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Ness City a powerhouse that almost wasn't

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Ness City a powerhouse that almost wasn't

Published on -5/27/2010, 10:52 AM

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11The trio of athletes, senior sprinter Gage Kepple, senior distance runners Kyle Calvin and Colton McNinch and Eagle cross country/track coach Patrick Younger smiled and reflected back on an unlikely journey that has yielded a powerhouse program. As a freshman, Kepple didn't even compete in track because of a fractured back. McNinch was out of shape when he entered high school and didn't play any fall sports in 2006. Calvin, who was 5-foot-4 and weighed 112 pounds as a freshman, contemplated leaving the sport.

"My first race, I ran 24 minutes and 30-something seconds, and I about quit actually," Calvin said with a laugh. "At that point, I was like, there is no way I am going out for this next season."

Three years later, McNinch and Calvin are two of the most successful distance runners in state history. McNinch, a Southwestern College signee, has two individual track titles and is the second area male in the Kansas annals with two individual cross country titles. Calvin has finished third and second in state cross country and is the reigning 3,200-meter state title winner. In addition, the duo has helped Ness City win a 3,200-meter relay crown, capture the 2008 cross country team title with a record low score of 14 points and win the Class 1A track crown last spring.

Kepple tallied a critical six points in the sprinting events last spring, production that helped Ness City edge Goessel 53 to 48 for the team crown. This year, Kepple has remained one of 1A's elite sprinters and, along with freshmen Garrett Flax and Dalton Gantz and senior Drew Pfannenstiel, helped the 400-meter relay team earn the No. 1 ranking entering state. Ness City didn't even enter the event at regionals last season.

"I knew that they were fairly fast, and I thought that we had a good chance of going to state and being decent. But I didn't think that we would be going into state being No. 1," Kepple said. "I didn't think that at all."

This weekend, the senior trio has a chance to finish their careers with the third team crown of the Younger era and collect more individual titles. Equally important, a state championship would erase the disappointment of last fall. Ness City, ranked No. 1 in 1A cross country all year, lost the state crown to Tribune-Greeley County by a single point.

"I think everyone is motivated," Younger said. "Talking to everybody, they are super excited. I think everyone would love to step on the track tomorrow and start competing. That is definitely motivation because they realize how hard it is to win that second one."

Last season, Ness City relied heavily on McNinch, Calvin and Kepple for points. This year, the Eagles have what Younger labels "a lot of firepower," including junior triple jumper Skyler Kraft, senior hurdler Case Beckman and strong relays. Based on regional seedings, Ness City is expected to score 51 points; however, multiple coaches believe Ness City will score more at the state meet Friday and Saturday at Wichita State University's Cessna Stadium. Ashland, helped by strong field events, is considered Ness City's strongest competition. No 1A areaboys' team has repeated since Quinter in 1992-93.

Kepple and Calvin will both run in three events at state; Calvin holds 1A's top 3,200-meter time this spring at 9 minutes, 47.88 seconds. Since he was a freshman, McNinch has talked with Younger about running in four events at state. This year, he qualified in all four for the first time after finishing second in the 800-meter run at regional.

"It is just another shot to get more points," McNinch said. "Every single race this weekend, I am going to do whatever I can to get as many points for our team."

Four years ago, though, McNinch, Calvin and Kepple weren't considered freshmen with elite talent. Calvin laughed when he recalled a freshman year cross country photo.

"I look like I should be in junior high," he said.

Kepple turned to McNinch and remembered watching an old video of McNinch playing in a middle-school basketball game.

"I didn't even recognize you," Kepple said.

"(Colton) looked like he had no neck," Younger said.

Calvin, now 6-foot, 140 pounds, had a growth spurt between his freshman and sophomore year, enjoyed track and stayed with running. McNinch, 6-1, 170 pounds, and running nearly year round, is known for his strong work ethic. Kepple, who attended the state track meet as a spectator in the eighth grade, wanted to return as a competitor. For three months, Kepple had to wear a brace and could do little because of his back. Kepple said he "desperately hoped" to have an opportunity to run again.

"When I went to state to watch, I thought it was so amazing," Kepple said.

"I hoped that someday I'd be down there. So then my sophomore year when I came back, I wanted to do everything I could to go to the state meet, because I just remembered how awesome it was to watch it then."

In the fall of 2007, McNinch and Calvin emerged as elite runners. Both placed at state cross country, and Ness City took second as a team. But Younger wasn't convinced he had a dominant program.

"Some of the kids were the ones that came up to me after sophomore year cross country and said, 'Man, if Colton and Kyle improve as much as they have like the year before, you might have a chance to win a state title,' " he said.

At 2008 track, McNinch won his first individual title in the 3,200-meter run. Kepple qualified for the final in the 100 meters and finished eighth. That fall, Ness City broke the state record for lowest team score and became the first area boys' team to win a state cross country crown in 20 years as McNinch and Calvin finished first and third, respectively. Last spring, the Eagles, led by 46 combined points from McNinch and Calvin, won the team title and delivered one of the two-day event's highlights: the 3,200-meter finish between Calvin and McNinch. Calvin beat his friend and teammate for the first time: 9:42.66 to 9:43.15. This year, their goal is another 1-2 finish and break the 1A state record of 9:30.54 set by Mike Becker of Downs in 1989.

"We just went back and forth; we wanted it really, really bad," Calvin said. "I kind of remember passing each other back and forth, back and forth the whole time, and it still wasn't over at the end."

After the disappointing second-place finish in cross country last fall, the focus immediately turned to track. Calvin, who called state cross country a "big letdown," resolved to make certain he and McNinch could at least replicate last spring's showing. Younger looked to change his coaching style after the fall.

"Track couldn't get here soon enough, and I had to wait all winter," he said. "I was pretty motivated, and I told myself I was going to enjoy the track season. It wasn't the kids' fault. I didn't let myself enjoy last fall. I was just so on edge and almost too focused, but this year I tried to stay a little more relaxed. Still push them hard and mean business. But at the same time, I have enjoyed this track season a lot."

Younger, though, spent the first part of the spring without McNinch and Calvin. McNinch missed a meet in early April because of a misaligned back that cause pain on his hip joints. He eventually saw a physical therapist and has been healthy for more than a month. Calvin has been bothered by some Achilles pain, but hasn't missed any meets.

"I knew how hard those guys work," Younger said. "It was only a matter of time before those guys came back."

At meets, McNinch and Calvin each take different approaches. McNinch focuses on one meet at a time and never tries to think too far ahead. Calvin's year-long focus lies on one thing: state. Last year, Calvin entered state with a season-best time of 10:13.11 in the 3,200 and 4:43.85 in the 1,600.

At state, he set his personal best in the 3,200 by more than 29 seconds and his 1,600 best by more than eight seconds. At regional cross country, he posted a 17:57. He ran 42 seconds faster at state.

"In regular meets, like league meet or regular Ness meet or any meet, I'll run hard and I want to do good on our team, but I don't feel like killing myself like I do at state," he said. "When it comes to state, I zone in a lot."

Kepple, who finished fourth and sixth in the 100 and 200 last spring, will look for three more state medals. In the 400-meter relay, Ness City sits at the top with a 44.55, .07 in front of Macksville. Just like last year, Kepple believes a contribution from the sprints could put Ness City over the top -- and earn the Eagles another state title and a terrific end to three careers.

"I just think it is my job to get sprint points, too, so others don't totally run away in that category because we are going to get distance points with these two," Kepple said as he sat between McNinch and Calvin on the picnic table.

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