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Strength in numbers: WF track coach points to junior high program as key to succes

Brainerd's Kelsi Ring, left, and West Fargo's Ellie Grooters and Jill Gustafson run a heat race in the 100-meter hurdles during the Moorhead Athletic Association meet at Concordia in April. David Samson/The Forum

Sometimes, a high school sports team gets lucky and suddenly finds itself with talented underclassmen at the beginning of the season.

Sometimes, but not often.

For teams to be consistent, luck only goes so far. Having a successful program that introduces athletes into a sport at a young age is critical for varsity-level growth. West Fargo track and field coach Darin McKinnon knows this all too well.

"Every season is different," he said. "You have things you have to overcome and spots you have to fill. Younger kids have to step up ... especially those seventh-, eighth-, and ninth-graders who are new to the program.

"I think our kids have done that. We've been very happy with those kids."

Whatever is happening, it's working. West Fargo swept its most recent meet last Tuesday in Wahpeton with 254 points from the boys and 211 points from the girls.

Underclassmen stepping up isn't a new concept for the Packers. Last season, for example, Christine Baltezore, Leah Hermanson and Jessica Rosenau each earned All-EDC honors as eighth-graders. Hermanson and Baltezore also earned a state title as part of the 4x800 relay team with Ellie Grooters and Alissa Mears.

In 2008, Hermanson was named All-EDC in her debut varsity season as a seventh-grader, just as Mears did the year before. It's a pattern similar to that of senior standout Grooters, who got her first All Conference honor in 2005 and has since racked up five All-EDCs, as well as several state titles.

Though varsity greenhorns likely won't just jump out of the gate with stellar finishes, McKinnon noted the strong junior high program for giving West Fargo track and field rookies the tools necessary to adapt.

"I have to thank the junior high coaches because they support what we're all about," he said. "It takes an army to do it, and numbers are a factor: the more you have, the more it benefits the program."

A season of growth

The Packers came into this season riding the momentum of last year's historic success, in which the girls took the East Region title and fourth place at state, while the boys finished runner-up in the EDC.

Though West Fargo has a successful farm program, nothing is guaranteed at the beginning of each season. Becoming a competitive varsity athlete takes time.

"It's always going to be a building process, and it takes them a while to get an idea of what it's like to compete at the varsity level," McKinnon said of novices. "They realize how talented and good everyone is, so they prepare themselves and train hard."

So far, everyone is shifting to high gear.

"We're happy with our young kids and our veterans, like Ellie Grooters and Spencer Uetz," McKinnon said. "And to have these young kids step up and contribute is great."

One of these "young kids" is Ellie Grooter's freshman sister, Brooke.

"(She) has had a very good year and I hope she can continue that," McKinnon said. "She's really stepped up this year, whether individually or in the relays."

Brooke Grooters has been a part of a top-placing 3,200 relay team several times. Her most recent was last Tuesday during the Owen Jensen Kiwanis meet. A West Fargo team consisting of her, Rosenau, Baltezore and Mears took first place in a meet-record 9 minutes, 46.51 seconds.

McKinnon pointed to Amanda Levin as another up-and-comer. The eighth-grader's most recent success was in Wahpeton during the 100-meters, in which she placed second behind fellow Packer Tessa Krueger by a mere 0.02 seconds. West Fargo's Christina Bruenjes and Jaeden Metcalf rounded out the top four.

And Valley City transfer Bruenjes has been making waves for West Fargo. She was named Outstanding Athlete alongside Ellie Grooters last Tuesday, and won the triple jump, long jump, and placed fifth in the 200-meters.

As for boys, Chaz Gunderson has been excelling, McKinnon said. Gunderson took first in the long jump at Wahpeton with a leap of 19 feet, 7 inches. Teammates Nick Williams and Jamie Heinen took second and third, respectively.

'Happy overall'

It is impossible to list all the West Fargo athletes who are pitching in this year, but with the influx of fresh standouts, it is important not to forget the veterans.

"We are happy overall with our upperclassmen with what they've been able to do," McKinnon said.

Jameson Gehrig has "been running very well," McKinnon said. "He is very consistent." The senior took first place in the 1600-meters at Wahpeton with a time of 4:29.95, nearly 10 seconds faster than teammate and runner-up Nate Peterson.

Shane Siverson and Shane Hillen also have been making an impact. "Those two guys continue to push each other," McKinnon said.

On Tuesday, the duo was part of the first-place 1,600-meter relay team with Uetz and senior Jackson Lahren. Hillen also placed second in the 200-meters ahead of Alex Spacek, while Siverson placed second in the 100-meters.

Senior Levi Bachmeier placed first in the pole vault with 13 feet, 6 inches, and junior Josh Hanson grabbed first in the 3,200-meters with a 10:25.98. Freshman Darin Baltezore was nipping at his heels and finished 10 seconds behind.

Of course, Uetz is living up to his usual high standards. The two-time All-Conference winner took first place Tuesday in the 800-meters with a meet-record time of 1:56.69.

Season nearly complete

With the East Region meet less than two weeks away, followed by the state track meet in Bismarck, it is tough for athletes to not look too far ahead. For McKinnon, it's important that his team remains "meet-to-meet focused."

"State will be there, it stays there," he said. "There's a lot of truth to saying don't get ahead of yourself. We want to meet the goals we set for ourselves, and for each week for what we want to get accomplished."

West Fargo was part of the Fargo Rotary on Monday, but the results were not in by press time. They host the Packer Relays on Saturday, beginning at noon, before their final meet Monday, May 17, at the Grand Forks Last Chance Invitational.

As far as talent, the Packers evidently have plenty, and the newcomers who have become a force on the track are a big part of that.

"When you have an Ellie Grooters and a Spencer Uetz, you have some of the top athletes in the state," McKinnon said. "And it's great to have that supporting cast."