The Highland High School girls track and field team has a new coach, but he is a very familiar face in the district.
Doug Bradley, who also coaches the Highland High cross country program, will be entering his 30th year of coaching track, most of which has been spent directing the Highland Middle School program. He also previously spent four years as an high school assistant coach, but this will be his first foray as a head track and field coach at the high school level.
Bradley will be taking over for Erin (Strackeljahn) Cotto, who was looking to spend more time with her young family. Bradley said he's excited for for the season to begin.
"I saw an opportunity to work with some terrific girls, most of which I had coached before, and I felt like a change might be good for both the middle school track team and me," Bradley said. "I’m a combination of being really excited and really nervous. I’m notorious for making things out to be bigger than they really are, but I see this as a huge undertaking. I have literally spent hundreds of hours working on track and field, thinking about track and field, and educating myself on track and field since early November."
Bradley takes over the reins of a program that features 22 girls on the roster, which is a significant bump in the right direction over recent years.
"Keeping a team 100 percent healthy is a nearly impossible challenge, so it’s critical that we have good numbers, and I’m happy with where we are," he said. "Next year, my goal is 25 girls, and I’m confident we can get that."
Bradley said the team has been very receptive and has done everything they have been asked to do so far, without complaint.
The squad's senior captains are Rece Portell, Alyssa, Freimann and Leah Sutton and the trio will help set the tone for the season.
"They all have an intense side and a light side, and I’m excited to see how it all evolves," Bradley said.
Bradley said the strength of the team lies with Portell and Freimann, both two-time state qualifiers, and junior Kate Marti, as well as sophomore Sam Hengehold, who was a cross country state qualifier this past fall. Hengehold will skip soccer this spring to run full time on the the track.
Portell and Marti have both won state medals two years ago as part of the 4 x 800 relay team that set a program record with a fourth-place finish.
"We are incredibly fortunate to have Rece Portell, Kate Marti, Alyssa Freimann and Sam Hengehold on this team, and they bring a great work ethic, as well as talent, and experience," Bradley said. "They will get a lot of work running everything from 400 meters to 1,600 meters, and the sky’s the limit on what they can accomplish. We also have a state qualifier returning at pole vault with (sophomore) Reese Tackett, and we’re hopeful she will continue on an upward trajectory."
In addition to pole vaulting, Tackett, a sophomore, returns to run sprints.
Bradley said Portell and Freimann are going to be used all over this season with an eye toward a long-sprint or short-distance race come postseason time.
Portell said she is excited for this season, although she admitted that it is a little sad to think that this is her last season of sports.
"If anything, it just motivates me in different ways," she said. "I’m excited to have coach Bradley as my coach again. He has had so much success in his years, and I loved running for him in eighth grade. He really cares about every single runner on the team and makes sure we will all hit our fullest potential. One of my goals this year is to break Allison’s (Zobrist) 800 record, so we will see what happens. Of course, I would like to end my track and sports career with a state trip as well."
Bradley said Sutton is open to running in any position in which she can help the team. She long jumped quite a bit last season, too.
Bradley said Hengehold, a sophomore, loves soccer and most definitely will miss it but she has decided that she might be built better for running full time. Marti is still rehabbing from October surgery on her leg, and Bradley said the goal is getting her on the track by early April.
Junior Abby Beyer will be a consistent performer in the throws, and after a strong season last year, she is helping freshman Taylor Kesner get better each day. Kesner has a ton of potential after winning the SIJHSAA state shot put championship a year ago.
In addition, junior Mackenzie Schoeck will bring experience to the sprint events and will be really active in the jumps.
Wealth of youth
Bradley said it is a great thing that there is a lot of youth on the squad. Twelve of the 22 girls are first-time high school track and field athletes.
"The advantage of that is, we will gain some flexibility in the way we use those athletes to cover the events," he said. "The more experienced girls are comfortable with the events they’ve been doing and, naturally, are little less inclined to being moved around to different events."
Bradley said there are a bunch of newcomers that he is excited about, including juniors Megan Griesbaum and Mackenzie Nigh, who are out for the first time, but he hopes to see a lot of during the season. Griesbaum could do some big things in the pole vault, and Nigh was a regular 3,200 runner when she was at Lebanon High.
Bradley said the freshmen class is loaded with talent, including Kesner, Bella LaPorta and Olivia Wilke. All three can sprint, and Kesner will throw, while the other two also jump.
Also coming from HMS are Savannah Graham, Lexie Korte (sprints, jumps), Kayla Thompson (sprint, jumps), Chloe Marti (sprints, jumps), Grace Meyer (distance), Julia Loeh (distance) Alysha Robles (distance), Paige Schaible (distance).
Bradley said he would like to see this team experience success in the Mississippi Valley Conference and get the program started down the path to ultimately being a contender for a state title.
"We would love to compete for a conference title, and with a little luck and lots of hard work, I think we can.," he said. "We also want to be in uniform and on the track on the last meet of the year in Charleston."
But as always, the competition in the MVC will be extremely tough.
"The Mascoutah girls are really deep and talented," Bradley said. "Triad’s eighth-grade girls were terrific last year, so it will be interesting to see how many of them are on the track this spring. Waterloo’s distance group is among the best in the state, so they should be tough. I don’t know much about Jerseyville or Civic Memorial at this point."
For the postseason, Highland will be heading north to Springfield, where Springfield Southeast has been the dominant team for years.
"I like our chances up there in the distance events, but it’s too early for me to assess those opponents in the field events and sprints," Bradley said.