miller was the sectional runner-up a season ago as a freshman.
Sophomore Taylor Coram and freshman Ja’Lyn Thompson will handle long jumping duties.
Lana Pham and freshman Cinnamon Andrews will lead the distance crew, where they will be joined by junior Meghan Pier, sophomore Grace Burton and freshman Brooke Smith.
“We want to be the best and compete against the very best,” Jackson said. “That’s the only way in this sport you get better. That’s why you have to take your hat off to the ladies who started training in the summer for an opportunity to compete the first weekend in June. That type of dedication is rare. That’s why I am endeared to this team and program.”
The Purple Tigers return nearly all of their points from last season’s sectional runner-up finish, and with a pair of school records already falling early in the season, coach Mary Clem is hopeful that her team can break through and win the program’s first sectional title.
“We have a good mix of girls in each event this year, starting off with our seniors Amber Miller and Taryn Thor,” Clem explained. “They came out and broke school records in our first meet, so that looks good for the rest of the year. We have a lot of depth in all of the events, so we can mix girls in and out and avoid injuries like we’ve had in the past. They’re all battling for positions, and it’s all good, clean, competitive fun right now. They’ve worked every practice and they’re not whiners, which is nice to have.”
Miller, also an Indiana State recruit, broke the school record in the long jump and tied the school record in the pole vault in a season opening-win over Eastern. She qualified for the state finals in the long jump last season as a junior. Miller will also figure in in the sprints and relays, and will also try her hand in the 100 hurdles, depending on the meet.
Thor broke the school record in the 1,600 in the first meet, and will lead the distance events, where she will be joined by senior Karly Sprouse and freshman Nichole Crocker.
Junior Kaitlyn Daanen was the sectional champion in the 100 and 200, and will lead the Tigers’ sprinters along with classmate Tearsten Munson.
Munson, Daanen, juniors Rachel Johns and Hannah Wilson, freshman Abby Olsen and sophomore Caitlyn Kindig are the top candidates for the 4x400 relay team, while junior Bailey Lipinski is among those looking to join Munson, Miller, Daanen and Wilson in the 4x100.
Sprouse, juniors Megan Bunch and Christine Dewhurst and senior Olivia Price are the frontrunners for the 4x800 relay team.
Wilson and fellow juniors Mikaelyn Irving and Samantha Pepka will take on hurdling duties.
Daanen and Olsen are slated to be the squad’s other pole vaulters.
Sophomore Brooke Treadway will lead the throwers, where she will be joined by a pair of freshmen in Tori Combs and Beza Townsend.
Junior Leslie Samuel returns to the long jump, as does sophomore Michelle Hunkeler in the high jump.
“We’d like to win the sectional this year,” Clem said. “And, I really think being where we were last year, with the girls we have, we’re capable of doing it. What’s exciting is the depth is we have. And that the girls are really fired up this year. They liked the little taste of victory they got at the sectional last year, and we did pretty well at the regional. It was a learning experience, and now they know what to expect. They have the confidence to come out and be a winning team.”
New coach Chrystal Campbell inherits a team that boasts a considerable amount of experience, which Campbell has found to be comforting and helpful.
“This is my first varsity experience coaching, so it’s been a learning experience. But, I am blessed with one of the most amazing coaching staffs, so I have wonderful people to learn from,” Campbell said. “So far, I’ve been really impressed with my kids’ work ethic. I know it’s been a struggle, missing practices due to the weather. The amount of snow we got has made the preseason tough, but my kids have worked through that.”
Junior Nicole Hampshire leads a deep distance crew after taking third in last season’s sectional in the 3,200. Sophomore Sam Luginbuhl will complement her in the distance events.
Junior Emma Nixon leads the middle-distance events after taking third in the 800 a season ago. Junior Amanda Seaman, senior Emily Mullins and sophomore Erin Knepley will also figure in at middle distance. Knepley finished fourth in the 400 in last year’s sectional.
Sophomore Ellie Rush and junior Madi Shepherd lead the sprinters. That pair will likely be joined by freshman Brooklyn Campbell and sophomore Liz Dewitt on the 4x100 relay squad.
Mullins, Seaman, Nixon and Knepley made up the sectional runner-up 4x400 relay team last year, but junior Amelia Moe and freshman Shelby Hulka have shown tough competition early in the spring.
Freshman Jama Claxton and senior Caroline Conrad will be competing with Mullins, Seaman Nixon and Knepley for spots on the 4x800 relay team.
Rush finished third in both the 100 and 300 hurdles in sectional competition a year ago. Junior Bretta Tate will also compete in both hurdles events for the Panthers. Shepherd will try her hand at the 100 hurdles, while Hulka and junior Miranda Pressgrove will compete for spots in the 300.
Sophomore Taylor Nunan and junior Riley Beall are the top pole vaulters, while Shepherd and Rush round out a full repertoire as the top long jumpers. Campbell, Dewitt and Brooklyn Campbell will also compete for time in the long jump.
Pressgrove, Tate, senior Cristina Hudepohl and freshman Haleigh Smith will handle high jumping duties. And, sophomores Kimberly Miller and Azhane Beard, as well as junior Courtney Rager will hold down the throwing events for the Panthers.
“I’m looking forward just to getting to know them,” coach Campbell said of her squad. “I’m looking forward to seeing my coaching staff working with bring [our athletes’] potential out. I look for our team as a whole to make a little more noise in the conference and sectional.”
Coach Nick Weicht will enter the season with a roster of 12 athletes, none of which are seniors.
But, with a returning regional qualifier in sophomore Cassidy Morgan and a promising newcomer in classmate Cami Hansen, hopes are high in the Titans’ camp.
“The largest contingent are sophomores, and those girls are really our team leaders,” Weicht said. “What I love that I’ve seen out of them is the attitude. They’re willing to put in hard work. I’m really happy with that. And, we have some talented girls, particularly in that sophomore class.”
Morgan finished fourth in the sectional in both the 100 and 300 hurdles a season ago. She’ll be joined by classmate Hannah Mullinax and junior Paige Jones as the squad’s sprinters.
Hansen will lead the distance events after qualifying for the semistate in cross country. Classmate Paige Welse and junior Ashley Nguyen will join her in the distance events, while that threesome plus junior Taylor Pemberton will make up the 4x800 relay team.
Pemberton and sophomore Shannon Neal will headline the middle distance events.
Hansen and Mullinax will handle long jumping duties, while Mullinax will also compete in the high jump.
Freshman April Blume and sophomores Daysi Jarvis and Katherine Danley will handle throwing duties for the Titans.
“I have some high expectations, particularly for [Hansen and Morgan],” Weicht said. “Cassidy went to the regional as a freshman, and obviously we want to go back there and improve on what we did last year. Cami really showed what she was capable of in cross country. She’s just a worker. She’ll go out and work to get herself better. We anticipate her being pretty successful. … I want to have some team success, and for those individuals who are capable of moving on to the regional, when it comes that time of year, I want them to be successful. I think we have the right attitudes to meet those team and individual goals.”