Bennington girls hope to follow new path to 2A title

Emily Jensik of Republic County is among 65 returning state placers in class 2A girls.

If the Bennington girls track and field team is going to return to the top of the class 2A ranks, the script will likely have changed from the last time they reigned supreme.

In 2018, Bennington won the girls' state title largely on the strength of its distance squad. And while that cupboard isn't bare, the strength of this year's team appears to be in the sprints.

Junior Trista Watson and senior Jasey Downing headline Bennington's preseason hopes for a state championship. Watson lands at No. 2 in the 100 meter dash, while Downing holds top five rankings in the 100 (No. 3), 200 (No. 2) and 400 (No. 5). The two sprint stars should also combine to boost Bennington's relays.

In the distance events, senior Peyton Piepho and junior Ashlyn Harbaugh are top three contenders in the 1600 and 3200 meter runs, and will likely key a strong 4 X 800 squad.

Bennington's strength is a mighty tall order to match in class 2A girls, but a few teams appear primed to put up a strong fight.

Garden Plain's Brooke Hammond won the class 2A 100 and 200 meter sprint titles as a freshman in 2019. And her teammate Allison Catlin, a senior, is the defending state champ in the 100 hurdles; Catlin was also fifth in the 300 hurdles two years ago.

Wabaunsee has a sprint standout in junior Lauren Schutter, who also enters the 2021 season at No. 2 in the long jump and triple jump. Schutter won the class 2A triple jump in 2019 and placed second in the long jump.

Stanton County has perhaps the division's top distance runner in sophomore Chesney Peterson, the 2020 cross country champion. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Peterson has never run a Kansas high school track and field meet.

That means Kansas City Christian's Alysia Wagner is the top distance runner returning from 2019. Wagner, a senior, was the class 2A 3200 meter state champion two years ago and the runner-up in the state cross country championships last fall.

Other returning state champions from 2019 include Jefferson County North junior Adie Manville in the high jump; Marion senior Anne Baliel in the pole vault; and Valley Heights junior Emma Yungeberg in the javelin. Yungeberg is also the top returner this season in the shot put.

The class 2A girls division has 65 medal-winners returning from 2019, by far the most of any division in Kansas track and field this season.

By contrast, the 2A boys division has less than half the number of returners - 31. But they're pretty good.

For starters, senior high jumper Tyus Wilson of Sterling - who cleared 7-feet as a sophomore - will be back to defend the state championship he won two years ago. He heads a loaded field in that event; West Elk senior Devin Loudermilk has a career-best of 6-8, and Meade senior Vance Shewey has cleared 6-4. Five of the top seven from 2019 are back this season.

Others trying to back up state championships from 2019 include Hillsboro junior Nate Hein in the pole vault; and Wichita County senior Sheldon Whalen in the 300 hurdles.

Whalen and teammate Myles Conard are expected to key a Wichita County squad that looks primed for a state title. Whalen enters the season as the top-rated athlete in the 300 hurdles, 110 hurdles and 200 meter dash. Conrad is No. 1 in the 400 and No. 5 in the 200. They'll also form a strong nucleus in the relays.

Republic County and Garden Plain are likely to counter with strength in the field events.

Republic County seniors Tyler Stindt (javelin) and Jared Baxa (long jump) are ranked No. 1 in their respective events entering the new season. Stindt is also No. 2 in the discus, and senior Cody Dahl is No. 3 in the pole vault. Baxa is also No. 3 in the 300 meter hurdles.

Garden Plain returns three state medalists in seniors Jack Haukap (shot put), Tyler Dreiling (discus) and Arden Rex (javelin).

In the boys' distance events, Wyndom Giefer of Trego Community won the state cross country title last fall and should be the favorite in the 1600 and 3200 by the time May arrives. Top returners in the distance events also include 2019 state medalists Jefferson County North senior Trevor Pentlin and Remington senior Asher Brown.

A lot can - and likely will - change. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, two graduating classes have left since Kansas track and field athletes last competed against each other. The leaders on this year's teams were freshmen and sophomores two years ago, and coaches are trying to figure how two rookie classes - freshmen and sophomores this year - fit into their teams.