Jackson track teams running toward goals

Andy Harris
Suburbanite correspondent
Jackson's Kayla Kelley and Perry's Kendal Fisher run Girls 4X100 Meter Relay in the Dave Clegg Invitational 2021

JACKSON TWP.  – Four meets into a season two years in the making, and count longtime Jackson varsity girls track coach Rick Neitzelt among those relieved to have gotten back to practicing, competing and being part of their sport they love.

All spring sports missed their 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with the myriad repercussions from that development affecting thousands of athletes, coaches and staff members across the area. That the Polar Bears have been able to have four meets, to run, jump, throw and hurdle once again, is a victory in and of itself.

"Finally ... it's been great to be back and a lot of the kids felt like they got cheated last year and the seniors missed out on their last season," Neitzelt noted. "This was something I don't think anyone could prepare for."

With more than four decades as a coach, Neitzelt has been through most every situation high school sports can present, but he admitted that his wealth of experience couldn't have prepared him for what the pandemic did to track over the past year.

Initially, it appeared as if there would be some possibility of a season in 2020, but as the virus impacted life more and more, schools, leagues and the Ohio High School Athletic Association came to the conclusion that the season wouldn't be possible.

The resulting cancellation led to a nearly two-year gap between the end of the 2019 season and the next one, which began late last month.

A year mixed between distance learning and in-person classes has felt disjointed and distant at times and that has filtered into the track team.

"I have lost a few kids that didn't come back this year mainly due to not having a season last year ... some of them got a job and decided to stick with their job this spring," Neitzelt said. "I do have a lot of multi-sport athletes and a lot of soccer players and they did have their season, so they've been able to stay in shape and some of the ones that are track only did continue running through club teams."

The season has featured dual meets and invitationals so far, with the Dave Clegg Invitational in North Canton serving as one of the high points thus far in the season. The Polar Bears have been led by sprinters Kayla Kelley and Casey Stalder, the latter of who previously played lacrosse but decided to give track a try this spring. That duo is among the sprint crew that will look to score points in the 100, 200 and 400 meters, as well as helping anchor the 400 and 800 relays.

The relay group, as usual, is led largely by a contingent of runners who are also part of the ultra-successful cross country program and bring both that experience and winning mindset to the track.

"Sofia Istnick and Kailey Zagst are strong runners and they're used to running together along with the other cross country girls," Neitzelt said. "Also, a lot of the kids from the other Federal League schools also run cross country and they all know each other really well."

That familiarity helps in any season, but especially one in which the freshman and sophomore classes are filled with athletes who started the year never having competed in a single varsity track meet. As Neitzelt noted, he has two entire classes who are freshmen in terms of their varsity experience and also, a senior class who were sophomores the last time they competed on the track.

With 85 athletes on the roster, there is still depth and with that depth, the need to figure out who fits where in the lineup for meets. Invitationals offer a chance to try athletes in different events, compete against different teams and work into top form for the latter stages of the season. The goals, of course, remain the same even if it took a long time and a lot of adversity simply to get back on the track in the midst of a global pandemic.

"The league comes number one with the kids and we pretty much look at invitationals to showcase our better athletes and if we go and do well that's great, but we want to use those as a chance to get more experience and get ready for the end of the year,"  Neitzelt said.

The hope underlying all of those aims is a full season in which everyone stays as healthy as possible and the athletes who have put in the work are able to show off what their hard work has accomplished, go toe to toe with the best in the league and area and see where that path takes them.