RUSSELL — As Thomas More Prep-Marian senior Melissa Pfeifer neared the midway point of her leg in the 3,200-meter relay at the Russell High School Invitational on Thursday at Shaffer Field, head coach Matt Dumler turned to sophomore Taylor Teel to showcase his brilliance and insight.
Pfeifer received the baton as the second runner of TMP’s relay team in fifth place with plenty of ground to make up. Just 300 meters later, the three-time state qualifier had the Monarchs nipping on the heels of Pratt.
“That’s why I moved Pfeifer to our second leg,” Dumler said to Teel, drawing no question from the underclassman.
In TMP’s first meet of the 2016 season, Pfeifer helped the girls’ squad to a fifth-place finish with two individual silvers by a combined five seconds. Her leg gave the relay team its edge to earn second place, as well.
“You have to put your trust in Coach Dumler. He knows what he’s doing,” Pfeifer said. “Wherever he puts me, I’m gonna run my hardest. That position gives me the opportunity to make up some ground. I run good when I see people in front of me. I like to win.”
The Monarchs finished with 52 team points, while Pratt (90) and Russell (77) topped the girl’s standings.
A two-time placer in the 800, Pfeifer came up 2.5 seconds shy of Pratt’s Halle Helfrich. In the 2-mile, her third of three lengthy races, she held steady position in front of Hoisington’s Rylie Koester until the final 300 meters of the final lap, losing by just more than 2 seconds.
Tasked with running against brutal winds on the frontstretch and with it being the first meet for the Monarchs, Dumler is slow to react to any negatives he saw Thursday.
With race experience under their belts, Dumler said the focus now will turn to pacing and mentality on the track heading into upcoming meets.
“We saw a lot of good things … and things we need to improve on,” Dumler said. “Our conditioning needs to improve a bit. With the wind the way it was, we’re not gonna be able to take away a lot from distances and times. What we can take away is the way the kids competed. … The kind of mental game is where we’ll focus on for next week.”
When it comes to Pfeifer, he knows better than to have any knee-jerk reactions.
“She’s gonna be fine,” Dumler said of Pfeifer. “Today is the first speed training we’ve had all year. … She’s enough of a competitor that the 2-mile, if that had been three weeks from now, I think she would’ve won it. She’s determined enough. … It’s not gonna take a lot for her.”
Pfeifer added: “I wanna make it back to state again. I’ve made it all three years, so of course I wanna make it back. I hope to make it in more than one event, just hope to get it in the mile or 2-mile.”
The other girl to impress Dumler at the onset of the season is Kendra Werth, a 5-2 junior who defeated a 4A qualifier in the 300 hurdles to claim first with a time of 51.36. Werth also claimed third with a leap of 15-6.25 in the long jump to go with a fourth-place jump of 33-5.25 in the triple jump.
“Today was the first race that we really saw a complete 300 hurdles out of her. Usually she gets to the back end and starts to stutter, starts to fall apart,” Dumler said. “I think what has helped her a lot is she really got committed to powerlifting, and that strength really showed for her today. … If she can maintain that throughout the season, that will help her.”
She admitted she received extra motivation from Dumler before her 300, given the incentive of not having to run the 4x400 if she put together a good showing in her race. Even without the extra fuel, her love for her best race — one she nearly advanced to state in last season — pushed her to get 2016 rolling in the right direction.
“I love hurdles,” Werth said. “I used to do the 100 (hurdles) too, but he (Dumler) told me I stutter too bad, so he won’t let me do those anymore. This has always kinda been my race. … I didn’t expect to get first, honestly. It really made me happy and encouraged me more about doing hurdles this year.”
Werth, a defensive stalwart for the TMP volleyball team, decided to dedicate herself this winter with activities to stay ready for track when she wasn’t cheerleading. She ran at least 1 mile per day to go with her newfound powerlifting prowess and is now seen by Dumler as a staple on the girls’ side.
“I’ve never really seen it as my strongest sport. I like volleyball better,” Werth said. “Coming in as a junior and already being up there in my school’s girls’ team, it makes me feel really proud of myself and how far I’ve come.”
Russell junior Alaina Gfeller, a five-time placer at state, took home the 400 crown and anchored Russell’s 1,600 relay team to first. It was a record-breaking day for her on the runway, setting a new personal best in the long jump (17-4.25) to take home first. In just her second meet competing in the triple jump, she jumped a 36-0.75 to casually break the school record and claim first.
Freshman Isabella Boxberger also won the high jump with a height of 5-2, while junior Valerie Morgenstern, a state-qualifier last year, won shot put with a throw of 34-8, a new career best.
Though the Monarch boys are inexperienced when it comes to state, with the exception of senior long-distance specialist Andrew Hess, the squad put together a third-place showing by racking up 68.5 points, just behind second-place Hutchinson-Trinity (72). Pratt took the boy’s title with 86 points.
Hess claimed first in the 3,200 with a time of 11:01.33 and finished 6 seconds shy of Pratt junior Tony Ibarra in the mile. As part of the 3,200 relay, he helped a youthful relay team to a fourth-place finish.
“I liked what Andrew Hess did today. He had a huge workload in a short amount of time,” Dumler said. “I liked the way he competed, especially in his last race (1 mile). That was pure guts.”
After running 3.5 miles in the span of about 90 minutes, Hess found his way into a box of Zebra Cakes to unwind for the remainder of the meet. But with the places of Sam Dreiling (pole vault) and Cameron Fouts (throwing) needing to be filled, he is confident in his team, and himself, to reach the heights they set this season.
“I feel alright. I’m a little out of shape, not quite where I want to be yet,” Hess said. “I’ll just keep working on it, get better. … I think we’re a pretty solid team.”
Sophomore David McFarland placed fifth in his first ever javelin competition, throwing a distance of 120-0 to be the top finisher from a school other than Trinity. Freshman Kaleb Hagens (127-10) and junior Chris Stoecklein (121-5) claimed the top two places in the discus throw and placed in the shot put, while junior Joe Flax won the 300 hurdles with a time of 42.97.
McFarland and Tucker Rhoades each cleared 10-0 in the pole vault, giving Dumler an encouraging sign for things to come in search of his next state qualifier in the event.
Russell senior Noah Gfeller, who has a fourth- and second-place finish at state in the 800 to his name, ran a 2:01.61 to win the 800 by 10 seconds to join his sister with a gold medal on the evening. Russell’s 4x100, anchored by senior Reshean Holloway, claimed the top spot with a time of 45.82.
Thursday’s meet was the first competition on the new track facility, replacing a dated track “that was like running on concrete,” according to Noah Gfeller.
“This definitely makes a difference,” he said. “It’s a lot more cushion. ... It makes a heck of a difference. We’ve been blessed with many donations this year, and they’ve given us one of the best facilities in Kansas.”
The renovation to Shaffer Field spanned nearly two years as part of a three-quarter million dollar project.
The Monarchs will return to the track Tuesday at the Ellsworth Invitational.