Only returning three varsity team members from 2019 seems like a small potential impact on a typical Wisconsin high school track and field team.
But when those three seniors include a former state qualifier, a UW-Madison prospect and a “tremendous athlete,” head coach Nathan Nelson said it puts his team in a better position than it could be in.
It’s the story of spring sports in 2021—a global pandemic canceled an entire year of competitions, two classes of athletes have graduated, freshmen and sophomores haven’t had a true high school competition prep period.
In Stoughton however, working with what they have is a pretty decent starting point. It begins with distance runner Jayden Zywicki, a junior this season and the only returning state qualifier from the 2019 season.
After qualifying for the state meet in the 800-meter run in 2019, Zywicki will compete in this race again this season, as well as the 1,600 and 3200-meter races.
Brooks Empey, a senior, returns to the track as a senior sprinter this season and is committed to wrestle for the University of Wisconsin Badgers next year. Alex Wicks, a senior who specializes in the pole vault, is also expected to be a leader for his team this season, Nelson said.
Wicks has big goals for the pole vault, and his numbers should take a significant jump this year, Nelson said.
Like most coaches, the rest of Nelson’s team is filled with athletes he hasn’t yet worked with. That, combined with the alternate fall sports season running at the same time and athletes choosing those sports over track, has Nelson learning about his team each day.
One strong point will be his distance runners, a group of athletes who were part of the 2019 Badger South Conference champion cross country team. Nelson expects Zywicki to lead the distance runners and the team.
“He can qualify (for state) for any of the distance events this year,” Nelson said of the junior, saying cross country has made him more diverse in his events.
The coach pointed to Empey when asked about athletes who could qualify for sectionals, noting the senior’s drive for success. The coach is eager to see how Empey’s speed on the football field transfers to the track when the alternate fall season ends in May.
A pair of football players could make a surprise impact this track season in senior Jonah O’Connor and junior Gabe Rousseau, Nelson said.
Like many other athletes who are playing alternate fall sports, our high school quarterback is a wild card,” Nelson said of O’Connor. “We know he can run, but how can he match up with other area sprinters?”
Rousseau’s strength could make a difference in the team’s throwing scores, Nelson said.
Multiple athletes could surprise, though, as the team looks to get athletes back into the sport. Ahead of the first meets of the season, the team is prepared for change.
Competing again will be a welcomed change, Nelson said, especially for the new team members.
Stoughton is set to open the season with a home triangular meet May 18 against Oregon and Monroe.
“We won’t have any real big meets until conference,” he said.
“I kind of think of it as a soft opening to a restaurant. There’s no grand opening, it’s a gradual building of confidence. We’re going to be asking a lot of freshmen and sophomores to come up big at the conference meet, so it’s nice that they can get some real competition in before then.”