WICHITA — Melissa Pfeifer knew it was a strategy she could handle.
The Thomas More Prep-Marian senior stepped on the track Saturday morning at Cessna Stadium in Wichita as a contender for the Class 3A 3,200-meter run crown at the Kansas State Track and Field Championships. Two competitors stood ahead of her, but she knew only one could give her fits.
Halstead freshman Lydia Johnson and Hiawatha freshman Elizabeth Kettler earned the top two seeds in the event, Kettler earning the top seed with the lone sub-12 minute race in regionals. The time caught the eye of Pfeifer, a two-time medalists in the 800 seeking her first long-distance medal.
Kettler presented a challenge Pfeifer rarely faced this year.
The trio stuck with each other through six laps, Pfeifer hugging the inside lane behind Kettler with Johnson snug between them to the right.
With two laps to go, Kettler turned up the pace. Pfeifer followed, and Johnson rescinded back from the two leaders. She eventually finished third.
Pfeifer stuck tight with Kettler up to the sounding of the bell, signaling the final lap. Kettler turned up the pace once again, and Pfeifer did all she could to follow.
“Having her right there to push me — I felt strong. I knew I could hang with her,” Pfeifer said. “I just didn’t have the speed to outkick her at the end.”
Kettler established her spot on the inside, sending Pfeifer into the second lane to engage in a sprint down the homestretch. The TMP senior gave a last-ditch leap toward the line, ultimately falling .27 seconds short of Kettler’s winning time of 11 minutes, 39.13 seconds. Pfeifer’s personal record of 11:49.40 smashed her previous best by more than 35 seconds.
Her previous best was 12:25.09.
“I knew that she was the only sub-12 girl going in. Coach (Matt Dumler) was like, ‘Just go ahead and hang with her,’ and I knew I could,” I think pretty much at the last lap we started picking up,” Pfeifer said. “Oh my gosh, I went with her. To lose by half a second, that’s really disappointing.”
It was also only the start of a long day to ensue. The suspension of Friday’s events meant for the running of all three of Pfeifer’s events — 800, 1,600 and 3,200 runs — Saturday.
“It would have been really nice to have this race last night,” Pfeifer said. “It is what it is.”
As the pair crossed the finish line just after 8:16 a.m., Pfeifer put her hands on her knees to catch her breath. She spoke to herself in frustration of missing out on gold, an attitude that continued when she returned to benches in the infield to wait for the medal ceremony.
But upon receiving the round piece of silver, she remembered that second place is not so bad after all.
“I mean, second place is not too bad. I’m glad I have another chance to get back on the podium later today,” Pfeifer said.
Just less than five hours later, Pfeifer returned to the track for the 1,600, her second event of the day. Though the combination of Kettler and Johnson once again lined up next to the TMP senior, it was the upperclassmen that dominated, with seniors and one junior establishing the top five spots on the podium.
But the race played out eerily similar. Pfeifer hung with the leaders, which included Southeast of Saline senior Allison Shutterheim. Once again, the fourth and final lap led to an increased pace and battle of wit and speed down the homestretch.
Shutterheim’s time of 5:24.94 edged Pfeifer by less than 1 second, a 5:25.58 that was just shy of her PR set at regionals in Lyons. Her first two races combined to second-place deficits of less than 1 second.
“I just stuck with her again, like I had in the other pack,” Pfeifer said. “It’s just the kick. I didn’t have enough in me to get her.”
Pfeifer’s day only got more exciting from there.
In the final race of her track career, Pfeifer got off to a slow start in the 800. A two-time sixth-place finisher, Pfeifer hung out in exactly that position for 600 meters with Stutterheim again leading the pack. She would not contest Stutterheim, but it was a different story for the four runners in between.
“I thought she was done,” TMP head coach Matt Dumler said “I honestly thought, ‘OK, sixth, maybe fifth. We might be able to get one.’ But Mel did was Mel does and stepped it up. She was hurting that entire race. I thought the mile and two-mile caught up to her, but she’s what a competitor should be. They physical limitations stop them. They don’t let that fatigue, that tiredness.
“She found another gear.”
During the last 150 meters, Pfeifer picked each one off, one by one. She passed three runners on the homestretch, including a too-close-to-call finish that flashed identical times on the scoreboard for Pfeifer and Conway Springs freshman Makenzie Curry.
Both finished the race with times of 2:27.21, but the edge went to Pfeifer. Stutterheim won with a 2:22.46.
“I could definitely feel my other races and I knew I wasn’t in the best position,” Pfeifer said. “I was like, ‘This is it. This is the end of my high school career.’ I just wanted to go all out. As soon as I crossed the finish line, I looked up. Just to see I was second was awesome.”
For Dumler, a coach with a herd of young talent, he can only hope seeing Pfeifer’s fight provides a sense of purpose to his athletes.
We would hope that it would motivate them,” Dumler said. “Hopefully it shows them that excuses are terrible. You can overcome whatever you think is holding you down. You would like to think that they would see something like that and envision themselves doing that somehow. We’ll see how long that carries with them, but that’s what our hope is.”
Dumler did not have to think hard about what his first words would be to his senior leader.
“I’ll probably tell her to sit down,” he said with a grin and slight laugh. “She’s earned it.”
Meanwhile, Pfeifer already was planning her night following a classic way to ride off into the sunset as a Monarch.
“Chipotle and then a nap,” Pfeifer said. “A wheat burrito with chicken, cheese and sour cream.”
Most of the season was spent with Pfeifer running against lesser competition in lower classes, leading to blow-away victories and few chances to go stride-for-stride with another top-level runner.
For one of the most successful and looked-upon female athletes in some time at TMP, there was no truer way than to go out fightiing.
“Just having someone right there,” Pfeifer said of what pushed her Saturday.
“And when a state championship’s on the line, you’ll do whatever it takes.”