Merrill track teams give their all in ultra-challenging state meet

The Bluejay track team returned to state competition with a vengeance, with several top performances under stifling heat and high humidity conditions.
“Our state bound squad had high, and yet, realistic expectations,” MHS girls coach Greg Eichelkraut said. “They focused on what they could control, handled the heat well in their activities and diet, believed in each other and believed in themselves. This was truly a special group to coach and one we can continue to build upon. Even though we are already excited for next year I reminded them to enjoy the moment as it was something no one could ever take away from them and that nothing is automatic for next year.”
Boys coach Kurt VandenHeuvel concurred.
“What an experience at state!” he said. “We had seven more athletes attend state than last year thanks to the hard work and dedication of the athletes and coaches. The meet was a success in my book.”
Merrill freshman Renee Sladek turned in the MHS highlight, placing fifth in the discus with a personal record throw of 117′ 5″ despite several freak variables conspiring to undermine her execution. From illegal discs, to two initial foot faults in the only three attempts she was guaranteed, to anchoring the 400M relay then racing back to compete in the finals, Sladek faced the gamut.
“Once she got a second chance to warm up for her flight (with borrowed legal discs), she started the competition with two fouls and one attempt left,” Eichelkraut said. “This reminded me of the days when Jamie Rebella would do the same in the jumps and then come back with an outstanding effort. I shared that with her and told her she’ll do the same thing. With one attempt left I told her to just be herself and throw the way she has all season and she managed to pop off her second farthest throw of her career.
“She had no warm-ups for finals, but this was not unusual for her and we were confident everything was in place.She got back in time to throw her last 3 and managed to have the best series of throws in her career.”
Sladek even tip-toe fouled on her second attempt of the prelims, potentially in the 122′ range, although it wouldn’t have changed her placing.
Sam Arneson also earned a podium spot-his second in the past two years-with a sixth-place finish in the discus. Unlike Sladek, a mere three inches stood between Arneson and fourth place, and 16″ separated him from third. His solid toss of 169′ 6″ was short of his state-best throw of 185′ 1″ he conjured at regional.
“Obviously I had pretty high expectations, but they didn’t turn out exactly the way I hoped,” Arneson said. “When you want to throw far everything has got to be right, and I didn’t have that perfect one. There’s nothing I can really point to, it just didn’t happen. It was a close competition. One kid hit a good one. Of the two kids with the farthest throws in the state, only I placed. Like coach (VandenHeuvel) said, ‘Not everyone gets a chance to get on the podium twice,’ so that helped.”
Arneson also placed 14th in the shot put at 52′ 8.25″, just 4.25″ from 11th, while teammate Nick Leskey was 19th at 49′ 9.5″.
“I cannot say enough about these two,” VandenHeuvel said. “Nick has applied himself this season and his hard work qualified him to compete at the level he did and I am proud of that. Sam works hard constantly which is what earned him his scholarship at Madison. No matter how hard we are on him, he still rises to the occasion and performs. This past weekend wasn’t his best performance but that still does not take away the best throw in the state that he has earned.”
Sladek ranked 19th in the high jump after clearing 5′ 0″, but was possibly one height from another medal. Girls placing from 6th-13th cleared 5′ 2″.
“Renee was knocking on the door of 5′ 2″, especially her first two attempts,” Eichelkraut said. “This could have given her enough to place as many of the heights seemed to be low compared to the sectional performances. She was clean at 4′ 10 and had only 1 miss at 5′ 0″.”
The boys 1600M relay team made up of seniors Derek Woellner and Jake Sczygelski and juniors Alec Oestreich and Lucas Olson scored a 17th-place finish with their time of 3:27.49.
“The place has nothing to do with the way the athletes performed,” VandenHeuvel said. “These guys worked hard, broke school records and displayed a huge amount of pride for the Merrill Track team!”
The girls 400M relay team of freshman Mandy Vonderheid, junior Jess Sabey, sophomore Brianna Piepenbrok and freshman Sladek lowered the team record from sectional to :50.77 while ending up 19th. They were less than a half-second from 11th place.
“Our 4×100 was pumped and primed for state,” Eichelkruat said. “Many teams may have faltered in our position as Andi (English) was unable to attend the state meet. Our team, however, was confident that Jessica Sabey would step in and pick up where Andi left off and they got right down to business this past week preparing for State. Our hand-offs were excellent throughout the race. Mandy got a terrific start out of the blocks, and Jess showed her power on the back stretch. Brianna ended up running a little bit longer leg than normal but she held strong to pass the baton on to Renee, who capped off the new team record setting performance.”
Merrill’s final entry in the state meet was Sara Schleif, who rated 24th in the 100 high hurdles in :18.32. Difficult conditions dropped her from her state-qualifying time of :15.91.
“Sara had just mastered three-stepping (between each set of hurdles), but the strong headwind threw her steps off early and she had a difficult time regaining her tempo,” Eichelkraut said. “Sara made tremendous progress by the end of the year, but her lack of experience with this was too much for her to overcome. She caps off a fine career that focused mostly on pole vault and 100 hurdles and she got to finish at state.”
VandenHeuvel wrapped it up by saying, “I am proud of the team this year. The athletes put forth a ton of hard work and were responsible enough to balance commitments and distractions with the sport of track and field. The record board this year is an attest to the season’s success! The seniors Sam Arneson, Jake Sczygelski, Derek Woellner, Matt Haffeman, Jamie Marrier Leo Olson, Riley Moserosch and Kyle Andreska will truly be missed because they were great leaders this year and it is going to be big shoes to fill!”
Arneson is already at UW-Madison, beginning his Badger football work-outs, but he added, “We had a close team. It was a great year for Merrill track. (First-year head) Coach VandenHeuvel is a passionate guy. He got us going in the right direction.”

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