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Season preview: West Fargo track has potential to make major strides

The West Fargo 4x800 meter relay team of Leah Hermanson, Christine Baltezore, Alissa Mears and Ellie Grooters celebrates after winning the event last year at the North Dakota state Class A meet in Bismarck.1 / 2
West Fargo's Spencer Uetz crosses the finish line to win the 3200-meter relay last year during Packer Relays in West Fargo.2 / 2

An overview of the Packers track and field team can be summed up by one word: potential. West Fargo's ranks are filled with capable veterans and eager newcomers, and coach Darin McKinnon sees this as reason for optimism.

"We have a young group with another year under them," said McKinnon, who last season was named All-EDC and All-State girls coach of the year. "They're able to jump right in and compete."

Recent indoor season results show the Packers are headed in the right direction. During the Cobber High School Invitational on March 20, both boys and girls West Fargo teams took first place. And at the more recent Class A State Indoor Meet, the boys finished tied for second with 74 points, while the girls placed third with 74 points.

Even after the normal exodus of seniors from last season, the West Fargo track team ranks remain bulging.

Leading the charge will be a sea of veterans. For starters, the girls team returns its entire five-member All-EDC lineup of Christine Baltezore, Ellie Grooters, Leah Hermanson, Alissa Mears and Jessica Rosenau. All except Rosenau also earned All-State honors.

And though they lost three All-EDC seniors from last year, the boys team has its own core of talent coming back, including Jamison Gehrig, Brandon Gibson, Josh Hanson, Shane Hillen, Jake Kroke, Shane Siverson and Spencer Uetz. Still, McKinnon knows the boys won't go unscathed by the loss of Billy Kuehn, Cody Mammenga and Luke Solum.

"Those guys did a great job for us," he said.

Girls recap and review

Coming off its first Eastern Dakota Conference title in more than 15 years, the West Fargo girls track and field team is looking at a scenario it has not dealt with for a long time: defending a crown.

They do, however, have the weaponry needed to put up a fight.

Leading the Packers is track phenom Ellie Grooters. The University of Nebraska-bound senior currently is one of the most decorated runners in West Fargo. She has been named All-EDC five straight years, and All-State the last three.

"Ellie is a tremendous athlete," McKinnon said. "Having her in our program makes the girls team that much better. She's everything you want in a senior for her final season."

Grooters is a seasoned title holder and defender, who last season helped lead her team to a fourth-place finish at the state tournament - its highest ever. She has successfully defended her 100- and 300-meter hurdle titles since 2007, and won state titles with the 400 and 800 relay teams as a freshman, and the 3,200 relay team last season.

Another standout is sophomore Alissa Mears, who quickly is becoming one of the area's top runners.

In her first varsity year as an eighth grader, Mears won state individual titles in both the 1600- and 3200-meters. Then last season, she was part of the 3,200 relay team with Grooters, Hermanson and Baltezore.

"When it comes to competitiveness, she hates to lose and is going to do everything she can to win the race," McKinnon said. "She's one of those athletes who doesn't come around very often."

McKinnon also pointed out several other girls who stand to make an impact. Some of those were:

• Freshman Baltezore, who was voted Most Dedicated last season: "She's coming back from last year's success, and she's definitely going to help in the distance area."

• Junior jumper and hurdler Jill Gustafson, who was voted Most Improved: "We're hoping for a lot of good things out of her."

• Eighth-grader Amanda Levin: "She ran for us last year and did very well. She is talented ... and having experience is going to help her ... in varsity track."

• Senior Becky Capouch: "We expect a lot out of her. She's been a big part of our relay teams."

• Junior Cherae Reeves, who was voted MVP in field: "She is very talented in the throwing area ... a good shot-putter."

• Freshman sprinter and distance runner Brooke Grooters, who is Ellie Grooters' younger sister: "She got off to a good start. That's always a nice thing to see."

Seniors Megan Sather and Maria Brekkestran will be critical aspects in scoring field points for West Fargo, McKinnon said. In fact, having a balanced attack between field and track activities is necessary to succeed in any program.

"The running complements the field, and the field complements the running," he said. "Our goal is to score points."

Boys recap and review

If the boys team had a chip on its shoulder going into last year's EDC tournament, that chip grew after finishing runner-up for the third year in a row.

If anything, the Packers will be motivated this time around.

Though a younger group overall, the Packers have some veterans who will take the reins and run.

Spencer Uetz is one of them. The senior has earned All-EDC honors two straight years, and is a "Jack-of-all-trades" in running events

"There are a lot of expectations on him as far as scoring points for the boys - not only in the open but also on the relays," McKinnon said. "He can run anything from the 400 to the two-mile. He and (Mears) kind of have that same ability. When you are like that, you're going to help the team in so many places."

Uetz was voted team MVP and Most Dedicated last year after placing third at the state tournament in the 1,600-meter run, fifth in the 800, and second in the 4x400 relay with Kuehn, Hillen and Siverson.

Another veteran who stands to make waves is senior Jamison Gehrig, a place-winner on the 3,200 relay team with Jake Kroke, Josh Hanson and Uetz.

"Anytime you have seniors with that experience, it puts a lot on their shoulders," McKinnon said. "It's good anytime you have that senior leadership."

But one of the areas McKinnon and the other coaches are most excited about is pole vaulting, a relatively new program at West Fargo. Senior Levi Bachmeier went a personal-best 13 feet at the recent state indoor meet, and stands to add some clout in West Fargo's punch.

"Coach (Adam) Christensen has done a great job at the pole vault," McKinnon said.

McKinnon also pointed to several athletes who could stand out this year. Some of them were:

• The sprinting quad of Gibson (voted Most Improved), Hillen, Siverson and Alex Spacek: "They're such a great group. Siverson is very important for those relays and Spacek is off to a good start. That's a nice core there of boys."

• New addition Ryne Schaeffer, a senior who played baseball in the past: "He made a quick impact ... and definitely has some speed. To come out for the first time and do that says a lot of his abilities."

• Junior hurdler Michael Riener, another track and field rookie: "He's off to a good start and I think he'll continue to work hard at it and play a part."

• Jumpers Nick Williams, a junior who placed eighth at state in the long jump, and Jaimie Heinen: "Heinen already jumped 20 in the long and 5-foot-10 in the high jump. That's something that is nice to see, especially when you see these young kids coming out and making an impact right away."

Seniors Jared Steinberger, Ross Montgomery and Mason Herman also will be critical to the Packers' field power. The trio has the experience needed for the throwing field.

Overall, McKinnon knows it's going to be a sprint to the finish for both the boys and girls track and field teams, and a good start to the season will help keep them in the front of the field.

"Once everything really gets going, we want to be in full gear," he said. "You have to continue to work hard because everyone is trying to beat you. When you excel, the competition is out for you.

"And the more competition we have, the better we're going to be."