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story.lead_photo.caption Natalie Heckman of Blair Oaks sprints towards the finish line in the 800-meter run at the 2019 Class 3 state track and field championships at Walton Stadium in Columbia. Photo by News Tribune / News Tribune.

WARDSVILLE — The Blair Oaks Lady Falcons had a strong showing two years ago at the Class 3 state track and field championships.

Despite losing the 2020 season due to COVID-19, a handful of those Blair Oaks state qualifiers will be back this season.

"We had a great group of sophomores that year," Blair Oaks girls coach Marc Keys said. "Now they're seniors. They're really great leaders in practice."

Keys noted 75 percent of the girls team has yet to compete in a high school track meet. For many of them, that first opportunity comes today in the Blair Oaks Invitational, which starts at 3:45 p.m. at the Falcon Athletic Complex.

The Lady Falcons have 31 on their roster, while the Falcons have 29 this season.

Although the boys team won't have any returning state qualifiers, the Falcons still have 18 upperclassmen on the team and seven returning athletes who competed at the district meet two years ago.

"We're looking forward to Friday, but it's also a big question mark," Blair Oaks boys coach Nathan Holtmeyer said. "Our seniors this year last competed when they were sophomores, so you're talking about a huge growth difference, in maturity and physical growth."

The Lady Falcons won the 4x800-meter relay state title two years ago. Seniors Natalie Heckman and Emily Sporleder return on that relay, and they'll be joined by senior Kati Schoeneberg — an all-state cross country runner — and sophomore Ansley Casey.

"The 4x800 and 4x00 will continue to be our banner relays," Keys said. "We're going to continue the tradition I feel like we've had for quite a few years."

In the 4x400, the Lady Falcons have three returners: Heckman, Sporleder and junior Payton Mitchell. Senior Kaelin Forck will round out that relay.

Heckman and Mitchell also return after qualifying for state in individual events in 2019. Heckman was an all-stater in the 800-meter run and Mitchell just missed all-state honors in the 300-meter hurdles.

"They've been looking really good," Keys said.

Sporleder will run the 800 this season. Junior Lucia Wilde will also be a long distance runner for the Lady Falcons, while Schoeneberg will also be a option in long distance events.

Keys said junior Sam Laughlin has already cleared 9 feet in the pole vault this preseason.

"She'll be able to score us some points," he said.

Keys said he'll turn to his younger athletes to compete in sprinting events this season, as well filling in spots as throwers and jumpers.

"I'm excited to see the younger kids," Keys said. "They've been doing really good work in practice."

For the Blair Oaks boys, key returners include seniors Jayden Purdy and Cobi Marble in sprinting events.

"They're doing a good job, it's just a matter of trying to figure out who's going to complement them and where they're going to fit," Holtmeyer said.

Senior Connor VanTress will lead the distance runners, but he has also run the 400-meter dash in the past.

"We're looking for him to definitely step up," Holtmeyer said.

Other distance runners include juniors Levi Frisbie and Thomas McCauley.

"Even though they're juniors, they're new to the sport," Holtmeyer said. "They're looking strong so far."

The junior class makes up nearly half of the Blair Oaks boys roster. Among the returners from that class are Ayden Chouinard, Dex Crane, Nick Stover and Joe Welch.

Holtmeyer said the relays will be the Falcons' strength this season.

"It will just come down to where we place those kids," he said. "We want to work our team around the seniors."

Freshman Jace Rackers will be a key runner in the hurdle events, while Chouinard will run in the 300 hurdles.

In field events, seniors Brad Roark and DeVonte Sanders will be throwers, while Luke LePage and Purdy will compete in the pole vault.

"That's going to be our big target right there," Holtmeyer said of the pole vault. "We're hoping to set school records, we're hoping to move on in sectionals."

Holtmeyer noted as many as 10 boys are working on the long jump right now.

"The name of the game for us is a lot of new faces in new places," Holtmeyer said.

Blair Oaks wraps up the regular season May 6 in the Tri-County Conference meet at California.

"There are some great teams (in the conference)," Keys said. "It always nice when you go to the state meet and you see familiar people from your conference. It makes you feel like you've prepared well."

Today will be Senior Day for Blair Oaks in its only home track and field meet of the season.

"We'll get to celebrate our seniors," Keys said. "We didn't get to do that last year, and when you don't have it one year, you recognize the significance of it."

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