Greene County's Natalie Heupel (right) hands the baton off to Olivia Shannon during the sprint medley relay at the annual Ram Early Bird Relays Monday in Jefferson. The Rams finished third with a time of 2:00.61.  BRANDON HURLEY | JEFFERSON HERALD

Girls' Track: Rams return from devastating layoff anchored by battle-tested veterans

By BRANDON HURLEY

Sports Editor
sports@beeherald.com

@BrandonJHurley

Any lingering effects from a lost season a year ago seem to have already drifted away into oblivion.

The crosshairs are aimed directly at the future.

The next three months for the Greene County girls’ track team aren’t so much a shot at redemption as they are a chance to prove their worth. Not necessarily a re-do, but a vicious sprint to the end in an effort to showcase what the world missed.
Now is the moment to make up for lost time.

The ongoing Coronavirus pandemic originally postponed last year’s outdoor track and field season until early April before the entire slate was eventually shelved all together. The 2020 Rams only competed in a single indoor meet at the Dickinson Relays in Cedar Falls and never once battled outside in the natural elements. A promising year with reasonably high expectations shattered like a glass window before it ever began.
Despite wrestling with the emotions from a worldwide pandemic and a spring season without any sports, Greene County head coach Derek Merk believes his athletes endured rather impressively, which sets up well for this year’s stretch run.

“Obviously, I think mentally, it was tough for everyone involved. We had a lot of goals set and were looking forward to having a really good season. Whenever something like that is taken away from kids, that’s going to be tough,” the coach said. “Looking at it this year, with us being able to have a season as of right now, I think the kids are kind of taking it a little bit differently than they may have in the past.Their focus has just been at a higher level this year. They’re coming in with something to prove.”

The attention to detail begins at the most basic level. Merk has witnessed his girls attack practice at a level he’s never before seen, which is also due to his emphasis on appreciation. They’ve zeroed in on the fundamentals with a focus on pure joy.

“We are pushing them to enjoy everything, even practice,” the coach said. “Most of the time I think kids don’t always look forward to practice, but we try to make a point at the end of practice to have them reflect back on something positive and just appreciate the little things.”

The Rams will also have more opportunities to bond as teammates away from competition, whether that means team meals, pre-meet snack organizing or theme days, it’s all in an effort to ease up on the pressures of a meet and let the student-athletes enjoy their time as kids.

“We’re trying to support them in that and encourage them to do those things,” Merk said. “Because you never know, anything can happen with COVID.”  

LEANING ON EXPERIENCE

This year’s Ram squad doesn’t possess much proven talent outside a handful of successful veterans, which isn’t to say there isn’t depth, it’s just a matter of moving those youngsters along quicker than usual.

Greene County seniors Bri Osterson, Brooklynn Olson, Lilly Muir and Makala Kafer have each made trips to the state meet in the past. That experience has already helped boost a rather young Ram squad.

Those veterans, with just a gentle push from coach Merk, have taken the initiative to be more vocal and present than ever. There’s no room for doubt. This is their team and the future success sits directly on their shoulders.

“I think we have to rely almost entirely on them. They’ve been around three or four years now,” Merk said. “The freshmen coming in, they’re going to have a lot of questions that first meet. We made sure to establish early on this year that the role that (they’ll) play this year as seniors is going to be even more important than it would be in another season just because we’re so young, we need (them) to set the tone.

Merk continued, “They’re basically acting as big sisters to all those younger girls.I think we’re fortunate that our seniors are some of the hardest workers I’ve had since I’ve been at Greene County.”
Osterson and Olson have a legitimate shot at breaking several school records – Olson consistently flirted with the throwing marks as a sophomore while Osterson has made two state appearances in the long jump, placing top 25 each time out. The natural progression of the duo has impressed

Merk, even without a junior season. The coach has really been pleased with Olson’s growth from year-to-year, just as an athlete.

“It’s her confidence,” Merk said. “Going into each meet, she knows what she’s capable of. She’s got a routine down. She trusts (the) coaching. It’s been neat to see her grow as an individual, and especially that confidence built in her over the years.”

With a slew of impressive finishes at both the Drake Relays and the state meet (Olson placed 11th in the discus at the 2019 state meet), the senior has a shot at not only breaking records, but also making a strong push at a state title. It’s simply a matter of consistency and health, Merk said.
Osterson is perhaps Greene County’s most successful returning veteran, having placed seventh in the long jump at the Drake Relays in 2019 and eighth as a freshman at the 2018 state meet. She also plays a pivotal role on several relays, which will be key in team scoring.
Osterson has a strong passion for track and field, and it shows each time out with her willingness to learn and push herself to improve.

“She’s really been dedicated and she’s very open to coaching,” Merk said. “She’s willing to put in the time after practice and I think she’s become a lot more patient.”

That patience was put to the test in this spring’s first indoor meet at the Dickinson Relays back on March 15. Merk didn’t have the senior compete in the long jump. He felt as if Osterson needed a bit more time to transition back into the event and didn’t believe there was a need to rush.

“There’s a lot that goes into long jump and being successful with that. We didn’t want her to get down early in the season, and have that affect her later,” Merk said. “We’ve spent time again going back to the basics with her and the other girls that are going to be jumping this year. She’s been real understanding of that.
Did she want to jump? Yeah, but we are trying to set her up for success and she understood where we were coming from.”

SEARCHING FOR POINTS

Like many top tier teams around the state, Greene County is hoping to strengthen the hurdle events. The hurdles are often where schools can make up significant points though they also provide relative excitement. The coach is hoping he can interest a few of his underclassmen in trying out the hurdles. Before they dive into the deep end, Merk stresses how long the road to success in those particular events will be.

“That’s kind of where we’re spending a lot of time as of late (with the hurdles),” Merk said. “I think we’ve got some girls that are probably going to be capable of doing some pretty good things in those events as they get older.
We’re just trying to make them understand that it takes time and they may not have huge successes their freshman or sophomore year.”

Merk also expects Katrina Heupel to breakout in the 800-meter run. The Rams have lacked any type of consistent success in the middle distance events over the years, but that drought could end behind the efforts of the blossoming sophomore. Merk even believes Heupel has a shot at the 800-meter school record. Her talent in that event could also translate into the 4-by-400-meter relay as well, which is typically the race that ends a meet.

The beauty of track is it’s fluidity, there’s always a chance to tweak a lineup and try out athletes in different spots. Merk believes the Rams have a sizable amount of potential this spring, it’s simply a matter of getting it all to fit.

“We always set pretty high expectations. I think we have a lot of girls that are capable of being very successful at the individual level,” Merk said. “I think as a team, we have a lot of opportunities for improvement. We’ve talked about some school records we think we we could possibly break this year, which has been pretty motivating for some of the girls.”

Greene County opened the outdoor track season for the first time in 22 months when they hosted the Ram Early Bird Relays Monday, March 29 in Jefferson.

The annual Ram Relays are set for Monday, April 19 while the Drake Relays will take place a few days later on April 22 in Des Moines.

The 2021 Iowa high school co-ed track meet will be held May 20-22 at Drake Stadium in Des Moines.

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