Class and excellence highlights of Hamilton track sectional

May 31, 2014

There were brilliant and exciting races too numerous to count at the WIAA Division 1 Sussex Hamilton track sectional May 30.

Like veteran Homestead boys track coach Dan Benson said before the meet: "Give us all something to go 'woo' about!"

And though there were plenty of such "woo" moments, they were almost dwarfed by the acts of class and decency that were part and parcel of this joyous and thrilling event which sent qualifiers to next weekend's WIAA State Meet in La Crosse on the beautiful spring day.

At the top of the list was Whitefish Bay hurdler Adam Strehlow, who as winner of both the high and intermediate events at the North Shore Conference outdoor the previous week, he had every right to expect a run at state in both events this week.

But when asked to sacrifice the high hurdles in order to lend a hand and give the Blue Dukes a better chance at qualifying the 4x100 and 4x200-meter relays, he didn't four-step the opportunity.

Not only did Bay advance to state in the two events with season-best times, but Strehlow, running his third highly-competitive race in just about 26 minutes, was beaten out by just an eyelash for the third and final state spot in the 300 intermeidate hurdles.

Strehlow was philosophical about his decision.

"The team needed me on the relays," he said, "and I'm not sorry, no. The high hurdles are pretty risky.  I could have fallen at any time. And now the relays are going to state. I'm a junior, and if I was a senior, I might have thought differently, but as a junior, I could afford to take one for the team.

"Besides, track is not a single person sport. It's a real team sport."

His generosity in giving up his spot in the high hurdles opened up two state qualifying spots for Menomonee Falls' sophomores Bryce McMurtry and Reese Meredith, who could be seen a few minutes later on the concourse with some of the widest smiles in the place.

Generosity took on many forms. Veteran Homestead pole vault coach Jeff Mehring is retiring after 31 vastly underpaid years, and he is making one more trip to state with senior Elyssa Tracy in tow.

Tracy, one of numerous members of the successful Highlanders gymnastics team on the track squad, battled ankle injuries the last few years but succeeded in making it to state with a series of impressive late-season efforts.

Mehring is happy to go to La Crosse with her.

"Exceptionally gratified is the term," he said. "I'm most imopressed with her spirit. She's got a great spirit as a competitor and is a very classy young woman."

"I concur," agreed nearby Homestead girls' head coach John Krueger.

Krueger, a class act in his own right, was busy giving out medals to the team in the twilight after the meet, when assistant coach Victor Vilar good-naturedly teased his boss about how emotional Krueger gets when he sees one of his athletes succeed.

"I just do that," said Krueger without a trace of irony. "It's (the success) so gratifying to see."

Especially in another one of the Homestead gymnasts-turned-track-athletes. Monica Caputa earned her fourth straight berth to the state meet with a victory in the high jump. Caputa has twice advanced in the long jump, once in the triple jump and now in the high jump.

"I just think gymnastics as a whole turns you into a more well-rounded athlete," said Caputa. "Makes you a better track athlete."

"We're just a group of people who train together (almost all year-around) and we've become very close," added Tracy. "It's just nice to be here together. Nice to help the team succeed as best as possible."

One of the best stories of the day came from Homestead boys triple and high jump state qualifier Blake Leeson, who a year ago was in a cast after a disastrous accident on a bike too small for him left him with a 75 percent tear in one of his achilles tendons (he has a large bump of scar tissue as a reminder).

But the volleyball star, who is headed to Ohio State, did not pout or feel sorry for himself.

"Three-hundred sixty-five days ago, he couldn't even walk," said his jumps coach, Benson. "Most of his achilles was gone, but he did a really good job in summer of working with (Homestead head coach Todd) Brawner on getting his strength back. He kept at it and worked hard on his weaknesses."

"The goal was to get back back in time for volleyball in the fall, and I got back in time," said Leeson. "After getting injured like that, I'm absoluterly thrilled to be going to state. I didn't think I'd be here, but here I am."

A bit like Strehlow, Leeson also epitomized the camaraderie and good sportsmanship that is often part and parcel of track. He lost out in the high jump in a spirited competition to North Shore rival Rhashad Gray of Bay, who he battled intensely in league meets throughout the regular season.

He didn't hold a grudge.

"He and I went back and forth in the conference," said Leeson of Gray. "I love having Rhashad around. We're competitors and we go after each other all day long, but it's all just a really exciting experience and at the end of the day we're still friends and that's what it's all about."

Another story of redemption came in the boys 3,200 where Germantown's Trevor Becker earned his first state track berth. About an hour or so earlier in the day, he could be seen walking off the track frustrated after the 1,600, where despite a near-school record effort, he came in fourth, one spot from state.

But he choked off his ire, listened to his event coach and refocused, and despite a mistimed gun lap shot (it was a lap early), Becker still found a way to get to La Crosse with another personal best.

"My coach came up to me and said 'forget about it (the 1,600), go out and run mad and run smart,'" said Becker.

He did, even despite the official's error.

"I was tired and I didn't want to run another lap (after the mistake)," said Becker, "but I wanted to get to state more so I fought right through it. I feel so relieved right now. I get one more race (at state)."

Becker succeeded by shrugging off self-doubt and frustration.

So did the Nicolet girls 4x200 relay, anchored by now three-time state qualifier Jnana Martin.

"We put our bodies before our minds," she said, "and we overcame the mental hurdles we put in front of ourselves all season."

And in doing so earned the joy only a state meet qualifier can know as they turned in a season-best in advancing.

"We were confident before the race," Martin added. "All of us were grinning before we got onto the track, and we said we'd keep smiling no matter what happened. Now we have much bigger grins than when we started the day."

Track welcomes fans like the aunt of Bay boys 800 champ George Papajohn, who after seeing her nephew win the race, exclaimed "I get to go to another track meet. I hope the weather is nice!"

It is also often kind to newcomers of all backgrounds and nationalities who try and earn their own smiles.

Germantown senior girls distance runner Khia Kurtenbach made it to state in the 3,200 despite it being just her first season out for track.

A successful veteran of the Warhawks girls swim team, she just wanted to try something different before she graduated.

"It's been a really fun thing," she said. "Try a different sport, be a beginner again and see how far I can get my times to drop. ...This is great, I feel that I really worked for this."

Bay long jumper Amelia Maradas came all the way from Europe for that kind of experience. A veteran sprinter, relay runner and sprinter back at her home school in the south of France, this AFS student could not wait for spring to come so she could stretch her legs.

She won a conference title in the long jump and helped contrtibute to the Blue Dukes' North Shore Conference team championship.

And she earned a lasting memory to take back home in a month (she is very sad to be leaving), when she finished third in the long jump and advanced to state.

"This was actually so much more than I could have ever expected," she said in impeccable English. "I couldn't have expected to make your state meet, but I knew I had nothing to lose, so I just went for it.

"I'm so excited by this, when I get back home I can tell everyone that I made a state meet in America!"

Which no one should take for granted. Menomonee Falls' sprinter Christian Almonte earned a repeat berth in the 100 dash. Last year, he was Falls' only state meet qualifier.

This year, he'll have the benefit of company. The Indians, who won the WIAA regional title two days earlier and finished second in the sectional team standings, advanced four individuals and three relay teams to the state meet this day.

When told he'll have to share space on the bus and make a little elbow room for all his teammates and friends, all he could do was smile.

Almonte said he'd be happy to slide over on his seat.

"This is the best athletic year that I've ever had," he said, "and the most fun, especially with all my friends making it to state (too)."

And that track fans, is something to go "woo" about.

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