Rocket girls were a favorite for the Class A state title

The Minnesota State High School League records for any given sport will include a long list of state champions, year by year. Some sports, such as boys basketball have lists of champions dating back over a century. Opportunities for girls came later in time, but even so, many sports have been crowning champions on the female side of the ledger for nearly 50 years. The list of girls track and field championships stretches back to 1972, with champions crowned in two classes by school size starting in 1976.

The entries for 2020, however, will remain forever unfilled. With the cancelation of the spring sports season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, track and field athletes, like their counterparts in other spring sports, will only be able to wonder what might have been, had they been able to prove themselves on the track, on the runway or in the throwing circle.

For the girls track team at Rockford High School, a canceled 2020 season means a missed opportunity that many programs can only dream of. Had the track season been run, it is very possible that the name “Rockford” would have been inscribed in the record books next to the current year. The Rocket girls, by all accounts, had the firepower to claim the Class A state championship in 2020.

Rockets rising

In 2019, the Rockford girls won first-place crowns in the Wright County Conference West, Subsection 17 and Section 5A championship meets. Through the latter competition, the Rockets advanced six athletes to the Class A state meet, primarily in the sprints and jumps. With various high finishes throughout the two-day state meet, the Rockets garnered 42.5 points to place third in the final team standings. Only one athlete from the state group, high jumper Bryn London, graduated in 2019; athletes set to return in 2020 accounted for 40 of the Rockets’ points.

The Blake School claimed the Class A title with 57 points. Only two individual Bears contributed to this haul, with 2019 graduate Robbie Grace scoring 40. Winona Cotter just edged the Rockets for second (44 points), also with a team of two. Sisters Grace and Lauren Ping went 1-2 in the 1600 and 3200 meters, and with their scoring potential maxed out, they would have needed to add another event to their repertoire to increase their score in 2020. Such considerations became academic when the Ping family moved to Phoenix, Arizona last fall.

These big scoring losses by the top two teams from last season left the Rockets, with their superior depth and returning strength, as strong favorites to claim a championship. Had 2020 been a normal year, this newspaper might have heralded a title-winning performance in last week’s edition. The championship meet was to have been run at Hamline University in St. Paul June 5-6.

As it is, COVID-19 forced the MSHSL to suspend all high school activities on March 12, with the closure of the state’s schools following shortly thereafter. When Gov. Tim Walz announced a month later that schools would have to remain shuttered for the rest of the school year, the MSHSL officially canceled the entire spring season, and thus, the Rocket girls will never know if they might have claimed the crown.

“When it all happened, we held out hope that there might be an abbreviated season and a lot of the athletes continued to work out,” head coach Chad Robran said. “When it was officially announced that there would be no season, it was really sad and disappointing.”

Stunning growth

The loss of the 2020 season is painful to Robran, not only because of the missed chance at a state title, but also because the class of 2020 is one of the first groups he coached “all the way up.”

“Some of the seniors who were the stars are kids who were some of my first athletes when I started at Rockford seven years ago,” Robran said. “These seniors built this program.”

Robran, who was a Division III All-American at Wisconsin-Stevens Point and a longtime coach at the University of St. Thomas before taking charge at Rockford, has tripled the size of the Rocket boys and girls roster, from about 50 athletes when he started to upwards of 150 today – a stunning number for a school that boasts a 9-12 enrollment of 462. The oversized program is led by 11 coaches.

“It’s exciting to see so many kids come out and see what track and field can offer,” said Robran who had to spend his first spring away from the track scene in 34 years, dating back to his varsity beginnings as an athlete.

Two of the state’s best girl pole vaulters were set to lead the Rockets into the 2020 season. Alayna Schloeder finished second at state a year ago with a clearance of 11 feet, 6 inches and would have been the highest-placing athlete coming back this year. Molly Schultz finished fourth (11-0) and added points in the long jump (sixth, 16-9.75). She also led off a 4x200-meter relay team that finished third (1:44.97). Schultz and her teammates, junior Sara Byers and sophomores Aliyah Robran and Cassia Cady, would have had a strong chance to win the 4x200 at state this year, and could well have qualified in the 4x100 as well. Byers is also among the top triple jumpers in Minnesota, having finished third at state last year (37-6.75) and was also 10th in the 100 (12.78). Cady was a point-scorer in the 200 (fifth, 25.79).

Schultz’s marks are all the more impressive because track is, at best, her No. 2 sport. Schultz, who was the class of 2020’s valedictorian, is on her way to Kansas University to play Division I volleyball in the fall. She had the opportunity to graduate early and head to Lawrence this spring, but chose to remain at Rockford to help the track team in a state title chase that never eventuated.

“She could have left in December but wanted to stay at Rockford for the opportunity [to win a state title],” Robran said.

The Rockets may well have brought a pair of junior throwers to state in 2020 to help shore up the battle for title points. Jayden Lark (shot put) and Hannah Stedman (discus) both finished third at the Section 5A meet in their specialty events last year, missing state by one place. One shot put qualifier and both discus qualifiers ahead of them were in the class of 2019. Robran thought his daughter Aliyah was ready for a breakout season in the hurdles this year to go with her state-level relay performances, and any of the returning qualifiers could well have advanced in extra events this year, creating even more opportunities to collect state points. Until COVID-19 struck, the Rocket girls looked ready to battle for a championship.

The boys, too

The Rockford boys were also looking forward to a strong season. Last year, the boys were conference and subsection champions before finishing second in the Section 5A meet behind Pierz. Five Rocket boys advanced to state, collecting 19.5 points to finish 16th in the boys title chase.

Austin Schloeder matched sister Alayna’s state finish by taking second in the boys pole vault (14-6), and would, like his sister, have been the top returner in 2020. Fellow senior Cole Vogel was also among the state pole vault field last year. Altogether, the Rocket boys and girls sent five vaulters to state last year. (While only the top two placers at the section meet are guaranteed to advance to state, additional athletes can move on by surpassing a state standard mark in their event).

“[Pole vault coach] Paul Herda is one of the best coaches around and he’s been doing it for 50 years,” Robran said. “The proof is in the pudding; just look what he’s produced.”

Senior Leo Duffy placed 12th at state in the 800 (1:58.99) and was looking to return for another shot in that event, and perhaps qualify in the 400 as well. Senior Nels Trandahl was expected to add stength to the distance crew and challenge for a state spot in the 1600 or 3200.

Duffy will head to Luther College (Decorah, Iowa) to continue his track career, while Trandahl will compete in track and cross-country at Wisconsin-Stout. Both Schloeders are also headed to the NCAA level, Alayna at the U.S. Naval Academy and Austin at Concordia St. Paul.

Trandahl, both Schloeders, Schultz and fellow Rockets Tristan Adams, Everett Brun, Dylan Hubbs and Carter Kuvalik were named academic all-state for the canceled 2020 season. The Rocket teams as a whole both earned academic all-state Gold status, which requires a team to maintain an average grade-point average of at least 3.75. The boys have a cumulative GPA of 3.84 and the girls score a near-perfect 3.99.

“We will certainly miss the seniors and we wish them the best in the future,” Robran said. “Everett, Austin, Molly, Nels, Alayna and Leo, Nate Schlitz, Dylan and Evan Hubbs, Mitch Johnson: thanks for all your leadership over the years.

“A special shout-out to Elizbeth Wiltsey,” Robran added. “We will miss your positive, smiling attitude and daily jokes. You will always be apart of the Rockford track and field family.”

Looking forward

While the losses from the class of 2020 will be great, both Rocket squads are likely to be formidable again next year. The girls will still have four girls back from the 2019 state group and the boys have enough depth to put up another strong team in 2012.

“The good news is, even though we lose some really amazing seniors, we still have young, talented girls and boys teams and we are already looking forward to the next season,” Robran said. “The program has grown and a lot of talented athletes are coming out for track and field at Rockford, which makes the program strong year after year. All the coaches are excited to move forward and continue to try for titles.”

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