By BRADEN LAYER
---- — The 2012 St. Anthony boys track season showed coach Kevin Wiedman that his team, however small, had talent. The Bulldogs, already dealing with a roster stout on underclassmen lacking much varsity experience, also had to deal with a number of critical injuries that kept their numbers down. But it didn't alter their drive to succeed, as Wiedman's squad turned in a second-place finish at the NTC meet, and qualified a pair for the state meet at Eastern Illinois University.
"We were all so young," he said. "Our best folks were freshmen and sophomores. I was impressed with how we grew throughout the year."
This year's team will still appear young on paper, but many members of the noticeably small roster will have at least a year of major varsity experience under their belts.
One key freshman contributor last season was Peter Keller, who turned out to be a revelation in the two-mile run. In just his first season on the varsity circuit, Keller not only qualified for the state meet in Charleston, but also turned in a seventh-place finish in the state finals. Crossing the finish line in a blistering time of 10:02.87, Keller's performance made him the only freshman at the meet to finish in the top 15 runners.
"He's phenomenal," Wiedman said. "You don't see freshmen usually even competing, much less going to state and placing. He's looking forward to competing in the mile as well."
Along with the sophomore sensation, John Goeckner returns for his junior campaign after an astounding second-year. Goeckner qualified for the state meet in the high jump, where his mark of 5 feet 11 inches just missed out on the finals.
"He was a good jump away from being one of the top ten jumpers there," Wiedman said. "He's coming off an injury in basketball, so our hope is to get him jumping in the second half of the year. He's doing all the things he needs to be to get healthy."
Those two are the major returners that figure to score a good deal of points for Wiedman's men, but there are plenty of other young talents that could have breakout seasons in 2013.
"This year we're still fairly young," he said. "We're mainly sophomores and juniors. We have a small team, but we have good people at most events, which is something I'm excited about."
Sophomore Andrew Gardewine is hard at work to prepare for the middle-distance races, having ran the 800 last season. Gardewine almost snuck into last year's state meet with his performance at sectionals. This season, with an added year to mature, Wiedman is expecting even bigger things.
"I look for him to be a top competitor in the middle distances," Wiedman said. "This year he's continuing to go further, training anywhere from the 400 to the mile. He's working really, really hard."
Assisting Gardewine in the middle distances, and really anywhere Wiedman may need him, is ironman Benton Hakman. A soccer player in the fall, Hakman uses his oustanding endurance to race in the 800, the mile run and even try his hand in jumping. Wiedman says he's just one of those special athletes you don't see too often.
"He's in phenomenal shape," Wiedman said. "He can do about anything from the 400 to the two-mile, long jump and triple jump. He's my main jumper. He's a good all-around athlete."
Senior Jake Spraul is another name to look our for in the distance races, and Wiedman expects his leader to rise to the occasion in his last season.
"He should be one of the top four or five distance runners in the NTC this year," Wiedman said.
Junior Matt Gibson could provide the Bulldogs with some jumping depth, but has been focusing mostly on the hurdles. Gibson was one of the St. Anthony members lost to injury last season, and has been hard at work to make an impact in his return.
"He had a stress fracture last year from basketball, did minimal work early in the year," Wiedman said. "He's healthy now and looks improved. The 300 hurdles is where he is really focusing."
Something different about this year's team will be the availability of a number of sprinters. In years past, the roster has been dominated by cross-country runners, and the short-distance races have suffered because of it.
Not this season, as sophomore Connor Greene and exchange student Francesco de Filippi give Wiedman's squad two solid bodies in the sprints.
"Connor's got a sprinter's body, he appears fast," Wiedman said. "With the weather we haven't had the chance to see yet. Francesco's never done any track, but he's a big, solid kid."
Also in the mix is senior James Ritz, an upperclassmen in a sea of younger runners. Ritz has worked tirelessly over the previous three seasons to improve as a sprinter, and appears ready to do some damage in his final go-round.
"I've watched him from the seventh grade," Wiedman said. "He's really worked hard, he has worked on his form. He has grown confidence-wise and is coming into his own."
Aside from giving the Bulldogs some depth in the sprints, the trio, along with Gibson, will likely come together to form a formidable relay team. That's a luxury for St. Anthony, as Wiedman usually has to piece together a "hodge-podge group" from the remaining members of his roster.
"I'm really looking forward to having a decent relay," he said.
For throwing, St. Anthony will turn toward transfer student Logan Rogers and sophomore Derek Rios. Though the two lack significant experience, like most of the St. Anthony roster, Wiedman says the potential is certainly all there.
"I really think our throwers could be pretty solid," he said. "Logan, from what I hear, he's a big strong kid. I look for him in the shot and disc. Rios, he's a giant kid, he's back and healthy."
Samuel Wortman is the main threat in the pole vault, and is coming off a solid first year. The sophomore has his coach expecting the very best during the season ahead.
"I look for him to be able to compete in some of the big invitationals, and be in the hunt come sectional time to make it state."
With all this talent on the St. Anthony team, the Bulldogs will look to overcome a roster that isn't heavy on numbers, or experience.
"We want to develop and get better," he said. "My goal is to win the NTC, we've been really close the last two years, barely missed out. I think we've got good people. Elite people in enough events that I would like to make a run. I'm looking forward to having a much improved year despite having fewer numbers."
Braden Layer can be reached at 217-347-7151, ext. 123, or at firstname.lastname@example.org