Panthers focused on reaching finals
Rachel Thelen, Victoria Lutz, Hannah Wolff, Sophie Shogren, Lydia Lutz and Grace Bateman began the season focused on qualifying for the state Class A track and field meet.
Those six members of the Park Rapids girls track and field team ended the season focused by bringing home state medals.
Thelen capped off her senior season by qualifying for her first state meet as the Section 8A champion in the pole vault and section runner-up in the 100-meter dash.
Bateman, an eighth grader, earned her first state trip as the section runner-up in the 300 hurdles.
Victoria Lutz (a junior), Wolff (a junior), Shogren (a sophomore) and Lydia Lutz (a freshman) returned to state by repeating as the section champion in the 4 x 800 relay.
The state Class A meet began Friday with preliminaries and will conclude today (Saturday) with the Class A finals starting at 3 p.m. at Hamline University in St. Paul.
Fast start propels Thelen
Thelen wasn't too surprised when she earned a state trip in the pole vault.
Qualifying for state in the 100 dash was another story.
At the Subsection 8-29A meet, Thelen easily won the pole vault by clearing 9 feet, 7 inches and was third in the 100 dash with a time of 13.79. Thelen entered the Section 8A meet at Warren last Saturday seeded first in the pole vault and 11th in the 100 dash.
The Park Rapids senior easily earned her first state trip by winning the pole vault by clearing 9-7 again. Thelen cleared that height on her second attempt while Roseau's Kristen Mlodzik cleared that height on her third attempt, giving Thelen the section title. No other competitors in the pole vault cleared 9-1.
In 12 meets this season, Thelen finished first or second in the pole vault 10 times.
"I was hoping to go to state in the pole vault. I was pretty confident," said Thelen, who just missed a state berth last year by placing third after clearing 9-2. "I've been consistently going 9-7 the last week, so I wasn't too worried. (Mlodzik) beat me at sections last year, so I had something to prove. I wanted to stay focused and get first place."
Contending for a state berth in the 100 dash didn't even cross Thelen's mind.
"At the beginning of the season I was hoping to go to state in the 100, but as the season progressed I didn't think I could do it," said Thelen. "It was kind of a shock. I'm glad I made it."
Thelen won her heat in the preliminaries with a 13.35 to enter the finals as the No. 3 seed. Only East Grand Forks' Ashley Tingelstad (12.53) and Crookston's Danielle Larson (13.34) had faster times.
"I didn't realize I was third in the finals, but I felt good about my time," said Thelen. "I figured this was my last time I was going to run it, so I wanted to run in the 12s."
Thelen didn't reach that goal, but did earn the right to run the 100 at least one more time by finishing second in 13.14. Tingelstad took first in 12.42 while Cass Lake-Bena's Danielle Jourdain was a distant third in 13.45.
"I was really pumped up. I had so much adrenaline after getting first place in the pole vault," said Thelen. "Everything clicked."
"I expected Rachel to go in the pole vault," said Park Rapids head coach Corey Hill. "After she won her preliminary heat (in the 100), I thought she had a chance."
Thelen was looking to cap off her senior season by bringing home two medals in her first and final state meet. Thelen went into state seeded tied for ninth out of 16 competitors in the pole vault and 15th out of 19 competitors in the 100. La Crescent's Shannon Stever had the best qualifying mark of 11-4 in the pole vault while Tingelstad had the fastest qualifying time in the 100.
"I hope to make the finals and have a shot to medal (in the 100)," said Thelen. "I'm looking to clear over 10 feet and break (Jennifer Etter's) school record in the pole vault. My goal is to medal and hopefully finish in the top five."
Bateman attacks hurdles
Hill wasn't surprised when Bateman qualified for state in the 300 hurdles.
"I predicted that one," said Hill. "I thought Grace was ready to run a really good race."
Bateman showed signs of being a state contender when she finished ninth in her section debut as a seventh grader with a time of 52.60.
At the subsection meet, Bateman led the field with a winning time of 51.30. That gave her the No. 4 seed entering the section meet.
Laure Olson of Hawley/Ulen-Hitterdal, who entered the section meet with a top time of 47.45, lived up to her No. 1 seed by winning the section title in 48.94. Bateman was right behind Olson, finishing second with a personal-best time of 48.98. Crookston's Leann Wagner was third in 50.04.
"I was hoping to make it. This is something I wanted all season," said Bateman. "I was pretty confident. My goal was to stick with (Olson) and hopefully go a 48 or a low 49."
Bateman met that time and entered state seeded 18th out of 18 state qualifiers. Benson's Kendra Mooberry had the fastest qualifying time of 44.23.
"Making it to state was my goal," said Bateman. "I'd like to medal, but if I don't it's no big deal. I'm happy making it to state as an eighth grader."
Relay team coasts to state
Returning to state in the 4 x 800 relay was no surprise for the Lutzs, Wolff and Shogren.
That group was undefeated in seven races this season. And even though Wolff missed the subsection meet because she was home sick, those four runners were expecting to repeat as the section champs.
"We were trying not to be too confident, but we thought we would make it," said Victoria Lutz.
"We ran significantly faster times than anyone else," said Shogren. "We were pretty confident."
"I wasn't too worried," said Wolff. "I didn't know how I'd do because I was still recovering, but I was fairly confident we'd win it."
"I have a lot of confidence in this team," said Lydia Lutz. "We wanted it really bad."
Shelby Pierce filled in for Wolff at the subsection meet and the Panthers ran away from the field with a winning time of 10:18.63.
Wolff returned and took over Pierce's spot as the Panthers coasted to another section title with a winning time of 9:54.29.
Lydia Lutz gave the Panthers a lead they would not relinquish with a 2:26 split on the first leg. Wolff and Shogren maintained the lead before Victoria Lutz coasted to the win. Lake of the Woods was a distant second in 10:09.14 and East Grand Forks finished third in 10:21.57.
"Nobody has pushed us in that relay all year," said Hill. "We have a good chance to finish in the top five at state."
The Panthers are guaranteed a medal since only nine teams qualified for state in the distance relay. Park Rapids is seeded No. 7 with their 9:54.29. However, the Panthers clocked a 9:47.42 to set a school record in winning last year's section title before placing 10th at last year's state meet with a 9:55.64.
Adrian has the best qualifying time of 9:35.46. All four members of Park Rapids' relay team - who will have Pierce and fellow freshman Mandy Schirmers as alternates - know they are capable of dropping more time and contending for a top-five finish.
"We're right up there," said Lydia Lutz. "We could get first, but we all have to be on our 'A' game."
"I think we're going to do pretty good," said Wolff. "This year we have more experience and we're more confident. We have so much time we can drop. We're going to do better than last year."
"Last year's experience is going to help. We're not going to be as nervous," said Shogren. "I'm looking forward to state. We're hoping to break the school record. We have one of the fastest times in the state and I know we're going to go faster. We're definitely going to contend."
"Last year we were overwhelmed by the fact that we were there. This year we're not going to be so psyched out," said Victoria Lutz. "I feel we're going to run our best race of the year down there. We're going to get that medal."