Jun. 7—ST. MICHAEL — Nina Dawson, Hannah Quinn and twin sisters Lauren and Erin Eilers are inseparable on the Willmar sports calendar.
In cross-country, the quartet were part of the Cardinals' second-place state squad. They all were on skates for the Willmar girls hockey team this winter.
This weekend at the Class AA state track and field championships, Dawson, Quinn, Lauren and Erin are together in two relay races that hope to bring Willmar a first-place finish for the first time in 15 years.
"I honestly believe (being in all three sports) brings us closer together," said Dawson, a senior. "We spend so much time together. We're closer than a lot of people are with other sports. ... We spend all year together."
"It's kind of like sisters," said Quinn, a sophomore.
The four are the top seeds in both the 4x800- (9 minutes, 37.58 seconds) and 4x400-meter relays (4:03.61). They lead second-seeded Alexandria in the 4x800 by 2.06 seconds and Providence Academy in the 4x400 by 2.08 seconds.
If they can win either race Saturday at St. Michael-Albertville, it will be the first track championship for the Cardinals since the boys 4x800 relay team of Mustafa Yusuf, Abdi Awale, Kaafi Adeye and Zac Coquyt won the Class AA title in 2007.
This year's track and field championships mark a change in the state format with three classes instead of two.
"We're finally not going against schools that are four times our size," said Connor Haugen, who is in his first season as Willmar's head coach. "It evens the playing field a little bit."
The all-season chemistry that Dawson, Quinn, Lauren and Erin have formed is what has helped set them apart, according to Haugen.
"They're literally around each other the whole school year and including the summer with summer miles (for cross-country)," Haugen said. "It's a tough bond to break."
Erin Eilers, a freshman, said, "It helps us not just push each other in practice but also in races now. We're always there for each other. We can always trust them to be there for each other."
The relays also proved to be therapeutic. During the Section 8AA championships, Dawson, Quinn and Lauren each experienced heartbreak in their individual events. Quinn finished third in the 400 and Dawson was third in the 800 on Saturday. On Wednesday, Lauren was third in the 3,200. The top two from each section qualify for state, leaving those three out of the mix.
"It was hard but it really gave us some motivation just to run," Quinn said.
Lauren chimed in, "We had to take it all out on (the 4x400) and do our best."
This will be the last time the quartet will compete together, with Dawson graduating and preparing to compete in track and cross-country at South Dakota State University.
"The relays are where memories are made and that's where the fun really is," Haugen said.
The girls know where they can cut time, mainly in the 4x400 where they hope to get to the 4-minute mark.
As far as breaking a 15-year championship drought for Willmar?
"That'd be awesome," Lauren said.
Erin followed up, "That would be a good reward for all our hard work through cross-country and track."
Along with the two relay races, Willmar sophomore Makenna Larson also competes in state in the shot put. She qualified after winning the section with a personal-record throw of 36 feet, 7.5 inches. That puts her in a tie for the fifth seed with Litchfield's Jaelyn Baseman. Rock Ridge's Sydney Fitzgerald is the top seed at 38-1.
"We knew that she was somebody who could be there, but we didn't expect her to just pop off at the biggest moment," Haugen said. "That was awesome."
The Litchfield girls also have a trio competing at state in Baseman, Lillia Chvatal (long jump) and Raina Kaping (pole vault). Danica Pederson of New London-Spicer also competes, entering state as the fourth seed in the high jump (5-4).
With his final chance at state on the line, Willmar senior Michael Price wasn't going to miss out again.
"I told myself from the beginning of this track season that I was not going to take no for an answer and I was going to go to state this year," Price said. "No matter if it was in the long jump or sprints or relays. I wanted it."
Well, Price got what he wanted and more. Price was the 8AA champion in the 100 (10.94) and the long jump (21-8.5). He also was part of two winning relays: the 4x400 (3:31.50) and 4x100 (43.17).
"Michael is probably the only athlete in the section meet that left with all four wins," Haugen said.
Price's efforts were the highlight of a section meet that saw the Cardinals send 11 boys to state. All four relay races will be represented. Along with Price, William Sportel (300 hurdles), Colin O'Farrell (800 run), and Sully Anez (3,200 run) will also compete in individual events.
"Overall, everyone we expected to go to state from the boys' side went," Haugen said.
Price added, "I think our guys are going to get it done Friday and Saturday.
The Willmar boys' 4x100 relay with Price, Lucas Trochlil, Romero Trevino and Tanner Fleming are the No. 2 seed with a school-record time of 43.17. Hill-Murray is the top seed at 42.93.
"(Sections) was the showcase we finally needed just because we weren't able to showcase it all year," Price said. "(The 4x100) was amazing; I liked how we handed off. Coming off the bus to the 4x1, we were locked in."
"At sections, they shattered the school record by .4, which is massive for the 4x1," Haugen said.
In his individual events, Price is the fourth seed in the 100 and the seventh seed in the long jump.
Combine that with the number of athletes the Willmar boys are bringing to state and the Cardinals should be in the hunt for a team championship.
"That'd be really fun," Haugen said with a laugh.
Four other area athletes also compete in the Class AA boys meet. Litchfield has a trio of competitors in TJ Christensen (discus, shot put), Blake Aller (200) and Dom Dietel (shot put). Christensen is the third seed in the discus (155-6) and fourth in the shot put (51-6). Aller is the fourth seed in the 200 (22.48). NLS' Grant Hubbard goes into state as the third seed in the pole vault (13-3).
A total of 39 area athletes (20 boys, 19 girls) compete in the Class A championships. Class A begins with prelims at 4 p.m. Thursday and concludes at 4 p.m. Friday with the championships.
Like the Willmar boys, the Minnewaska girls bring a large contingent of athletes with 11 going to state.
Leading the Laker girls is the 4x800 relay. The quartet of Lauryn Ankeny, Makena Thoen, McKenzie Luetmer and Olivia Danielson are the top seed with a time of 9:45.97. The second seed is Lake City at 9:46.94. Danielson and Luetmer are rated highly in individual events, too. Danielson, an eighth-grader, is the two seed in the 800 at 2:20.28, sitting .03 seconds behind Brookelyn Kuechle of Eden Valley-Watkins/Kimball. Luetmer, a junior, is second in the 400 at 58.62. She's behind EVW/Kimball's Ellie Kuechle, who's the top seed at 57.34.
Montevideo junior Avery Koenen competes in two events: the 300 hurdles and the triple jump. She enters state as the three seed in the triple jump at 35-4.5. Perham's Jaden Hackel is the top seed at 36-1.75.
For the boys, Morris/Chokio-Alberta senior Ethan Lebrija looks to repeat as the 200 champion. He won with a time of 22.30 last season and enters the weekend as the top seed at 22.26. Lebrija is also the second seed in the 100 at 10.99. Luverne's Ashton Sandbulte is the top seed at 10.91.
Montevideo sophomore Francis O'Malley competes in both throwing events. He's the two seed in the shot put at 54-10, trailing defending state champion Tony Nelson of Tracy-Milroy-Balaton (60-8). O'Malley is also the four seed in the discus at 153-6. Maple River's Ethan Fischer is the top seed at 177-7.
Central Minnesota Christian junior Caleb Voogt enters state as the three seed in the long jump at 21-9.25. Esko's Makoi Perich has the top seed at 22-3.5.