The Jefferson City Jays were three points shy of a trophy at the state track meet last season.
That was with most of the scoring coming from sophomores and juniors. Now, with an extra year of experience and nearly all of that scoring returning, the Jays are looking to go even higher.
"It's a nice mix," Jefferson City head coach Dan Ridgeway said as the Jays open the season against Helias today at Adkins Stadium. "It's junior- and senior-laden right now, which can be a good thing as long as the seniors come up with a good attitude of finishing their careers right."
It was a breakthrough year for the Jays, who had not finished in the top 10 at state since 2006.
The Jays return a plethora of athletes who competed at the state meet last season, led by senior Joey Burkett, the defending state champion in the pole vault.
Burkett, who will play football at Missouri next season, is coming off ankle surgery that cut his football season short. He is expected to vault today against Helias.
"We don't know if he's going to run, kind of ease him in a little bit," Ridgeway said. "By the end of the year he might be a four-event guy. We'll just see what we need him to do and see what his ankle is able to do."
Burkett is only a small piece of the puzzle for the Jays, who were particularly strong in relays last season, qualifying four teams for the state meet.
Seniors Joel Ridenhour, Elijah Sherwood and Burkett were a part of the 4x100-meter relay team that finished second in the state. Sherwood, Ridenhour and senior Thomas LePage also competed in the 4x200-meter relay and finished fifth.
LePage, Sherwood and junior Mervyn John were part of the 4x400-meter relay team at the state meet that finished 13th in preliminaries.
Sophomore Mark Smith and junior Jack Gamble were a part of the 4x800-meter relay team that finished 14th.
"You look at the guys we have coming back and look where we finished last year, the goal is to finish as high as you can at the state track meet," Ridgeway said. "There is nothing we can do but beat people and move their points down and our points up."
Senior Caleb Ruth finished third in the 800-meter run, Sherwood was eighth in the 200-meter dash and LePage was 12th in the 400-meter dash.
Senior Zainu Mansaray finished 11th in in the discus last season while senior Sylvester King was 16th in the shot put.
All the returners have the Jays in some unfamiliar territory. Jefferson City hasn't been in the top four since a second-place finish in 2005.
"A lot of the seniors are four-year varsity guys for us," Ridgeway said. "They were varsity as freshmen. As a school our size, we took our lumps four years ago with all those guys. Now, hopefully, it's paying off.
"We were sixth on the boys side last year. We missed a trophy by three points. Some unfinished business. We think we could have maybe gotten a few more people to the state track meet. We were there."
Things are a little different for the Lady Jays. In fact, fans may want to get their rosters out early in the season since it's a team filled with new names and new faces.
"You hear about the boys' names a lot, but the girls, there are going to be some names you aren't as familiar with, but we think we have some quality there," Ridgeway said.
Jefferson City was fifth last year in Class 4, missing out on a team trophy by just one point.
But the Lady Jays lost a significant amount of production from last year's team, including Shelby Mustain in the shot and discus and Napheesa Collier in the high jump and triple jump. Conradette King, who was all-state in the 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs, is also gone.
"We definitely lost a lot of points," Ridgeway said.
Ridgeway said this team will get most of its points from its depth, and not as much from first-place finishes.
Junior Kezia Martin returns for the Lady Jays. Martin was third in the triple jump at state and eighth in the long jump last season. She also qualified in the 100-meter hurdles.
Sophomore Louisa Nylander qualified for state in the 300-meter hurdles as a freshman.
Senior Deidre Dillon; juniors Armoni Franklin, Martin and Madison Deatherage; and sophomores Hannah Dugdale and Tori Bonnot competed at the state meet on relay teams.
Ridgeway said he expects junior Emily Deeken to be strong in the 3,200-meter run and expects strong competition in the shot put and discus to replace Mustain.
"Again, when those girls graduate, someone's got to step up," Ridgeway said. "We'll see who it is."
Ridgeway said it's impossible sometimes to tell who will step for the Lady Jays until after they start competing.
"The boys, we know who are big dogs are," Ridgeway said. "The girls, we know we've got some potential girls that have really done a nice job the last three years, but we've really got to find some girls to go with them. It's too early to tell right now."