Seniors on the Grand Rapids High School girls track and field team this season are, from left, Katherine Eddy, Noelle Gunderson and Merica Beighley.

GRAND RAPIDS — Since the pandemic scrapped the 2020 high school track and field season in Minnesota, it is difficult to predict how things will transpire in the sport this spring.

However, if there is one thing for sure, according to Grand Rapids High School head coach Darin Illikainen, the Thunderhawks will have some outstanding athletes competing this spring around the area.

“There has been a great effect from the lost track season,” said Illikainen, who is in his fourth season as head coach and in his 31st season coaching the sport. “In talking to other coaches around Minnesota in the last few weeks, the number of athletes lost has drastically affected rosters. Without the season, what I found was a lot of upperclassmen – your seniors mainly – trying to find jobs. They found jobs as a replacement last year and now they are so ingrained in those jobs that they took this season off.

“It is very sad to see. I tell young people all the time that they have the rest of their lives to work. You have 80 years to work if you want to and I tell them to try to take advantage of high school athletics.”

Another loss for the program from the pandemic was the fact that the sixth grade track and field elementary day also was not conducted.

“That is a huge day for the track program,” Illikainen explained. “It is not only a lot of fun for the sixth graders, but it inspires the interest in our junior high program. So we did have a drastic reduction in the number of junior high athletes this year.

“The shutdown last year made an impact but I guess on a positive note, we did have a lot of new athletes come out for the first time to kind of replace what we had lost from some veterans. The enthusiasm is high; they are so thankful to have an upcoming 2021 season.”

Illikainen said the senior class from the lost 2020 season was exceptional, loaded with serious track and field competitors. In fact, he said those seniors were honored on opening day of the 2021 season by the current Thunderhawk squad.

“I was addressing the team and we had a brief, reflective moment just remembering our seniors in the past year, what they lost, and never take anything for granted as you go through life. Some of the better things sometimes can slip through your fingers without any of your own doing,” Illikainen said. “I feel bad for the lack of a season for those seniors and it took awhile to get over that.”

Illikainen said it is going to be a season of surprises as there has been a big turnover on the Thunderhawk team. However, he said the team contains a number of exceptional people.

“It is going to be a lot of fun to see how they develop and perform this year,” the coach said. “It is going to be wait-and-see and hopefully see some great surprises from the team this year.”

The team is laden with juniors, sophomores and freshmen this season with just three seniors. Captains of the team are seniors Noelle Gunderson and Katherine Eddy.

Some of the athletes who are expected to contribute in the sprints include Morgan Trombley, Kate Jamtgaard, Josie Hanttula and Faith Zidarich. They will also be key components to the Grand Rapids relays.

McKayla Cagle will lead the high jumpers while Lilly Watkins leads the stable of Thunderhawk hurdlers. Hanttula, a sophomore, will be solid in the pole vault along with Gunderson.

“Hopefully we have some others who join right in,” Illikainen said. “We hope they step right in and take off for us.”

Illikainen said the goal for the coaching staff is to help the athletes become better individually and become better athletes.

“We want them to grow in confidence and assertiveness and be the best they can be,” said Illikainen. “As that equates to awards and places and that type of thing in track, we try to get to the peak and perform as best we can in the section. The level of our season is not dictated by how many people we get to the state meet; the level of my season is always determined by the growth of each one.

“We shoot for personal bests every meet and when we get to the section meet and everyone is running personal records, throwing their best, jumping their best, that’s the measure of our program’s success.

“There are a couple of candidates every year that could be at that state meet level, but we celebrate the start of the season all the way through sections and a state qualifier is always the bonus.”

Illikainen said the team has received great leadership so far from its captains and he said the team seems to be close as it exhibits hard work mixed with laughter and smiles.

“They seem to be enjoying themselves,” said the coach. “We have had some extremely tough workouts in this opening two weeks and there hasn’t been a negative comment or anything like that. So, I think this team is already coming together with team bonding and that type of thing. What I have seen so far, this is a highly-competitive group that is going to push each other, but they do it with great character and they are going to do it in a positive way.”

Illikainen said he feels that between the girls and the boys track and field teams in Grand Rapids, the teams have the best coaching staff in the state.

“Our assistant coaches are incredible and they have a lot of years of experience,” said Illikainen. “We are fortunate to have who we have as our position coaches. It is a great staff.”

The Thunderhawks had their first meet cancelled during the week and they are hoping to open their season Tuesday, April 20, at Cloquet. They will compete in another meet on Thursday, April 22, at Cambridge. The first home meet is Tuesday, April 27, starting at 4 p.m.


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