AURORA — Capturing both the boys’ and girls’ Section 7A championships last week, the Mesabi East track and field team will be sending nearly 20 competitors to this weekend’s state meet at St. Paul’s Hamline University.
With such a large contingent ready to represent the Giants, Mesabi East hopes to bring home more hardware and possibly another event state title.
Headlining the Giants squad is junior Ava Hill, the two-time defending 800 meter state champion. She’s seeded first in the event with a time of 2:16.71. And while winning championships is a nice bonus for Hill, the standout still keeps her mind focused on one thing: dropping more time.
“I’m hoping to just keep dropping time in the 800,” Hill said Wednesday at the Mesabi East High School. “And I hope we can continue to drop time in the 4x200 relay and the 4x800 relay.” Hill, an integral part to both relays, is the most experienced member of the team heading down to state and co-head coach Steve Ekman hopes for Hill to lead the pack yet again in the 800.
“We tell her and the other experienced ones to just keep it real,” Ekman said. “Don’t get overconfident. We tell everyone that at the starting line everyone is equal.”
Also making a repeat trip as an individual is sophomore Gavin Skelton, who finished in 7th place in the 300 meters at the 2018 state meet.
Skelton will enter the state meet seeded 15th with a time of 41.95. With the top nine making finals, Skelton will hope to once again sneak his way into the finals and use his past experience to score points for the Giants.
“Now that I know what it’s all about, what the atmosphere of the state meet is like, I think I have a chance to do well at state. I finished seventh last year and I’m hoping for top five this time around.”
Nervous the first time around, Skelton says the nerves have dissipated, but that made room for more pressure from himself.
“It’s the state meet, there’s still going to be some nerves but I think I put a little pressure on myself to push it just a little bit harder this year.”
Co-head coach Kari Hunt believes Skelton is ready to once again embrace the tough competition at Hamline and believes his mind set as sophomore is right where it needs to be.
“He’s very competitive” Hunt said. “For as young as he is, he’s not afraid of competition. Last year, he didn’t know any better comparing one race to another but I think he’s ready for it this year, even though he is still a young racer.”
Finally for the individuals is Tyler Baribeau. Baribeau will be competing in the long jump and is seeded 17th with a jump of 19 feet, nine inches. And although he’s not seeded near the top, the Mesabi East coaching staff says anything can change once you arrive at Hamline.
“Everybody down there is just as good as each other,” Hunt said. “When it comes down to it, it’s about who wants it the most. And I think our kids are ready and have that mental preparation. Everyone is progressing but having that perfect day can make a huge difference in placing.”
Aside from their individuals, Mesabi East will be sending six relay teams to state — four on the girls’ side and two on the boys’.
The third-seeded 4x200 meter relay team consisting of Hannah Hannuksela, Kiarra Moehlenbrock, Kora Forsline and Hill have been trending upward the last two seasons. The relay was third in 2017 and second in 2018. After losing one runner to graduation, the new 4x200 lineup hopes to once again contend for a state championship.
“I’m feeling like we just need to push ourselves more when we get there,” said Moehlenbrock. And a big thing for us is to focus on the handoffs. That can make or break it for us and be the difference between being state champions and not.”
With so much experience in the relays at state, Hannuksela says her team has something to prove.
“Ultimately, I want to go in and just have fun with my teammates,” the junior said. “I don’t even get nervous anymore because we’ve all grown so close but I do feel like we have something prove because we’ve been down there so many times now. I’m excited because I know we can place higher than we’re seeded.”
The 4x200 is seeded third with a time of 1:46.30.
Hannuksela will also be competing in the 4x100 meter relay with teammates Lexi Highland, Elli Theel and Kailey Fossell. They are seeded 16th with a time of 52.33.
Moehlenbrock, Forsline and Hill will be joined by Lydia Skelton in the 4x400 meter relay. That relay team had a surprising run in 2018 where they finished as state runners-up and improved upon their seed time by 10 seconds.
This year, the relay team is seeded similarly to the year before: 14th with a time of 4:08.38. Coach Ekman says that seeds and timing mean nothing, especially to the 4x400 runners.
“I tell them not to get discouraged by some of the seed times that we see,” Ekman said. “A seed time or any kind of time doesn’t mean a thing when you get to the starting line. These girls are experienced and I think they know what they have to do to improve and cut time.”
Finally, the 4x800 girls’ relay team will be competing. That time will consist of Forsline, Skelton, Aaliyah Sahr and Bella Thomas. They’re seeded 13th with a time of 9:59.41.
Thomas is the only runner on the 4x800 with previous state track experience. The newer runners, however, are ready to kick it into gear and match her.
“This is our first time going down in the relays,” Skelton said. “We’re a little nervous but we’re getting more and more excited for it I think.”
“We really just want to go down and set a good PR,” Sahr said. “We’re all excited and ready to go. If there’s nerves, I don’t think they’ll kick in for me until we get down there.”
The Mesabi East boys will be sending teams down in the 4x200 and 4x400 meter relays. On the 4x200, Cole Meyer, Jagr Wippler, Tyler Baribeau and Carson Becicka are seeded 14th with a time of 1:33.45. Becicka, Meyer, Baribeau and Skelton make up the 4x400 team and are seeded 13th with a time of 3:32.66.
Aside from Skelton, the runners on the relay teams are relatively inexperienced when it comes to track, but that’s what makes it all the more fun according to the senior Becicka.
“We’ve just been having a lot of fun with it all this year,” Becicka said. “It’s cool that we can do well and make it to state even though we’re basically newcomers to track. Our mind set is to just have fun and focus on the things that we can control. We can’t control the people around us or their times, so we just want o focus on us and compete with the best at state.”
According to Hunt, a lot of success that the boys’ relays have found can be attributed to their dedication to athletics year round.
“The boys we have like to win,” Hunt said. “They’ve all competed in multiple sports and even Cole Meyer did baseball and track this year and was very successful in both. I don’t think they’re afraid to compete because they’ve been competing their whole lives. They ran with targets on their back this year but they’re not bothered by it because this was new to them and they were having fun.”
For Becicka and Baribeau, it’ll be the last thing they do as Mesabi East athletes and Becicka wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’ll be a blast,” the recently graduated Giant said. “I get to hang out with my friends at state and it’ll just be a really great way to end an awesome track season and an awesome time at Mesabi East.”
State results pending, it can’t be denied that Mesabi East track and field has taken over on the Iron Range. Ekman and Hunt credit their current crop of athletes for getting the program to where it is today.
“The kids we have are really good ambassadors to our younger kids,” Ekman said. “They’re really good mentors to the kids and really are why we get so many kids who come out and want to challenge themselves.”
“We like to get the older kids running with the younger, newer kids early on,” Hunt said. “But we also like to get into the classroom and have the athletes talk to the younger kids and get them excited to become a part of this team.
“From beginning to end, it’s about them bettering themselves and their times and making progress. We had our sendoff recently and I’m watching as the team comes into the gym and it’s just more and more and more and eventually it’s this huge group of 90 kids that make up Mesabi East track and field and they all are an important part to this team.”
The Class A State Meet begins Friday at 3:30 p.m.