Thunder Mountain lost just one senior from last year’s inaugural track and field team, but it’s almost like starting over after the addition of nearly 20 fresh faces as the Falcons prepare for Year 2 with a weekend trip to Sitka beginning Friday.
“It’s kind of like rebuilding because we’ve got so many new people. (Tuesday) we issued uniforms to the returning kids and it didn’t take very long. Some of the kids didn’t come back, but it seems like we have almost a brand-new team,” coach Scott May said. “We only had one senior that left, and we’ve got a lot of new faces.”
This weekend’s meet in Sitka features teams from all over Southeast, including the Falcons, Juneau-Douglas and the host Wolves. Haines, Petersburg, Metlakatla, Ketchikan, Mt. Edgecumbe and Yakutat also were invited.
The team is up to 51 kids from 32 last season, with a large contingent of upperclassmen.
“We have increased numbers, which is wonderful. And the seniors came out of the woodwork this year,” May said. “We went from one senior last year up to 12. Our depth with the boys is going to be really noticeable, and that will help us be more competitive.”
“I’m very excited and the kids are excited. There’s a great enthusiasm and a lot of excitement about what we’re going to be able to do. I think they’re excited to surprise people with our abilities. We’ve got some really competitive kids that want to contribute this year.
Boys’ co-captain Donald Stokes said he’s impressed by what he’s seen thus far, and he expects to build on last year’s two state qualifiers the Falcons had — himself and fellow senior Sydney Thorne.
“I’m very, very excited. I’d say we’re going to do really well,” he said. “Our distance is getting stronger, our sprints are getting stronger and our throwers are getting a lot stronger. I think we’re going to be tough and we’ll have more than two people going to state this year. I have a feeling we’ll have a relay go to state, and it’s just a matter of us keeping our momentum going.
“Nobody can start slacking because everybody’s doing well right now. Everybody’s getting tough and we’re looking good.”
May said a strength of this year’s team will be in the sprints.
“Boys’ sprint, we are very deep and very strong,” he said. “We’ve got Donald Stokes returning and he’s a strong finisher. He’s worked on his form, and he’s stayed active in the offseason. He’s stronger than ever and I think he’s going to surprise some people.
“Sydney Thorne is back for the girls, and we’ll have Evie Walker, who was injured for most of last year,” he continued. “We won’t have our full squad this weekend in Sitka but this year, our boys and girls look to be pretty strong.”
The sprint relays are going to be the main focus for the boys, May said.
“It’s really early in the season, but we’ve made a conscious decision to create a core group and be consistent with them for our relays,” he said. “Our 4-x-100 and our 4-x-200 boys’ teams will have the same set of guys in the same order. They’ve been working extremely hard at getting their exchanges down and I think it’s something where we’re going to surprise people this year.
“They’re going to be competitive throughout Southeast and maybe even beyond.”
Junior Alex Tracy will lead off with Stokes running anchor, and Josh and Ray Jones running the second and third legs.
The girls’ relays, on the other hand, are a work in progress, May said.
“Our numbers are short so we’re struggling with our girls’ relays. We’ve got a few kids who were late additions who are going to be a big help once they’re eligible,” he said. “We’ll field full relays for the Ketchikan meet (April 22-23). That’s something we’ll be building throughout the year, but right now we’re struggling there.”
On the distance side, May said it will be tough to replace Hugh Watts, but he’s had some underclassmen step up alongside co-captain Wilson Suzuki.
“Hugh Watts has gone to a different school for the year and won’t be back until the fall, so we’ll miss him terribly,” he said. “We’ve got James Steeves leading the way for the guys, and a couple of freshmen that have been doing really well, Khalil English and Nicolas Wright. And captain Wilson Suzuki is back so we have a solid core. They’ve been working hard and I think they’ll do well.”
New blood has helped bolster the girls’ side, where the ranks were thin last year for the distance events.
“We just had a handful of girls last year, and Katie Jones will lead the way for our girls,” he said. “She’s decided to do track this year, and captain Rhyan Holmes is back with us.”
The hurdles events also are a work in progress, May said.
English, Josh Jones and Wilson Suzuki are going to give the hurdles a try on the boys’ side, and newcomers Melissa Fisher and Grace Stauffer will run for the girls.
“We’re totally new in the hurdles, as green as you can get, and they’re going to try it and see how it goes,” May said.
Stokes didn’t place but did qualify for the state meet last season in the long jump, and Tracy is going to be big-time for the boys in the triple jump, May said.
“We’ve got Donald back, and transfer Alex Tracy is going to contribute hugely to our program,” he said. “He’s shown that he can jump with the best of the kids in Southeast and he’ll be competitive at the state level. We have some young kids trying the high jump out and it takes time to develop.
“We don’t have anybody that’s standing out at this point but we’ve got kids that are interested in it, and by the end of the year, we’ll have some people looking to do it,” he continued. “We only have one girl and three boys entered for this weekend.”
May thinks the throwing events will be another strength for this year’s team.
“We’re deep with our throws this year with both the boys and girls, led off by Tyrel Kramp, who did pretty well last year,” he said. “We’ve got six doing the shot put and discus this weekend, which is deeper than most teams that I’ve coached. That’s a great number.
“Same thing with the girls,” he continued. “We’re bringing four shot and disc throwers to Sitka, and there are some waiting in the wings that aren’t yet eligible. Captain Kimmy Laboca is our top thrower on the girls’ side, who did very well last year. She’s a great athlete who’s worked very hard in the offseason, and she’s ready to go. Coach Jim Kearns is doing a great job with our throwers.”
Laboca said she’s been working to perfect her technique while sharing what she’s learned with the newcomers.
“We’ve really been focusing in warm-ups. Coach wants us to start slowly and build up to each meet,” the senior co-captain said. “I’ve gotten better with my techniques because last year, it was all new. I’m a captain and it’s a new thing for me, but I’ve been helping the new girls, teaching them what I know.”
May and Laboca both said nerves have been a factor in the days leading up to the first meet.
“Some of us are really nervous, especially some of the new people,” Laboca said. “But this is our first meet so it’s OK to be nervous. I’m sure that the other meets coming up, everyone will be more confident in what they’re doing.”
May agreed, and added that this is the first meet for everyone.
“We just had the ice and snow melt off the track this past week, so a lot of the kids are nervous and saying they aren’t feeling ready,” he said. “I always say, ‘Nobody is.’ They’re nervous and they want to do it, but they’re not feeling ready at the this point. But all of the schools are in the same situation.
“There’s no pressure this weekend. We’ll go down and have fun, do our best and see what happens.”