Girls' Track Preview: REPLACING A LEGEND
By BRANDON HURLEY
Class is in session for the next wave of track legends.
A relatively young – yet veteran – group ushers in the newest girls’ track coach, Derek Merk onto the oval.
The 2006 Boone High graduate will spearhead a program that’s produced state-qualifiers with regularity over the last quarter century, thanks to the three decades of handiwork from Kelly Simpson, who stepped away from Greene County track last spring.
That’s not to say the youthful track and field athletes don’t have talent or experience. Four of last season’s five state qualifiers are back, led by trusty veteran and 2016 state champion, Megan Durbin. The state-tested sophomore trio of Janelle Brophy and Megan and Melanie Doran should provide some extra oomph for a program in transition.
Simpson left a substantial mark on Ram track, as an a Jefferson-Scranton assistant on the 1994 state team championship squad then as head coach producing the county’s most recent individual champion, Durbin, in 2016.
The bar has been set high as Simpson pioneered nine conference titles and five district championships. It won’t be easy living up to the task, and Merk knows it. But, a tradition-rich program is of course, a glowing positive as well.
“Obviously, (Kelly) laid down a pretty good program. That’s part of the culture they expect to win,” the rookie head coach said. “They expect to do well and they know they’ve got to put in the work to do that. So it makes it easier coming in. You don’t necessarily have to re-establish a whole program, success exists already.”
Merk brings bevy of experience in tow, coaching track, basketball and football at the southeast Iowa high school of Central Lee in Donnellson. He was pulled into the profession by his former mentors, who ingrained the intricacies of sport within the former Toreador.
“Growing up, my coaches had a big impact on my personal development. Pushing me to set bigger and higher goals,” Merk said. “It’s fun watching the athletes develop over the years and get better. I like being around the kids and building relationships.”
The University of Northern Iowa alumnus is in his first year with the Greene County school district and said it’s the competitiveness of track that hooked him in high school, as he ran primarily sprints – mostly of the more grueling length – the 400-meter and the 800-meter. The challenge of pushing one’s self is what hooked Merk, initially.
“It’s a personal competition with yourself. You always try to set new goals and reach them,” he said. “There’s something about it that I’ve always enjoyed.”
Greene County drops to 2A for the 2018 season, in theory, bringing with it a step down in competition. But not in the case of the girls’ high jump.
Boyden-Hull/Rock Valley’s Cassie Van Beek won the 2A state title last year clearing 5-04, a height Durbin bested by two inches last spring. The senior holds the Greene County school record of 5-08, a mark she cleared during her title-winning sophomore campaign.
Despite that, a new threat to Durbin’s dominance has been raised, as Southeast Valley freshman Kiersten Fisher won gold at the Iowa State Classic March 12 in Ames, clearing 5-05, upsetting the defending Drake Relays and 3A state champion, Maria Gorham.
Durbin finished in a tie for fourth, clearing 5-02 at the indoor facility.
The Iowa State University commit has never finished worse than second in state competition (all in 3A) in addition to her Drake Relays title in 2016 and a silver medal in 2017. The then junior cleared 5-07 at the state meet last spring, only bested by a state meet record jump of 5-08. Purely by nature and through a bubbly personality, Durbin takes over as the veteran, poised and confident leader thanks to years of top-notch success. But Merk will also lean on his three other returning state-qualifiers to help transition the program into a new era, as well as the less-heralded girls.
“I expect (them) to be leaders, and they’ve probably done it in the past,” Merk said. “I think part of having a good program is having those upperclassmen that are willing to step up for the leadership role and kind of show the underclassmen the ropes and make them feel comfortable make them feel at home.
I expect them to be cheering alongside all those younger kids.”
Gone though is departed senior Olivia Hansen, who qualified for state in the 200-meter and as the fourth member of the sprint medley. She set several school records throughout her four-year career and will be difficult to replace. But with a pair of seniors in Durbin and state cross country qualifier Haley Hall poised to lead the pack the young pack, they’ll be solid examples for the next generation.
It’s mix of women which Merk can latch on to for the next three or four years, a building block that will help re-establish a foundation for success.
“We have some sophomores that are really great and two or three really, really quick freshmen coming in. I think we’ll have some depth which will be nice,” Merk said. “We’ll be able to fill the sprint relays and we’ll be able to compete. And then obviously, we have (Janelle) Brophy return and she qualified last year. So it’s looking pretty good.
I’m looking forward to some pretty great athletes. A lot of underclassmen that I think will really help the program keep the tradition going.”
Durbin, Melanie and Megan Doran each were members of the state-qualifying sprint medley quartet while Brophy won long jump gold in the state-qualifying Denison meet.
While his expectations are tempered in his first year within the Greene County athletic department, Merk envisions the Rams competing for spots at state and the Drake Relays. He’ll be focused on establishing consistency with the girls and molding the program to his liking.
“I haven’t had the chance develop a relationship with the girls, so the first year is going to be a lot of me getting to know them and them getting to know me,” the coach said. “And then, as far as expectations for the team, right now, I would expect that we take several relays to state and I think we have the ability to take several individual events to state.”
The Ram Relays are set for Monday, April 16 before they close out the year hosting the Heart of Iowa Conference co-ed meet, Thursday, May 2.
The Greene County track in Jefferson will play host to a Carroll High co-ed track meet this spring as the Carroll Athletic Stadium endures a multi-million dollar construction project.
The Tigers will host a meet April 9 in Jefferson with the likes of Greene County, Audubon, IKM-Manning, Perry and Woodward-Granger.
The Drake Relays will be held April 25-28 with a new set of qualifying standards while the the annual state meet will take place May 17-19 at Drake Stadium in Des Moines.