By BLAKE FAITH
Last year, the Mt. Zion Boys track and field team finished tied second as a team overall over first-year head coach Joe Fritzche. This year, with pieces missing from that team, the team was expected once again to finish Gerst at state while facing adversities of sickness, injuries and a senior captain that was forced not to compete due to unfortunate circumstances.
Going into the IHSA 2A State Track and Field prelims, the Mt. Zion Boys team figured that their pole vaulter senior Kyle Hensley would make it to the finals and finish in the top-2 along with the 4×200 and Julian Baker would medal. Hensley placed second in Pole Vaulting and the Braves ended up medaling in six events to finish 6th as a team at the IHSA 2A Track and Field Championships in Charleston.
“I think a lot of people will look at this or our team might look at this and be like, we got second last year and this year we didn’t get a trophy,” Coach Fritzche said. “I think there might be some people who are disappointed, but I’m perfectly happy with what we did today. I think considering what we went through as a team today, or this year, considering what we’ve been through, the adversity, like you said, we had to face, Sam having sickness for the majority of our season, with an athlete that couldn’t finish out the year for extenuating circumstances. I still thought as a team, we did incredible things today. You’re looking at, coming into this weekend, the only sure things we pretty much had were pole vault, you know, four by two and two mile we’re about the only things that I knew we could probably score points in. Everything else was kind of up in the air and it was not guaranteed, but, these guys rose to the occasion and we had huge surprises.”
Hensley finished third last year at the state championships and told me in March that he wanted to be remembered as the Pole Vaulter. The senior became a part of two relay teams that would qualify at state and he medaled in Pole Vault with a jump of 4.75 meters, but had to bounce around between two events in the finals.
“I’ve enjoyed every part of being a Mt. Zion Brave brave,” Hensley said. “It’s always been a blast and last year I would’ve never thought that I’d be receiving three medals this year. I’ve only just pole vaulted, but I tried running this year and our relays are doing a lot better than what I would’ve ever expected.”
Hensley jumped two of his jumps and then was taken to the 4×100 tent to register and then went back and jumped another jump before running the third leg of the Braves 4×100 team of him, Bryndon Wallace, Bryson Richardson and Brayden Trimble that wasn’t even predicted to be in the finals.
The 4×100 relay team finished seventh after not being inside of the top-10 rankings coming in and also broke a school record with a time of 43.07 seconds.
“I don’t know, but It feels amazing,” Hensley said. “Cause honestly, we kind of just put this four by one together and we weren’t expecting a whole lot and coming in we barely made it this state. We weren’t expecting to make it to the finals and finishing seventh is just insane.”
The next highest Brave to finish was another senior in Sam Atkinson. Atkinson overcame adversity battling sickness and minor injuries that he was unsure if he could compete to the level he wanted to in his event in the 800 meters. Atkinson won his heat in prelims and then battled his way from fourth to second place in the finals finishing with a time of one minute and 53 seconds that beat his school record from last year by one second and placed second in state.
“I feel really happy with that race,” Atkinson said. “Coming into sectionals and state, my outdoor door season was not great due to sickness and all that. I don’t know if I’d have to wait for next year to do what I wanted or if it would somehow work out.
Coming into prelims, I felt good. I got a minute and 56 , so that made me really happy and facing some sickness and stuff. I know if I was gonna be able to drop my school records down, which I really wanted to just to kind of secure them maybe longer and make it harder to beat. So that just makes me really excited that I got to do that today.”
Wallace came into the meet not expecting to medal in Long Jump and then got into the finals and finished in sixth place with a jump of 6.51 meters.
“I’m feeling amazing,” Wallace said. “I opened the season with jumps of five and I struggled with shin splints really bad. And then we finished or I came in with no expectations. I just jumped a medal jump and I feel out of this world right now.”
The 4×200 team of Hensley, Richardson, Trimble and freshman Jakob Harvey finished in sixth place and a new school record.
“I’m happy, we did what we did,” Richardson said. “We came here to show what we can do and we are going to come back next year and we are going to do the same thing, and hopefully a little better.”
Harvey added, “It feels good. “Racing against a bunch of upperclassmen. I just tried to hold my spot, hold my own against all these other guys.”
Julian Baker medaled in the 3200 meters and finished ninth with a time of nine minutes and 36 seconds. Daniel Grauer made it to the 3200 finals, Brayden Trimble finished 11th in the finals in high jump, the 4×400 relay team competed in prelims as well as Richardson in the 200 meters. Kam Clark, a senior who never even did high jump or track, finished 15th overall at state.
The Braves will graduate Clark, Atkinson, Hensley, Chiren Petty and Mason McNeil.
“I think you can’t leave those seniors out of the picture this year,” Coach Fritzche said. “They were great leaders. They were great role models for our team. Especially guys like Kyle Hensley, Sam Atkinson, Kam Clark, you know, and even Mason McNeil when he was there throwing for us, these are great leaders to give these guys something to look up to. They’re athletes that perform well at the highest level, that work their butts off in practice every single day, that show up, they’re ready to compete, they’re ready to do whatever they can for the team.”
Coach Fritzche added,” Kam Clark, my gosh, how lucky were we to have him this year. That kid scored so many points for us in meets. I don’t think he understands the value he was of his team this year. And to qualify for state and two events as a senior never running track before is a testament to his strength and what he can do. He had to have been one of the best additions to our team this year. Just with the quality of a kid that he is. Sam Atkinson has been a staple in our team. Kyle Hensley, same thing. These are two big pieces we’re gonna be missing next year. I don’t, I hope they understand the amount of impact they’ve had over the past four years, the amount of leadership and points and just their abilities to go into events. And, you know, they’re, they’re kind of guys, they’re anchors.”
Coach Fritzche said that this job has been a dream come true to him. He was on the 2011 team with Coach Harbeck that went to state and has friendship and deep connections with his teammates and he wanted this team to feel a sense of greatness that he knew they could achieve and feels blessed to be in the position he is. Next year, he will return along with Richardson, Trimble, Wallace, Harvey, Baker, Grauer and Owen Owens. The team will be without Coach Mike Patrick who is stepping away from coaching to spend more time with his children.
“First I want to say that this will be Coach Patrick’s last year with us,” Coach Fritzche said. “So I want to make sure I thank him. And the past two years he’s been a great asset to our team. The guys love him, he’s great with the kids and he’s just such a good motivating force for us and I think we’re going to be missing him a lot next year. He gives us a great upside and throwing and he knows what he’s doing and the kids just love him. So I’m gonna miss him next year. That’s gonna be hard on the team, but hopefully we can find another good coach to lead these guys, but there’s going to be a hole in the team next year, but man, we still have some exciting pieces still. We still have Julian Baker who qualified in two events. We still have Dan Grauer who qualified in the two mile. You’ve still got Wallace, Trimble, Richardson, Harvey and Jeff Schumate doing such a great job with these junior high kids, getting them excited about track, keeping them motivated, taking them to the highest level and succeeding. So hopefully they get that taste and they’re like I want more of this and hopefully we can reel them in, and continue to build our program. Because that’s my goal. I just want Mt. Zion to have continued success and a tradition of success while also just staying humble the whole time and making sure we’re just, we’re just blessed to be here and if they can keep their minds focused, we’re gonna do, we’re gonna continue to do great things. I have no doubt about this team.”