The Rolla track team had some adjustments to make in 2017. Rolla lost a lot of talent to graduation after 2016, so they had quite a few holes to fill.
They filled those holes with a lot of underclassmen.
"We had a lot of really nice kids and we had very good season considering how young most of them were. Several of our top point scorers were underclassmen, particularly with the girls," said head coach Don Knapp. "I think five of our top 10 individuals were freshmen and it was the same for the boys, several freshmen and sophomores were our top kids. We had a very good season, very proud of them, very pleased with the balance of the team. Any time you have kids threatening school records or breaking school records and just having the season success that they had it's always a good year."
The list of young athletes that thrived this season goes on and on. Knapp included the names of Kaberon Burgess as a school record holding javelin thrower, freshman hurdler Bayli Graydon, freshman distance runner and State qualifier Emma Puetz, sophomore two-time State qualifter Olivia Holmes, sophomore hurdler Nnamezie Orizu, freshmen throwers Colton Franks, Lauren Moersch and Rebecca Janke, Dawitt and Lauren Pritchett, sprinters Bryce O'Connor and Jaden Tate, distance runner Alex Frisbee, junior pole vaulters Landon Adams and Caleb Turner and jumpers Courtney Colench and Kassie Hayes. Knapp greatly appreciated how those young athletes stepped in and filled some big shoes.
"(Having young players step up) was a tremendous boost for our squad," said coach Knapp. "We lost a lot to graduation and with so many good kids, State-level kids, graduating, I think we had four or five from our team last year go on to do college track. They were a great and strong group, so we had a lot of replacement to do and it's hard for freshmen and underclass kids to come in and fill those graduating seniors' spots, but they did a very admirable job at that. We were very excited about what they achieved, how much they progressed all season and also looking forward to the future because those kids are all back."
Leading the charge for players that will be returning last year was Nick Janke. The soon to be senior was one of two medalists for Rolla at the State meet in the high jump and was crucial to the team's success this season.
"I can't say enough good things about Nick Janke, I'd be talking the rest of the day," said Knapp. "He's a great example, a hard worker, has a great attitude and he's willing to fill whatever roles that we need. He runs the 4X4 relay, the 4X2 relay, we stopped doing that because of his strained hamstring muscle, but then he triple jumps, he high jumps, he even hurdles some years. A couple of years ago he ran the 300 hurdles and made it to the State Semi-Finals. He's a multi-talented kid and like I said a great attitude and a hard worker and a great example. He's one of our top leaders. We couldn't have the team success that we have without Nick Janke."
Janke led this team alongside a small but strong senior class. The girl's had a crucial cog in this year's graduating class and that was Addy Brow.
"Addy is a wonderful young lady, kind of like the young men I mentioned earlier, you can't say enough good things about her. She's a hard worker, very dependable, she's gonna go out there and pick up the rest of them," said the Rolla head coach. "She was just so important to us all four years on the 4X4, the 4X8...She was crucial for us. She was a stabilizer, a team leader, a good example and we moved her around the relay, sometimes the leadoff, sometimes the anchor runner, sometimes in the middle if we needed to pick up the pace in the middle and keep in the race. She could fill any role we needed. She was crucial for us and she will be certainly missed. You don't get people like Addy Brow very often.
Knapp was quick to give a lot of credit to his entire senior class.
"The graduating group of people, you miss them every year. Addy, Mike Jennings, Xaviar, Colton Moore, all those kids that graduated, they were crucial. Our senior leadership this year was tremendous," said Knapp. "We had a great bunch of seniors and you wish they got to come back more, but they've been there for four years, they're ready to go on to other things. We'll miss them tremendously because of their leadership, their attitude and their work effort and the other thing is you don't have to tell them things many times. You've told them other years, they know what to do. They help the young kids learn because of so many examples of Addy and the other seniors showing and telling the younger kids this is how you act, this is what you do, it's time to go warm up, we're going to get it done. That's so important."
Rolla also had a senior in Taylor Stevens play a big role this season. She constantly provided team points in the pole vault and made her way onto the podium at the State meet.
"Taylor Stevens placed and made All-State, but she was a senior so she graduated and she's gonna vault for S&T next year," said Knapp. That's a loss for us."
Stevens was one of four Rolla athletes to make it to the State meet and the other three athletes will return next season. Knapp said that they young State qualifiers returning sets the stage for even more excitement next season.
"It's tremendously important. Some of them finished the season talking about next year, talking about either getting to the State meet or getting back to the State meet. Those three, they were pleased to get to the State meet and they were glad to do that, but they want to get back there again next year and they want to do even better," said Knapp. "I know Olivia wants to be a four time State meet athlete and I believe she will be. This was Emma's first year and she got there in spite of the tornado warning and the five hour rain delay that happened. She wants to do even better. Nick has been there twice now, sophomore year and junior year and he certainly wants to make it back. I think he'll be there in several events next year, maybe a relay depending on how well we do and back in the jumps. So those three will be crucial to want to get back and to work to get back, but some of the other kids, they believe they can get there and it's encouraging every day when they're training side by side. When Nnamezie is working in the hurdles or Jaden Tate's running sprints and looking over there and saying that's my teammate and that kid made it the State meet and if they made it, I can do. And some of the other freshmen girls that were so good and so important to us.
Coach Knapp continued by giving the rest of his coaching staff a lot of credit, "that's exciting to them and it's exciting to us coaches. We have a great coaching staff and each of the coaches have sent athletes to the State meet in the last few years. They're a very good coach staff, all of them. They make it happen for a lot of those kids. They're so positive and encouraging and that helps the kids too because if the coach believes in me, then I believe in me and my teammates believe in me, they start thinking they can get to that top level and that's what we want out of them."
The Rolla track team, much like sports teams across the state, had to deal with a lot of big weather this spring. It forced Rolla out of a couple of meets and it pushed back the Rolla Invitational back a week. Pushing the meet back a week led to the Ozark Conference meet and the Rolla Invitational to be played on back to back days. While it wasn't always easy, it was important for the young athletes to learn from the adversity.
"We tell the kids that there are days when we have to go inside, we had a lot of those in April, so the kids learned to persevere and deal with adversity and they learn about themselves as they go," said Knapp. "Having back to back, the conference meet was supposed to be on a Thursday and because of weather got moved to Friday and we had to move the Rolla Track Classic from a week ago. We thought originally when we moved it a week that we'd have a day rest. When the conference meet got moved, we didn't have a day of rest, but the kids persevered.
"The Rolla Track Classic was a highlight for us in many many ways. Getting to be at home, having it be the Pink Out meet for the season, that was a big boost, and the kids performed so well. Many of them had a season best and it was their second meet in two days. That also helps because at the State meet, it's a two day meet Friday and Saturday," coach Knapp continued. "That part of the season, you always have to be prepared for either weather or competing at your top level in spite of whatever happens. Maybe it's 55 degrees and raining or maybe it's 85 degrees and you're worried about overheating. They dealt with the weather and adversity and the time scheduling things. They learned a lot from that and that will help them in other seasons too."
The lessons that the team learned from facing adversity is what Knapp wants his athletes to take away from this season.
"To keep striving, to keep working, battle through the down moments," said the Rolla coach. "Just to realize it's not always going to go smooth. There's going to be moments when you're tired, when things are hurting and you can deal with it. And the seniors were a good example of showing the younger kids you can deal with adversity, you can persevere and still be successful and still be hungry.
Knapp continued, "the younger kids, they were hungry. They wanted to excel and get there. We sent four kids to the State championship and three of them are back, a freshman, a sophomore and a junior. That bodes well for the future. We had 10 or 12 other young kids that were important for us at Districts or Sectionals that wanted to get to the State meet and didn't for some reason, a tough District or tough day at some meet. I hope that they're still hungry to do even better. That's important that they persevere, they work hard to improve, have the good attitudes and that they want to put their names on a record board and want to be at that top level as a conference or District champion. That's crucial and I think most of them have that."