Throughout the indoor track and field season, co-head coaches Dan Zierfuss and Patrick Irwin talked about their lofty expectations for the Midwest Conference tournament. Their athletes did not let them down.
Held at the Prairie Fire’s own T. Fleming Fieldhouse, both the men and women’s teams turned in their best finishes in years. The men’s team finished seventh, their highest since 2000, when they placed sixth. The women finished sixth, their highest since 2004 (also a sixth-place finish).
“We were more than pleased with the performance at conference,” Irwin said. “When you look at where we finished, and look at the progress we’ve made in just one year’s time, it’s hard not to be excited.”
On the women’s side, 24 season best performances were recorded.
In the 55-meter dash, both sophomore Kristi Weller and freshman Sara Brown notched season-best times of 7.74 and 7.84 seconds respectively. Brown finished just .05 seconds off of qualifying for the final, while Weller qualified and ran a time of 7.83, which was good for seventh in the conference.
But Weller was not finished there, turning in a season-best time of 28.29 seconds in the 200-meter dash, good for 13th in the MWC.
In the 800-meter run, junior Chloe Bohm and sophomore Emma Swanson finished seventh and eighth, with Bohm edging Swanson’s 2:30.33 with a time of 2:29.96.
It was not just underclassmen who ran well. Senior Mary Purrazzo recorded season-best times in both the one-mile run and the 3,000-meter run. Senior Christina Davis had her best throw of the year in the shot put, with a toss of 10.26 meters.
Junior captain Claire Knowlton just missed the finals in the 55-meter hurdles, finishing one spot outside the top eight in the preliminary round. But her performance was not for naught.
“Just missing the finals was tough,” Knowlton said. “But I used my frustration as motivation to run a hard leg in the 4×200.”
Knowlton, Brown, Weller and freshman Lizzy Warner set a new school record in the 4×200 meter dash. Their time of 1:51.37 was good for fourth in the MWC, aside from besting the previous school record of 1:51.88.
“As a relay team, we set the goal early in the season to break the record,” Knowlton said. “So it felt awesome to finally achieve that at conference.”
“It was very overwhelming, yet exciting,” said Brown, a freshman from Homer Glen, Ill. “After I crossed the finish line, I saw Coach Zierfuss with the biggest smile and I knew what we had accomplished.”
Sitting in seventh after one day of competition, the women’s team regrouped and jumped over Lawrence University to finish sixth overall.
The men had their share of good performances as well.
Senior David Footle ran a season-best time of 6.93 in the 55-meter dash. Freshman Joe Puntoriero continued his strong season with a fourth place finish in the 400-meter dash, running a time of 50.85 — just .15 seconds off of third place.
Junior captain Bill Schaefer took sixth in the men’s 55-meter hurdles. Schaefer, still feeling the effects of a nagging back injury, has only been able to participate in hurdles for a few weeks.
“I was happy with my performance,” Schaefer said. “I had to fight through my back injury all weekend, but it certainly felt great to accomplish my personal goals — to qualify for the finals on Friday and improve my standing on Saturday.”
Schaefer qualified in seventh place, but ran a time of 8.60 in the finals, moving him up to sixth place.
In the one-mile run, sophomore Dave Brankin shined with a season-best time of 4:58.24. Fellow sophomore Ian Malone also recorded a season-best time of 5:38.23.
In the field events, senior Adam Kent failed to defend his conference championship in the weight throw but still finished a solid indoor career with a fourth place finish in the shot put and fifth in the weight throw. Fellow thrower Paul Lebryk, a freshman from Glenview, Ill., threw a season best 10.23 meters in the weight throw.
With both the men’s and women’s teams turning in their best performances in years, the program is picking up steam. In conversations with both co-head coaches, they stressed that part of improving the program is changing the collective mindset and expectations of the athletes.
“I am eager to run for Knox for the next three years,” Brown said. “I know not only as an individual but as a team that we will bring change to the program. One of my goals for the team is for us to be in the upper half of the conference by the time I graduate. I really believe this is a realistic goal, because we have the talent, no doubt. We just need to continue our recruiting and we will bring the change.”
For juniors like Knowlton and Schaefer, the program has taken strides in each of their three seasons on campus. While they only have one year left at Knox, they plan on making it count.
“We were only four points out of fifth place,” Knowlton said. “Other teams in the conference are taking notice.”
Schaefer added, “We are changing the reputation of this program in a big way. We are beginning to establish ourselves as one of the more competitive teams in the conference.”
Now that the indoor season is complete, the athletes will prepare for the outdoor track and field season.
“We use indoor to compete,” Knowlton said, “but it’s also a chance to condition for the outdoor season. We have more out-of-season athletes joining us then, too.”
With the indoor program on the rise, both head coaches and athletes are looking to continue their improvement.
“We’ve got high expectations for outdoor,” Irwin said. “I think the difference this year is that now not only the coaches are expecting great performances, but the athletes are as well, especially after the success they had during indoor.”
The outdoor track and field season will begin with the Knox Invite at Trevor Field on April 3.