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June 18, 2018

6/8/2018 7:28:00 AM
Lakeland track and field demonstrates how to build a great program
Nick Sabato/Lakeland Times

Lakeland’s Jake Van Hefty, left, leads off the 4x800-meter relay team at the WIAA Division 2 Track and Field Championships on Saturday, June 2, at UW-La Crosse.
Nick Sabato/Lakeland Times

Lakeland’s Jake Van Hefty, left, leads off the 4x800-meter relay team at the WIAA Division 2 Track and Field Championships on Saturday, June 2, at UW-La Crosse.

Nick Sabato
River News reporter

Lakeland Union High School's track and field team has established itself as the preeminent varsity sport in the school's athletic department.

That's not a knock on any of the other sports, but in terms of success and number of participants, track and field currently rates at the top of the heap of some successful programs at the school.

The Thunderbirds, of course, put six on the podium at last weekend's state meet and brought home a state champion for the fifth year in a row and the seventh overall since 2012. The only other Lakeland program that can match such success on the state level is the Nordic ski team, a sport not sanctioned by the WIAA.

What struck me most about the weekend was how the T-Birds went about their business. In most of the 11 events in which they participated, they went to win. Doing their best and putting up personal best times was important - they put up a season or personal best in every event but one - but the goal for many of them was to win.

With all of the success in recent years, that has become the expectation for the track team, cultivated by head coach Kevin FitzPatrick.

FitzPatrick runs a program in which expectations are to work hard in practice, while also teaching kids how to compete intelligently. That involves running competitively once per week and understanding that if you train properly, top times come at the state meet, conference meet, regional or sectional meet, depending on talent.

Naturally talent is needed for such success, but combined with the program implemented, Lakeland has won nine team or individual state championships in cross country or track and field since 2012, along with nine consecutive Great Northern Conference championships apiece in boys' cross country and track and field. In total, between the boys' and girls' running teams, the T-Birds have won 27 GNC titles since 2009.

Part of why Lakeland has been so dominant is how much the athletes buy in to the program. It's not an uncommon occurrence to see one of them running through Minocqua during the summer or see them at the track training on their own time.

When the coach installs a successful training plan, combined with athletes who go above and beyond what's necessary to create individual or team success it gives the definition of a great athletic program.

Entering the meet, Kav FitzPatrick had won eight state championships during his high school athletic career. His goals were lofty and rightfully so. He went to the state meet to win all three of his events despite current times dictating he may not.

When he ran to a school record - one that stood for 38 years - in the slow heat of the 800 meters and ultimately came in second overall by 0.4 seconds, he was disappointed.

"Winning was the primary goal here. I did all that I could in my power to try and win it," FitzPatrick said. "I just got outrun. I just mentioned to my coaches that I've never gotten silver when I've medaled. It's always been gold so far. I was here to win."

Most kids would be thrilled to earn second in the state and do so faster than anyone in school history.

Yet great athletes and teams want to win and if they don't, at least in the moment, it's a letdown.

When Kav FitzPatrick, Darius Diver, Kieran Mullen and Jake Van Hefty walked off the track the following morning after coming up one second short of a third state championship in four years in the 4x800 relay, Kevin FitzPatrick and LUHS distance coach Rick Goff commented that they were the most disappointed state runners-up ever.

All four boys later said as much. They wanted to win and felt as if they could have done more to do so despite running 16 seconds faster than their seed time, showing an incredible amount of self-awareness.

"To me, especially in this race, I'm a little disappointed in myself. I kind of feel like I left something on the track," Kav FitzPatrick said. "That's one of my biggest sources of disappointment."

Perhaps the most striking moment of the entire meet for me was a short interview with Van Hefty following the meet.

As a sophomore, he had a lot of pressure on his shoulders. Lakeland had been seeking a fourth member of the team all season in an attempt to repeat as state champions. Van Hefty emerged late in the season.

Van Hefty led off the race and performed quite well, but in his opinion, not well enough.

Rather than making excuses or being happy about how well he did individually, Van Hefty was blunt.

"I knew I wouldn't be able to lead in the first leg, but my goal was to just not fall off, which I did not succeed at," Van Hefty said. "That was a pretty disappointing part of it. I'm a younger runner, I haven't run a lot of these races, I'm still kind of learning, but soon into the race, I was already out of it."

It was an accountability rarely offered up by players, coaches or management at any level of sport in a similar situation.

Combine coaching, talent, hard work, self-awareness and accountability and that is the formula for a dominant high school team.

A lot of teams and coaches talk about doing what it takes to be great, but Kevin FitzPatrick and Lakeland walk the walk.

Best things I saw this week:

• Mercer Public School doesn't have the overall program Lakeland does, purely based on size. Lakeland has more kids on its team than Mercer does in the entire school.

Still, the Tigers are building a similar dominance in the shot put and discus. Following in the footsteps of Sydney Thompson, who won three state championships and placed in third or better in both events three years in a row, sophomore Aubrey Schoeneman placed fourth in the shot put at state to carry on the tradition.

• Rice Lake sprinter Kenny Bednarek put on a show, winning the 100, 200 and 400 in Division 2. Bednarek holds the state meet record in all three events and held the state record in the 400 coming into the meet.

Bednarek added the 200 state record to his resume, flying to a time of 20.43 seconds in the prelims, which is the second fastest high school time in the country this year and would have placed third at the NCAA Division I Championships last season.

Nick Sabato may be reached at nick@lakelandtimes.com or via Twitter @NickSabatoLT.

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