By Josh Sigler
The 2013 Howard County girls track and field campaign is undoubtedly one of the most anticipated spring sports seasons in recent memory.
Action will get underway soon. Or, as soon as Mother Nature permits.
Unseasonably cold weather has severely limited teams’ abilities to get outside and use the facilities, making progress in field events especially difficult to attain.
“We’re working hard but, of course, the weather has not been helping,” Northwestern coach Mary Clem said. “We’re ready to get outside. We’ve been indoors since February, so we’re excited to get outside and get meets started.”
The following are season outlooks for each team, in order of their finish in last season’s sectional.
Led by a stellar junior class, the Comets claimed a Mid-Indiana Conference title on their way to the program’s first sectional championship, dethroning perennial champion Kokomo.
The members of that class — led by three state qualifiers – are now seniors. It’s no surprise the Comets have lofty goals.
“We have high expectations and we’re really excited,” Eastern coach Michael Goodspeed said. “We really want to send this group of seniors out with every opportunity to succeed that we can. We feel like we have some great athletes and good numbers in depth, so we feel like we’ll be tough to beat.”
Bethany Neeley will serve as the flagbearer for the No. 8-ranked Comets. The Indiana University recruit won a state title in the 1,600-meter run last season in 4:53.95, nearly four seconds ahead of the next competitor.
Sister Brittany Neeley, also an IU signee, finished third in the 800 in 2:14.26, and will be the state’s top returner in that event.
“They expect to be state champions in those events,” Goodspeed said of the Neeleys in the 1,600 and 800, respectively.
Fellow senior Sarah Wagner, a Lipscomb University recruit, returns after earning a state finals berth in the high jump. She complements an immensely deep distance crew for the Comets.
Sophomore Avery Ewing, freshmen Carly Jones and Jessie Sprinkles and senior Breann Donson were all members of the Comets’ cross country squad that finished fifth in the state finals last fall.
Juniors Elena White and Hannah Broo, and freshmen Melanie Nicholson and Maya Valadez will be the squad’s primary sprinters, with Brittany Neeley lending a hand when the right situation presents itself.
With a plethora of depth in the distance events, Bethany Neeley will headline both hurdles events.
Sophomores Danielle Reed and Jenny Keith will man the shot put and discus rings, while senior Kayla Visser will be the squad’s primary pole vaulter.
The Wildkats are under new direction in coach K.O. Jackson. And with six returners who boast state finals experience, Kokomo is eager to try and take back the top perch in the Madison-Grant Sectional.
“It’s not about reinventing the wheel, but rather shining up a couple of spokes and watching them sparkle. We can have that type of team,” Jackson said. He competed at Miami of Ohio, and is a USA Level 2 coach.
“We are building upon the successful foundation that Kokomo track has and taking it to another level,” Jackson continued. “For us, that level is to win big meets. That’s the message the coaching staff has put in the ladies’ heads. It’s a message we hope takes root in their hearts and blossoms in June.”
All six Wildkat state returners are juniors.
The foursome of Iesha Wallace, Raven Pugh, Brianna Lancaster and Ma-Ryssa Martin return as state qualifiers in the 4x100-meter relay.
Anh Pham advanced to state in the pole vault, while Summer Blackamore finished 14th in the state in the shot put last season.
Wallace is the defending sectional champion in the 100, while Blackamore won both the shot put and discus competitions in last season’s sectional.
Senior Brayana Fowler returns as another experienced sprinter, while senior Erica Goodman and junior Christina Moreland are the team’s top distance runners.
Lancaster and Pugh are the team’s top hurdlers.
Junior MaKayla Fowler will join Blackamore in the shot put and discus rings.
Freshmen Deju Miller and Taylor Coram will compete in the high jump, while Coram, Wallace and sophomore Darryelle Cole will all compete in the high jump.
“I’ve been a head coach for a long time in Ohio and Kentucky,” Jackson said. “I was then a private coach from 2000 until four years ago until [outgoing Kokomo coach] Dave Barnes asked me to volunteer. The ones who are scoring points for us are the ones that have worked under me. Just to see the maturation of how they’ve been able to really learn track and travel to other states and compete is great, and these young ladies are able to do that. To say I’m the coach of a program like Kokomo is proud moment. A lot of people in the community have supported me as well as coach Barnes, so to build on what he laid down is phenomenal for me and the young ladies.”
The Purple Tigers were edged out for second place in last season’s sectional by Kokomo by two points. And with a pair of sectional champions returning, spirits are high for Clem’s squad.
“We’re very fortunate because we have just about everyone back,” she said. “... Our confidence is pretty high. We’re looking to take it this year — we want that sectional win.”
Junior Amber Miller leads the Purple Tiger returners. She won a sectional title in the long jump a season ago and finished fourth in the 100.
Sophomore Kaitlyn Daanen won a sectional title in the 200 as a freshman and finished third in the 100. Daanen and Miller will be joined in the sprints by sophomores Tearston Munson and Hannah Ballard.
Junior Taryn Thor will headline the distance crew after a strong cross country season. She’ll be joined by sophomores Rachel Johns and Kristine Dewhurst.
Miller and sophomore Hannah Wilson are the squad’s main hurdlers, while Miller will also try her hand at the pole vault.
Ballard will take over in the high jump after the graduation of her sister, state qualifier Kylie Ballard.
Senior Hannah Treadway and freshman sister Booke Treadway will be the team’s primary throwers.
Daanen will join Miller in the long jump, where Daanen qualified for the state finals in the Hoosier State Relays earlier this month.
The Panthers have 38 athletes out for the squad, including 25 who are either freshmen or new to the sport.
“Only 10 of them are returning runners,” McCracken said. “This year we’re excited because we see a class of freshmen who have renewed the spirit of track and field for Western. They’re working hard. We’re staying positive with the weather and are ready to get out there and see what they can do. We don’t have a basis for some of these kids as far as where they’re starting, and we’re eager to see that because we know they have potential.”
Western returns a pair of veterans in senior throwers Catee Chandler and Kleshon Humphries, who are looking to fill the void left by Caily Tanner, who won the MIC in the shot put last season as a senior.
Sophomore Madi Shepherd returns in the sprints, where she will be joined by freshman Ellie Rush, senior Cristin Gibbs and senior newcomer Kinzi Gifford.
Rush is expected to contribute in the hurdles events, as well, where she will accompany senior Madi Duke.
McCracken boasts six underclassmen in the distance events, all of which have experience in cross country.
Sophomores Nicole Hampshire, Emma Nixon and Amanda Seaman will lead the way, with freshmen Erin Knepley, Sam Luginbuhl and Sophi Page following their lead.
Freshmen Taylor Nunan and Kelly Myer are the frontrunners to replace pole vaulter Corinna Cottingham, last year’s MIC champion and sectional runner-up. Nunan vaulted in middle school, while Myer has also shown great potential, according to McCracken.
Nick Weicht begins his fourth season as the Titans’ head coach with returners in juniors Kim Seal and Lauran Reece and sophomore Ashley Nguyen.
Seal returns in the hurdle events and the long jump, while Reece returns in the throws and Nguyen in the distance events.
Most of the balance of the squad is dotted with freshmen and newcomers.
“We’ll have a lot of growth from them as they get used to the feel of a high school track meet,” Weicht said. “I look for growth from those girls throughout the season.”
Freshmen Cassidy Morgan and Shannon Neal are the squad’s primary sprinters.
Nguyen will be joined by junior Gwen Cruse and freshman Paige Welsh in the distance events.
Morgan will join Seal in the hurdles events after a strong showing in the Bomber Boiler meet.
Seal will try her hand in the high jump as well, with freshman Lauren Eakin joining Reece in the shot put and discus. Sophomore Taylor Pemberton will compete alongside Seal in the long jump.