Russell girls produce turnaround
By CONOR NICHOLL
Son of Barb Nicholl
RUSSELL -- The 2012-13 Russell High School girls' basketball team advanced to the state tournament for the first time in 39 years and eventually finished fourth place in Class 3A. Lena Wedel, then a junior, played virtually the entire year in pain and then had to watch at the end of the winter.
Wedel tweaked her hip in a December practice, but first thought she pulled her groin. She nursed the injury like a groin pull and went through some physical therapy. Doctors worked on the injury for several months before Wedel went for a MRI and then eventually headed to Great Bend and Kansas City when she needed hip surgery. She played in just 12 games and had to take statistics on the bench at state.
Wedel had actually torn the labrum inside of her hip socket. Doctors repaired the tear and reattached it. They also reshaped Wedel's hip socket, which was oval and needed to be round. The hip socket repair tacked on more rehab and therapy.
"I was like, 'You've got to be kidding me,' " Wedel said. "It was a pretty low point. I came out of surgery, and I was laying in bed, and I was like, 'Why? Why me?' "
For several weeks, Wedel couldn't perform simple movements without help, including getting out of bed, going to the bathroom and putting on socks.
Her sister, Sam, currently a sophomore, even shaved her sister's legs because Lena couldn't bend past 90 degrees.
"That's how much she loves me," Lena said with a smile.
Wedel missed all of the 2013 track season as Russell didn't qualify any athletes for the state track meet. Led by her faith, Wedel has come back stronger for this spring and has a positive demeanor.
"I just prayed a lot," Wedel said. "I had a lot of people praying for me, and I think it's helped. It's given me a better outlook. I definitely don't take my sports for granted, and my ability, and I thank God every night that I make it through another day without getting hurt, and I make it through another practice, and God is the reason why I am here right now."
The Wedel sisters have been a key piece in a turnaround for the Bronco track program.
"Probably one of the biggest improvements I have ever seen in a group of kids before in a single year," said Dave King, Russell's track coach since 2006.
Last year marked the first time since 2005 that Russell didn't have any state qualifiers. In 2006, King made a bet. If the Broncos had any qualifiers, they could shave his head. Mallory Mahoney qualified for Russell, and King had his head shaved. This spring, King hasn't made the wager -- yet.
"If they bring it up, I will probably go through with it," King said.
"We should mention it," Lena Wedel said with a laugh.
Wedel, a Sterling College volleyball signee, was cleared for the first day of volleyball two-a-day practices last fall. She delivered 81 kills, 468 digs and 127 solo/assist blocks in 2013 and made it through basketball season healthy. In track, Wedel long jumped before the injury, but is now triple jumping and has performed better than she thought.
"My hip is holding up," Wedel said. "I am just happy that I am out here. It's amazing. My first practice I was like, 'Guys, we get to run sprint workouts. Yeah!' Because I was sitting there last year like, 'I just wish I would run.' "
At the Ellsworth meet, Wedel, helped by Bronco jumps coach Kim Gadwood, broke the school record in the triple jump with a 35 foot mark, currently third in Class 4A, according to historian Carol Swenson. The Wedel sisters and freshmen Sam Ptacek and Alaina Gfeller have posted strong times in the 400- and 1,600-meter relays.
Gfeller has also long jumped 16-8.25; only four 4A jumpers have cleared 16-10. At the Russell Relays on Friday, the relays each set season-bests with second place finishes in the 400 (51.34) and 1,600 (4:13.44).
"I was glad when they came up, because they are really good, and they mesh really well with the team, and we just all work together really well," Sam Wedel said. "I really like it, they are super girls."
In King's eyes, Ptacek has grown more confident and comfortable throughout the season and posted a season-best 26.82 to take second in the 200 on Friday, seventh-best in 4A.
"She has come a long ways from day one," King said. "I think she started the season out as kind of a young freshman and didn't really know what to expect, but she has competed well."
On the boys' side, sophomore Noah Gfeller, Alaina's brother, has run 51.34 seconds in the 400 and junior Michael Pfannenstiel won the 110-meter hurdles (15.50) and finished second in the 300 hurdles (42.23).
Last year, Pfannenstiel was having trouble placing at junior varsity meets, but three-stepped the hurdles for the first time at regionals and finished fifth, a spot away from going to state. Gfeller has taken several seconds off his 400 time.
"Real blessing for us to have on the team," King said.
Alaina Gfeller, who has impressed King with her practice habits, set a goal to run a 1:03 in the 400, but has already bettered that with a 1:01.24 this year.
"I just stay relaxed the whole time, and just kick it in when everybody else is seeming to hit a wall," she said.
Several years ago, the Gfellers left Russell when their older brother, Devin, a standout football player, was a senior and went to Lindsborg-Smoky Valley.
"We moved just for the schools, just a change of pace," Gfeller said.
They came back two years ago, and Gfeller said she has enjoyed being in Russell, especially being with her friends.
"Glad that they came back, just a good family, good kids in that family and just really nice to have them back in the community," King said.
Wedel qualified on the 400-meter relay team as a freshman and sophomore and finished seventh as a freshman on a relay that included Peyton Weiss, a two-time state long jump champion and All-American at Emporia State University. Wedel learned to be calm and be a leader from Weiss.
"She was like a duck on the pond," Wedel said. "If she was nervous at all, we never knew it."
Wedel broke Weiss' school mark with her triple jump at Ellsworth. Her first three jumps were poor, and Wedel reset and relaxed before her fourth and final jump. It felt strong, and when the official measured her mark, she said "35" with no feet and inches. Wedel thought the jump was 30-5. Later, when they announced the winner, the officials called out "35 feet." Wedel and her mother were so shocked they started laughing.
On Friday, Wedel triple jumped just 30-8, but finished second in the 100 with a season-best 13.02, which is usually about a 10th away from state qualification.
"Her hip has been so strong," King said. "I think she did a really good job with her rehab and the physical therapy, and I think that she has really strengthened that hip up. It hasn't really been an issue at all. We have been real blessed that the hip has stayed healthy, and we haven't had to worry about it."