This season was bittersweet for the West Fargo girls track and field team. They placed third for their best finish in school history during the state tournament, but failed to defend their conference crown a week earlier.
Second place among all the East Region teams certainly isn't anything to sneeze at, however, and considering first place went to proverbial powerhouse Fargo South, the results weren't completely unexpected.
"There was definitely a little anxiety going into it," said Darin McKinnon, West Fargo track and field coach. "Fargo South is just a quality program. Any time you face off against them, you'll be in a battle."
The conference conflict resulted in a 45.5 point spread between the Bruins and Packers. For their efforts, seven West Fargo athletes earned All-Conference distinctions, including Christine Baltezore, Maria Brekkestran, Christina Bruenjes, Brooke Grooters, Ellie Grooters, Keana Karnopp and Jessica Rosenau.
"We felt good going in, and it was more about what we were able to do than what we didn't do," McKinnon said. "(The Bruins) have a great core in the sprinting area, and that definitely impacted the region meet.
"South just had an all-around better meet, and my hat goes off to them."
Just because West Fargo finished runner-up doesn't mean they were lacking on talent. To put it in perspective, they racked up six first-place finishes and just two second places during the regular season.
There also is something else to ponder for sports fans: the Packers could be even better next year.
With a program that helps cultivate track and field interest at an early age, West Fargo has plenty of talent waiting in the wings. Still, as seniors make their final hurrahs and skip town, it is hard to look at next season without them.
One such senior is Ellie Grooters.
"I kind of feel like I'm a broken record, but as great of an athlete as Ellie is, she's an even better person," McKinnon said. "I think she has almost single-handedly, from when she started, drawn many kids into track and field; not just into our program, but into the region. ...
"Kids want to be a part of that. They want to be around an athlete like Ellie. I can't thank her enough."
Grooters no doubt has been the Packers' headline maker for some time. She finished her prep athletic career on the same note by successfully defending her state 100- and 300-meter hurdle titles for the fourth year in a row.
"It's going to be different not having Ellie around," McKinnon said. "I'm just thrilled about how she was able to finish her senior year, and how she will go to the next level at Nebraska. She's definitely left her mark."
But though Grooters has gotten the bulk of fan attention for some time, McKinnon is quick to point out several other seniors who will be sorely missed.
Brekkestran was a staple at discus and shot put, placing eighth at the Conference Finals in the former, and first at EDC and sixth at state in the latter.
"We lost a good discus thrower in her, so we'll have to fill those shoes," McKinnon said.
Megan Sather will leave a void at pole vault. She cleared 8 feet, 6 inches for fourth place at EDC, and tied for 12th at state.
In fact, an emphasis on filling spots will be key for the girls team, McKinnon said.
"But we have a nice core of girls, too," he said.
That "core" is made up of athletes from across the grade spectrum. This doesn't happen by accident.
"The word we use a lot when putting a team together is 'balance.' You want to have distance, middle distance, sprints and field," McKinnon said. "I think (we) have that strong distance area, complemented with some very good sprinters and very good jumpers and throwers.
"Any time you can do that, clearly that's going to be a huge success."
Alissa Mears was projected to be one of West Fargo's top sprinters after taking 1,600- and 3,200-meter titles as an eighth-grader in 2008, and defending her 1,600 title and running a leg in the 4x800 state champion relay team last season. But a nagging abdominal injury kept her out of much of this season.
Still, the sophomore was able to compete at the state level, taking 18th in the 800, 20th in the 1,600, and running a leg on the third-place 4x800 relay team with Baltezore, Karnopp and Brooke Grooters, Ellie Grooters' younger sister.
"(Alissa) was able to compete even though she was in a lot of pain," McKinnon said. "We're going to get her healed up and I think she'll be in good shape for next year."
Mears will have plenty of company when it comes to talent. Other top returners include:
Amanda Levin, an eighth-grade sprinter who placed fifth at the East Region in the 100-meters, and fifth at state in the 200-meters. She also ran legs during relays, including with the fifth-place state 4x100 team (also second at EDC), and seventh-place state 4x400. "There's so much talent there," McKinnon said of Levin. "She'll continue to get stronger and stronger, and faster and faster. There's no cap to what she can do."
Baltezore, a freshman who ran middle and long distances as well as relay legs. She placed fifth in the 1,600 and fourth in the 3,200 at state, while contributing with the 4x800 relay team. "She chose to elevate herself at the right time," McKinnon said.
Rosenau, an "aggressive" freshman long-distance runner who placed seventh at state in the 3,200-meters. "Seeing Jessica's face (afterward), she was glowing," McKinnon said. "She was so proud and we couldn't be prouder of her."
Jill Gustafson, a "soft-spoken" junior hurdler who will get much more attention now that Ellie Grooters is graduating. Gustafson was third at EDC and seventh at state in the 100-meter hurdles, and finished fourth at EDC in the 300 hurdles. She also was a jumper in field events, and finished 11th in the triple jump at state. Next season will be "a great opportunity for her to take that core of hurdlers on her shoulders and be a leader," McKinnon said. "There are not many people who are going to outwork Jill."
Bruenjes, a versatile freshman jumper and sprinter who set the bar high after taking the state title in the triple jump with a leap of 36 feet, 10 inches. She bested her first-place EDC finish by nearly four inches, and beat rival Katie Dockter of Fargo South, with whom she had battled all season long. "It was kind of fitting how she was able to finish. Being able to beat Dockter was a great ending to the season," McKinnon said. In the long jump, Bruenjes placed fourth at EDC and seventh at state. She also ran a leg in the 4x100 relay. "She's been a great boost and addition to our program," McKinnon said.
Shelby Gustafson, Jill Gustafson's younger sister, an eighth-grade high jumper who placed third at EDC. "Jumping 5-1 was a huge boost in confidence for her, and set a standard for next year," McKinnon said.
Cherae Reeves, a junior shot-putter who placed third at EDC and state, and should return some needed leadership as a senior next season.
Karnopp, another freshman who is West Fargo's strength at middle distance. She placed fifth at EDC in the 400 and ran with several relay teams.
These girls represent some of West Fargo's most gifted athletes, but merely are the tip of the iceberg.
"It was a fun year. For both the girls and boys (teams)," McKinnon said. "It was the best season overall we've had, team wise. "We're very proud of them."