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Blue Hawks set sights on nationals

Press Photo by Royal McGregor Dickinson State junior Hailey Schaper clears a height during the high jump at the DSU Duals on April 5, 2013 at the Biesiot Activities Center.

The Dickinson State track and field teams once again put together another successful regular season and ready to put their hard work to the test at the NAIA Outdoor National Championships.

Fifteen DSU athletes qualified for the national meet, which starts today in Gulf Shores, Ala. They’re in 10 events with five athletes ranked in the top five of their respective races and jumps. On the men’s side, the team comes into nationals ranked No. 7 in the nation and looks to follow up, or improve upon, on last year’s fifth-place finish.

This season, the Blue Hawks will have competitors in the 800-meter run and high jump for the men and women. On the men’s side, they have qualifiers in the 100 and 200 meters, the 400 relay, 400 hurdles, 3,200 relay and triple jump while there’s a discus thrower for the women.

“We’re all excited, all really excited and that’s the main thing,” head coach Mike Nekuda said, “you can feel people are just ready to get down there and start after it.”

Returners and newcomers

Of the 15 qualified Blue Hawks, practically all have competed on the national stage, indoors or outdoors, at least once. Despite all the returning athletes knowing what to expect, they each have had their own personal experiences and interpret it differently.

No. 1-ranked high jumper Andy Knebel returns for his sixth shot at a national title and sees a stark difference in how competition interacts between running and jumping events.

“Atmosphere is actually kind of fun on the high jump side because most of the guys we’ve competed against each other for two, three years and its actually pretty light atmosphere,” Knebel said. “Guys are talking to each other, saying ‘Good job,’ when they get a good jump.”

On the running side, senior Brittany Young — who will run the 800 — sees the races a little differently. Despite their hectic nature, she said the competition is fierce and out for blood, but is an honor to be competing next to the fastest girls in the country.

Discus thrower Whitney Leuenberger is a newcomer to nationals. The freshman qualified late in the season after tossing a distance 143 feet, 3 inches, landing her 21st in the nation. She’s one of six freshmen competing this weekend. Despite adjusting to the competition level, Leuenberger set her goal early and was able to complete it.

“It’s exciting, that’s what I wanted to do at the very beginning is make outdoor nationals,” Leuenberger said. “Indoor was iffy but I knew I could do it in discus outdoor. I’ve always loved discus.”

Chasing their number

Whether it’s winning a national title, breaking a school record or setting a personal best, each DSU athlete is chasing their own title.

Senior high jumper Hailey Schaper has already left her mark on DSU, claiming the school record for highest jump at 5-foot-7. Her goal all season was to break it and came close twice this year. With one meet left, Schaper is determined to clear that 5-8 mark and nab an all-America nod to finish her career strong.

Sophomore middle distance runner Dante Carter is also chasing a personal best. After winning a national title in his freshman season, Carter feels the pressure of needing to clinch another one after setting the bar high.

However, after finishing strong in his last few meets and coming into nationals ranked fifth in the 800, he is feeling confident about repeating.

“There’s been a couple of meets since then and I’m ready to go out there and do my best and I’m at a point where I think another national title is possible,” Carter said.

In the name of Nekuda

After just one season as track head coach and three as cross country head coach, Nekuda has resigned and will be moving to Colorado with his family.

The choice didn’t come easy, but also didn’t come without total support from his athletes. If anything, he became the latter half of the season’s motivation to make it to nationals.

Young, who transferred from Dakota State (S.D.) with Nekuda in order to continue to train with him, has had a special relationship with her head coach for the past four years and would love to honor his faith in her with a title.

“We’ve had a good journey together, so to end this, it would mean so much,” she said. “I came here for him. I came here to keep running for him and to end on a positive note, to end with an all-American would just be icing on the cake.”

Distance runners Young and Carter have built special relationships with Nekuda because of their year-round training in both track and cross country.

“It’s not just doing it for him, it’s my last shot with him,” Carter said. “Because regardless of what I decide to do, this is my last meet with Michael Nekuda and that means a lot. I’m going to get out there and see if I can put another all-American in his record books.”

Meaghan MacDonald

Meaghan is the sports page designer and copy editor for the Forum of Fargo-Moorhead.  After graduating from James Madison University (Va.) in May 2013, she moved from New Jersey to North Dakota to start pursuing her career in sports journalism and was a sports reporter for the Dickinson Press and covered Dickinson State athletics. Meaghan has been working for the Forum since June 2015.