Like a broken record...
When asked to reflect on his team’s accomplishments at the state track and field finals, Eureka coach Don Samford said, “I’ve said this many times before. I hate to sound like a broken record, but I had a great group to work with. They are all wonderful girls. Every one of them is a coach’s dream. They work hard and they are fun to be around.”
The broken record analogy is appropriate, considering that the Hornets broke school records all over the place on their way to a third place team trophy, the fifth state trophy in school history (tied for the most all-time in Class 1A).
“Obviously, they have a lot of talent, but talent is only half of it,” Samford said. “If they were jerks, I wouldn’t want to coach them. But, they are all sweethearts. They made me want to come to practice every day.”
There were many heroes from the record-breaking weekend, but none bigger than senior Natalie Puent who ran on three medal-winning relays and qualified for state in a fourth. She ended her high school career with a total of 10 medals.
“It’s very rare to see somebody run all four relays, since the training is so different for each one,” Samford said. “She did whatever we needed her to do, and never complained. A great kid. She was our unsung hero.”
Puent said she likes running in all the relays, and her cross country background helped her prepare for the strenuous training.
“I used to play soccer, too, so I’m used to all the running,” she said.
Puent was part of the state-title winning 4X400 meter relay that broke a school record and missed the state record by eight hundredths of a second.
Juniors Shelby Kupferschmid, Jacey Hartman and Kalla Gold were also in that relay.
That’s right: Juniors.
That means Eureka will have a good shot at winning its third straight 4X400 relay next year.
Puent and Kelsey Heinold, who qualified for state in the pole vault, are the only seniors from this year’s state qualifiers. Everyone else will return next year.
“We’re going for a state championship next year,” Gold said.
Gold won her second straight 400-meter dash title and earned a medal in the 100-meter dash (fifth place with a school record 12:58).
She became the only girl in IHSA history (in any class) to win a cross country gold medal (she won her third straight cross country medal this fall) and a 100-meter dash medal in the same year, according to IHSA historian Scott Johnson.
She also earned a medal in the 4X100 meter relay, which finished second, and the 4X200 meter relay, which finished third. Both set school records.
The 4X200 time was four tenths of a second off the state record and was faster than last year’s state title, which Eureka won.
The 4X400 was the main event, though, as the Hornets defended their title.
“Other coaches were staying, just so they could watch that,” Samford said. “It was pretty special. We almost broke the state record. It was so close.”
Hartman and junior Elly Vance each earned two medals for their relay performances.
Gold and Kupferschmid (three relays and sixth place in the triple jump) each earned four medals, which is another rare achievement. Athletes are only allowed to enter four events.
Gold’s performance was even more remarkable, since she missed some of the season with a turf toe injury.
“Coach worked me through that (the injury), and I was able to get back to where I wanted to be at the end of the year,” she said. “I ran with a metal plate in my shoe. It wasn’t that bad. I got used to it.”
Gold said she was just hoping to make the finals in the 100, and she never imagined earning a spot on the medal stand.
“In the beginning of the year, my form was pretty bad, and I wasn’t making good times,” she said.
The 400 was a different story.
“I wanted that. I was pushing toward that all year,” she said.
Kupferschmid is already looking ahead to next year.
“We’re on a mission to get first in the 4X100, and I’d like to get in the top three in the triple jump,” she said. “I’m going to work really hard on that this summer.”
Kupferschmid broke a school record in the triple jump earlier this season and improved her distance by more than two feet from a year ago.
Samford said Kupferschmid, who was not in the 4X100 relay at the beginning of the year, “worked harder than ever before,” to become one of the most versatile athletes on the team.
Samford said he plans to retire after next year, but he hopes to stay on as a part-time volunteer assistant coach.
“I applied today. I’m hoping they will hire me,” he said, smiling.
Eureka now has five state trophies and 12 top 10 finishes, which is the most in IHSA history.
“I think of all the girls who have been a part of this program over the years,” Samford said. “They made that Eureka uniform what it is today.”