Track and field: Fifth-place freshmen stun state opponents and themselves
Standing atop the podium at UW-La Crosse's Veterans Memorial Field Sports Complex is an achievement that a small percentage of Wisconsin high school track and field athletes get to cross off their bucket lists when they receive their diplomas and close the door on their high school careers.
Prescott's Tori Benck, Grace Carlson, Abby Syverson and Jessie Urman were able to place a check mark by "place at state" at the conclusion of their first year of varsity track, adding to the very miniscule number of athletes who earn a WIAA State Track and Field Meet medal before their driver's licenses.
The freshman foursome took fifth place in the 4x200-meter relay at the 2018 WIAA state meet on Saturday, June 2, by completing the race in one minute, 46.70 seconds.
Prescott accounted for four of the six freshmen to run in the 4x200 state finals. All four teams that crossed the finish line before the Cardinals were made up of sophomores, juniors and seniors.
While marshalling for their state race, the Cardinals made small talk with their opponents as they awaited their turn to take the track. Benck recalls talking to a senior from Monroe: "We were both talking about how this was our last race of the year, and she asked if I was a senior," Benck said. "I was like, 'No, I'm a freshman,' and her jaw just dropped. Then I was like, 'Yeah our whole team is freshmen,' and she was really surprised by that."
Two days after their state feat, glimpses of the surprise the Monroe senior displayed were present amongst the Prescott freshmen whose fifth-place finish still hadn't sunk in for them.
"I think we did have high expectations," Urman said when asked what the sprinters expected of themselves coming into their first year of varsity track. "Just not state."
The four freshmen laughed in unison, still in disbelief.
Carlson's eyes and smile widened as she said, "I did not expect myself in a state meet when I went out for track this year," after admitting that her parents forced her to go out for track as a freshman.
The relay quartet may still be shocked by its potential, but Prescott's co-head coach Emily Calabrese recognized her freshmen's capabilities early on in the short 2018 season.
Calabrese said her sprinters, especially Urman, followed Athletic.net, throughout the season to see how their relay times stacked up against their competitors, which allowed racing at state to land on the team's radar.
"We were like, 'Oh hey, we're ranked No. 1 in the region,'" Calabrese said. "'Oh, we're ranked No. 2 in the section. That gets us to state; we just have to keep going.'"
And they did.
By May 15, with a time of 1:48.56, the freshmen were within a second of breaking Prescott's 4x200 school record, which Benck, Carlson and Syverson had already managed to do in the 4x100 along with senior teammate Katie Burmood. The 4x200 team saw a .54-second improvement at regionals where they placed second and qualified for the Colby sectional meet.
At sectionals, with the state meet within reach, the freshmen's nerves were present. Once Burmood's track career was ended prematurely due to an injury, they were in full force.
"When Katie got injured, my mind kind of went everywhere else except for where I was," Benck recalled. "Even in the long jump, I saw a big difference in my jump right after she got hurt. I remember coach came up to me and she was like, 'You're thinking about her getting hurt. You just have to put it all past you, and we'll figure it out.' I was really nervous at sectionals.'"
Urman replaced Burmood as the lead leg of the 4x100 at sectionals, and helped Benck, Carlson and Syverson also qualify for the state meet in the shorter relay. But Burmood's season-long mentoring was not forgotten as her underclassmen competed at UW-La Crosse without her.
"She helped us with basically everything," Benck said. "We would always follow her during warm-ups. I felt like she was the mom of us for the entire year."
"That's a good word for it," Carlson agreed. "She's our second mom."
The four freshmen were racing in the meet that Burmood had dreamed of qualifying for four years, but the senior showed no resentment toward her rookie teammates.
"Katie still joined us at state and was a support system for these girls throughout the weekend," Calabrese said in an earlier interview "It was a tough weekend for her to know how far she made it this season and that she would be competing in that relay if it wasn't for her injury the week prior, but she stayed strong all weekend and was very proud of her underclassmen teammates and how they performed."
Burmood's continuous support was beneficial to the freshmen who remembered being startled by the UW-La Crosse track the night before they'd place their starting blocks on it.
"Right when we got there, we went to the track the night before and we saw the track and we were all kind of not ready for it," Urman said.
"We saw it under the lights and it looked huge," Benck said. "I feel like we were all like, 'Wow, this is a big track,' even though it was really the same size."
After testing out the intimidating track, the freshmen remained distracted from their task at hand by eating at Perkins (turns out all Italian restaurants in La Crosse were booked in advance) — where they found out Syverson was a master at not only the 200, but also the claw machine — and spent the majority of the night trying to find ice for their hotel room ice baths.
"I don't think it really hit any of us," Carlson said. "Yeah, we went and looked at the track and it looked huge, but when we were all sitting at the hotel, we all said it didn't feel like we were running at state the next day. It just never really hit until the morning of. Then we were like, 'Holy crap, we're running today. Oh, dear Lord.'"
But once the team went through their warm-ups and took a practice lap around the college track before prelims, their nerves were soon replaced with growing confidence.
"Do you remember the realization you had after doing your first warm-up lap," Calabrese asked her soon-to-be-sophomores.
"(The track) was the same size," they said, smiling as the absurdity of their first inspection of the UW-La Crosse track began to feel like a distant memory.
In prelims, the freshmen proved the track wasn't too big for them by breaking their own school record by crossing the finish line at 1:45.48 and qualifying for Saturday's finals where they knocked off one high school bucket list item and made room for more achievable goals, which include eventually winning a state title.
After recapping how it felt to stand on the state meet's podium, looking out to their fans, family members and coaches, Syverson said in a hushed voice, "And we still have three more years left," still trying to take in the reality of her words as they left her mouth.
For Carlson, the question of "What if you didn't go out for track?" leaves her even more perplexed than the realization that she's a member of one of the five-best Division 2 high school 4x200 relay teams.
"I really can't," Carlson said when asked to imagine her freshman year without track. "I've gotten that question a lot, 'What if you never went out?' and I don't know, but good thing I did."