Let’s start with an obvious statement: The cancellation of sports across the globe due to the coronavirus pandemic has been hard to take for all of us. No postseason hoops or hockey, no MLB Opening Day, no closure on high school basketball…
In short, it’s not been a normal spring.
That’s especially true for those in spring sports who never got their season off the ground, including those in my favorite post-winter pastime to cover: high school track and field.
At this point in the season – one week before the Howard Wood Dakota Relays – we’d be getting to know some of the new talents who always seem to come out of nowhere to grab our attention, plus we’d start to see which individuals and teams were ready to challenge for state titles and all-time records.
In the absence of a season, though, all we have to dwell on is what could’ve been, with last year and this fall’s cross country season as our only guide to predict who might’ve done special things this spring.
With that in mind, I’m not letting the lack of competition stop me from continuing my annual tradition of recognizing some of the best-of-the-best in high school track and field in the Dakotas.
Since 2017, I’ve picked six athletes from either side of the border who I believe are poised to be the standouts in their respective classes to make up “The Dakota Dozen”, the brightest twelve stars in the Dakotas HS T&F universe in any given year. I try to limit myself to selecting one boy and one girl per class to ensure every class in both states is represented, though admittedly, I sometimes break my own guidelines. (Apologies to South Dakota’s Class “A” in 2019…but I stand by my choices.)
Every year, this list of honorees is comprised of returning state champions and record holders, and it still works this year because it’s essentially a preseason award…and as this is going to be the longest track preseason ever, why not, right?
It wasn’t easy to narrow the field down – just look at that honorable mention list! – but if we did have a 2020 high school track season, these twelve would be my choices to do great things this spring.
The Dakota Dozen
Tyler Hiatt, Sioux Falls Lincoln (12)
The reigning Gatorade Boys Track and Field Athlete of the Year in South Dakota, Hiatt captured a pair of AA state titles in impressive fashion in 2019, PR’ing at 59'1" in the shot put and 182'11" in the discus. Along with fellow outstanding seniors Andrew Lauer and Hunter Merkley, the NDSU commit would’ve headlined a star-studded Patriots team aiming for a fifth consecutive state team title.
Alayna Falak, Watertown (12)
Few athletes in the Dakotas are more diverse in their skill set than Falak, who won a pair of AA state titles a year ago with near-record breaking marks. The USD commit’s championship-winning pole vault of 12'7.5" ranks second all-time in South Dakota prep history, while her season’s best high jump of 5'8" is tied for seventh. She also has a state long jump crown on her resume and has captured seven state gymnastics titles.
Jacob Hyde, St. Thomas More (12)
No one had a better state meet in 2019 than this future Nebraska Cornhusker, as Hyde went undefeated on the weekend with Class A state titles in the 100m, 400m and 4x2 relay, and an all-class gold and #Platinum record 21.51-second run in the 200m. A repeat Dakota Dozen selection, Hyde was poised to lead STM’s bid for a fifth Class A team title in the last six years.
Jacy Pulse, McCook Central-Montrose (12)
It’s not easy to win state in the sprints and the hurdles the same year, but that’s what Pulse did last year as a junior, capturing the 200m and both hurdle races to go along with a runner-up finish in the 100m. The USD commit won her first state crown as a seventh grader, one of Pulse’s 14 state podium finishes. It’s a shame she won’t get to bookend her prep career with a shot at a few more.
Andrew Law, Wall (12)
One of the best hurdlers in South Dakota since his sophomore year, 2019 saw Law win his second straight 300m hurdle state title to go along with his first 110m crown, all while earning Class B State Track MVP honors. Having won both races by more than half a second, the Eagles standout would’ve been expected to capture the double again this May.
Caelyn Valandra-Prue, White River (11)
After three years of top-three state finishes at the Class A level for Todd County, Valandra-Prue transferred to White River for the 2019 season and took Class B by storm, claiming state titles in the 100, 200 and 800 while finishing second in the 400. Already a three-time Howard Wood Dakota Relays champion in the quarter, the junior would’ve been in the running to be the first South Dakotan in recent memory to win the 1 through the 8 in one state meet.
Shelby Frank, Grand Forks Red River (12)
With six North Dakota state throws titles and three national crowns on her resume, Frank has already locked down her place as one of the best prep throwers in Peace Garden State history. A 2019 Dakota Dozen pick, the Minnesota commit would’ve been favored to earn her fifth straight discus title and a third consecutive shot put crown this May, all while gunning for the all-time NDHS discus record of 179 feet.
Calob Larson, Bismarck Legacy (11)
Another repeat Dakota Dozen selection, Larson swept the sprints at state again, winning the 100, 200 and 400 in North Dakota’s biggest class for the second straight year in 2019, and he wasn’t even at 100% for most of the season due to injury. Even though his quest to win an unprecedented 12 individual state sprint crowns is now over, the Sabers star will be back in 2021, looking to pick up right where he left off.
Sally Korgho, Fargo Davies (12)
A state champion since her freshman season, Korgho did the hurdle title double last year at the Community Bowl and set a new #Platinum record with a 14.48 100mH effort at the Howard Wood Dakota Relays in Sioux Falls. The North Dakota State commit would’ve been a big favorite to earn her fourth consecutive 300m hurdle title this May for an Eagles’ team likely destined for a fourth-straight state team championship.
Meghan Ford, Jamestown (11)
A member of the 2019 Dakota Dozen, Ford was outstanding again in the distance events last spring and fall, capturing Class A titles in the 1600m and 3200m before winning her second North Dakota high school state cross country championship in October. The Blue Jay star followed that up by defeating an elite field from across the Midwest at the Nike XC Heartland Regional in Sioux Falls this November, cementing her reputation as one of the best distance kids in the country, let alone the Dakotas.
Lanie Awender, Oakes (11)
After a pair of third place finishes in the sprints at the Class B State Meet in 2018, Awender moved up a few spots on the podium last spring, claiming titles in the 100 and 200 as a sophomore. The Tornadoes star would’ve been a big favorite to repeat in both this May.
Bo Belquist, New Rockford-Sheyenne (12)
The UND football commit capped off a big junior year with a pair of state jumps titles last spring, taking the long jump by just a quarter of an inch before handily winning the triple by over a foot. Interestingly, Belquist was one of only three returning state champs in Class B track and field this year, and it’s unfortunate that we won’t get to see him try to defend his titles.
South Dakota Honorable Mentions
Jasmine Greer, Sioux Falls Roosevelt (12) – You know the Dakota Dozen is an elite group when the reigning Gatorade Girls Track and Field Athlete of the Year in South Dakota only gets an honorable mention nod. A Kansas State commit, Greer moved into second place all-time on the SDHS preps list with a state-meet-record shot put throw of 47'0" in 2019 to claim her first AA title. We’re all bummed that the Rough Rider star didn’t get to try for the state record of 48'1.5" this spring.
Hunter Merkley, Sioux Falls Lincoln (12) – Speaking of state records, Merkley doesn’t have to think about what could’ve been his senior year in that regard, as he’d already broken the all-time SDHS long jump mark as a junior at 23'11.5". Like Patriot teammate Tyler Hiatt, he’ll be plying his trade in the Summit League next year for North Dakota State.
Erin Kinney, Harrisburg (12) – Kinney’s seemingly been around forever – one of the perks of bursting on the scene in middle school – but she’s quietly become an all-time sprinting great in South Dakota, with top-ten prep marks in the 100m (11.85) and the 200m (24.56). A 13-time state medalist and the state’s all-class gold medalist in the 100m and 200m last year, Kinney will compete for USD next season.
Alea Hardie, O’Gorman (10) – After placing top-four at state in the 800m and 1600m as an eighth grader in 2018, the O’G mid-distance standout would go on to win all-class gold medals in both last year, then followed it up with a AA state cross country championship this fall. The sky’s the limit for Hardie, who you can likely pencil in as a Dakota Dozen pick in 2021.
Chase Mason, Viborg-Hurley (11) – The Cougars have been elite at everything in Class B in recent years – track, football, basketball, etc. – and Mason has been the poster child for Viborg-Hurley’s current golden generation. As a sophomore, he won his second straight triple jump crown by over two-and-a-half feet and helped lead three sprint relay teams to state titles, and I’m going to assume his athleticism hasn’t decreased since last May.
Collin Helma, Freeman (11) – After winning four events at state and leading the Flyers to a Class B team championship as a freshman, Helma took a “step back” last year by “only” winning state titles in the 200m and 400m and finishing second in the 100m... by 0.03 seconds to White River’s Nick Sayler. The rematch of Helma vs. Sayler – who lost to Collin by 0.05 in last year’s 200m final – would’ve been great to take in this May at Howard Wood Field.
North Dakota Honorable Mentions
Erin Palmer, Bismarck Century (10) – The reigning Howard Wood Dakota Relays Special 800m champ claimed a Class A state title in her specialty in 2019 in a blazing 2:12.63 – third fastest in NDHS history – and took home runner-up spot in the 400m as well (56.78). An outstanding competitive swimmer to boot, it would’ve been fun to see what Palmer’s follow-up season would’ve looked like, though at least her high school career is far from over.
Sean Korsmo, Bismarck (11) and Brady Yoder, Dickinson (11) – I’m cheating here, but how can you pick between these emerging North Dakota distance greats? As sophomores, the two were neck-and-neck last May at the state track meet, with Korsmo besting Yoder in the mile and two-mile by fractions of a second. The Dickinson standout got a bit of revenge at State Cross Country this Fall, where the two went 1-2 once again. Thankfully, both will be back next year to resume a rivalry that’s still too close to call.
Henry Collins, Shanley (11) – If not for Calob Larson, Collins would’ve been in the mix to claim state titles in the 1-2-4 in Bismarck last May. The Deacon star was unbeaten against EDC competition as a sophomore, going as low as 10.93 in the 100m, 22.05 in the 200m and 49.41 in the 400m.
Robert White, New Town (12) – The top returning distance runner in Class B, White finished third at State T&F in the 1600m and 3200m and sixth in the 800 as a junior before winning the B Cross Country state meet this fall. He’s the latest in a long line of New Town distance greats.
Kennedy Harter, Kidder County (9) – Harter won a Class B state triple jump title last year with a 37'6" effort as an eighth grader. For context, that mark would’ve won the Class A title by over a foot and isn’t too far off a spot in the all-time NDHS top-ten. Let’s just say I would’ve been paying closer attention to Kidder County meet results this spring than I have in my previous six years of covering high school track.
Kaden Pastian, Hillsboro/Central Valley (11) – When you hit the 180-foot mark in the discus as a sophomore, your future’s bright. That’s exactly what Pastian did en route to a Class B state title last May (180'4") to go along with a third-place finish in the shot put (52'2.5"). The Burros’ multi-sport star would’ve been the presumptive favorite for a throws double this spring.