by Tomi Thompson
Dragon track athletes are performing at a high level this indoor season and are off to the races with eight athletes heading to the national indoor meet March 13-14 in Birmingham, Alabama.
Returning once again to the national stage are Seniors Ryan Olson, Matt Loehr and Keith Turner, along with Sophomore Kenny Andri to make up the men’s 4×400 relay team. The team is looking to step up their game from last season and grow from challenges they’ve faced.
To qualify for the meet, the team beat a provisional standard set by the NCAA for Division II track and is currently ranked sixth in the nation.
At last year’s indoor national meet, bad luck struck. During their third and final baton exchange, the baton slipped through the fingers of the third and fourth runners.
But instead of looking at this misstep as a mistake, the team was motivated by having the opportunity to be comeback kids and return to this year’s meet stronger than ever.
“It’s kind of fueled us this year for sure,” Olson said. “Knowing that we’ve returned everyone from last year, that’s been our mission to get back and place really high in the conference and in the nation as well.”
Turner said his team is embracing their second chance to achieve at this meet.
“This year we’ve been fueled and motivated to get back out there, and show the nation what we can do,” Turner said. “Now we’re faster than we were, and we believe we can win it this year.”
Even with last year on his mind, Loehr intends to run hard and make up for what the team could have achieved.
“It’s been a lot of motivation coming into this year just to make up for what we missed out on,” Loehr said. “I just have to go out there and just lay it out all out on the line.”
The team also faced challenges at this season’s indoor conference meet. With a big lead, one of the runners sustained an injury, and the team was unable to finish the race. Turner said difficulties at important races heighten the team’s nerves but don’t slow them down.
“It does make us a little nervous, because it’s happened twice now at big meets, but we believe in ourselves, and we know what we’re capable of doing,” he said.
Head Coach Darren Schneider said the team is a special group of guys with dynamic chemistry and is motivated to be the best.
“They’re almost a team within a team,” Schneider said. “I think they have a bond and they seem to get along really well and I think that translates into success. When you care about one another and work hard together, and you all have a common goal, I think that can lead to great things. I think that they’d love to go the national meet and become national champions.”
To qualify as an All-American, an athlete has to finish in the top eight of their event. The national champion title is designated to the first place individual or team.
Schneider believes the team is set up to succeed.
“Based on their body of work, we know that they’re good athletes,” Schneider said. “That’s one of the exciting things about going to the national championship is you’re paired up against the best in the nation and you’re going to be in a great facility and you’re going to have every opportunity to do well.”
Assistant coach Joey Pacione credits the team’s success to how much they push each other.
“I give them a lot of input and ownership of their training, and it makes it great because they know each other well, they know themselves well,” Pacione said. “I can always give them a tough workout, but since they have each other, they’ll be in it together.”
Pacione believes the team’s success in other races sets the bar high for nationals.
“They were ready to do some special things right away,” he said. “I knew that as long as I did my job OK, I knew they would make it. They’ve achieved at a high level in the past, so that expectation is there.”
Despite the obstacles the team faces, their support for each other keeps them strong.
“We just have chemistry and we trust each other and we all train together every day and we know what we’re capable of doing,” Turner said.
Andri said the team is good friends outside of track, and his reasons for wanting success are simple.
“I just run for my guys,” Andri said. “We know we can run fast times.”
He also said Olson’s pre-race prayer has kept the team in check before they hit the track.
“Right before we actually race, we have a team prayer. Ryan leads it, and it’s kind of our ritual before every 4×4 the past two seasons.”
Having the ability to push each other makes the team stronger, Loehr said.
“We have the same goals and we just push each other to the limit every day at practice,” Loehr said. “If one person is dragging behind, we’ll just pick that person right up and carry them with us. We all have that goal of becoming All-American or possibly national champs.”
Olson is confident in the team’s abilities.
“We do pretty well for up-north boys,” Olson said.
With the national meet just days away, Loehr knows the team is ready to take off.
“You never know if you’re for sure going to make it back, and now that those plane tickets are purchased, we’re ready to get there and handle our business.”
Other athletes competing for the Dragons at the national indoor meet include Senior Tia Knight in the 60 meter hurdles, junior Molly Montonye in the mile run, senior Chelsea Klemetson in the high jump and sophomore Alissa Mears in the 800 meter run. Olson also qualified for the national meet as an individual in the open 400-meter run.