May 26—WAGNER — Ashlyn Koupal cannot avoid the comparisons. Especially when she looks into a mirror.
The Wagner seventh-grader draws a striking resemblance to one of South Dakota's all-time great athletes. Koupal's appearance and movements are so similar to her aunt that outsiders believe her to be Mandy Koupal's daughter.
Ashlyn finds those similarities hysterical. Mandy wants her niece to step into her own spotlight. But the comparisons are inevitable and Ashlyn has an opportunity to have a taste of both sides when she competes in the high jump at the Class A state track and field meet at 3 p.m. Friday in Sturgis.
The murmurs started to grow this winter as Koupal made the Red Raider varsity basketball team, coached by her father Mike, who brought on Mandy as an assistant. But while Mandy is known as a two-time Gatorade Player of the Year in basketball for Wagner and a two-time Division II national player of the year at the University of South Dakota, she was also a two-time state-champion high jumper.
Prior to playing for Wagner, Ashlyn was a manager for the basketball team. But high jumping was foreign before this season. So foreign she started the season competing in middle school meets. In less than a month, however, she catapulted into one of the state's best and her top jump of 5 feet, 2 inches is the third-best in Class A entering the state meet.
It's almost as if the event is in her blood.
"I always wanted to try it," Koupal said. "... I knew my aunt had the (school) record and I kind of wanted to break that. ... Before the season we didn't really talk much about high jump, but now she gives me advice about how to keep my legs up and stuff."
Like Ashlyn, Mandy qualified for the state meet during her first track season after never previously attempting the high jump. Mandy eventually went to five state meets and had the top jump in all three classes in 1997 and 1998.
Her winning jump of 5 feet, 8 inches in 1998 set a school record and came within an inch of tying the Class A state record set by Platte's Stacy Johnson in 1985. Ashlyn started a year sooner and her jumps are also ahead of Mandy, who jumped 5 feet in eighth grade and 5 feet, 2 inches as a freshman. Although her progression is a bit more meteoric.
She began the season competing in junior high meets, but after reaching heights not attained by Wagner's high school jumpers, coach Pat Belling moved Ashlyn to varsity.
In her first meet at Dakota Valley on April 27, Ashlyn jumped 4 feet, 7 inches and then cleared 4 feet, 10 inches in three consecutive meets prior to leaping 5 feet, 2 inches at the Buck Timmins Memorial meet on May 14 in Parkston.
"The athleticism, the mental toughness — she can't be rattled," Belling said. "She's not too high, she's not too low, she's always in the moment. The girl can flat-out jump."
Belling also happened to be on the USD track team when Mandy was in school and he recalled the composure and tenacity with which she played. Those traits were immediately noticeable in Ashlyn when she began competing and could come in handy at the state meet.
Emotions that are never too far off kilter come in handy when the pressure builds at the biggest meet of the year, especially for one three seventh-graders competing in the event.
"You have to just be calm and collect yourself so that you're not overwhelmed by the pressure," Mandy said. "The more tense I got, the harder it was to jump. Ashlyn's just got this calming demeanor and she just kind of goes with the flow. As a jumper, I think that's to her benefit."
Mandy offers advice to Ashlyn on occasion, such as throwing her head back as she jumps or picking her feet up while clearing the bar, but she largely leaves the coaching to Belling's staff.
Ashlyn is seeded behind Hamlin's McKenna Prouty and Dakota Valley's Jorja VanDenHul, both of whom have jumped 5 feet, 4 inches. With the speed of her progression, Ashlyn is capable of clearing those heights this year and setting her sights on Mandy's record in the near future.
Mandy insists that her record is meant to be broken someday and would prefer the record-breaker to share her last name. After all, Mandy left her post as an assistant women's basketball coach at Colorado State University in 2014 to become a teacher at Wagner, giving her more time to spend with nieces and nephews.
"Maybe there's a little something in the genes," Mandy said. "In my family we all love sports and we are competitive. So maybe there's a little bit of that, but this is all Ashlyn."
While Mandy is brimming with joy and excitement, Ashlyn remains in character when it comes to thinking about the state meet.
"I just don't think about it too much," Ashlyn said. "I try not to get in my head about it."