LA CROSSE -- In a perfect scenario, Dodgeland's track and field contingent wouldn't have to commute into the WIAA State Track and Field Championships from a hotel in Sparta each year. It's that tough to get reasonable accommodations in the Coulee Region on this particular Friday over every year.
But the Trojans made themselves right at home once they got to the meet, starting out the first day of the meet with clutch performances in Division 3 competition.
Freshman Miranda Firari lived up to her top seed in the girls pole vault, winning her first state title by clearing 10 feet, 6 inches. Senior Jamie Huber placed fifth in the girls 1,600 meter run in a personal best time of 5 minutes, 14.82 seconds to earn her first individual state medal in track and field.
Dodgeland's boys 3,200 meter relay team of seniors Joel Esteves, Jacob Stuebe and Hirochi Ura and sophomore Evan Finger won a fifth place medal in 8:15.18. The boys 1,600 meter relay team of senior Dalton Klentz, Esteves, Ura and Finger made today's finals with a ninth place finish in the prelims in 3:32.96.
Not everything was perfect. Senior Meygan Benzing, a four-time state qualifier and perennial medalist, competed with a severe shin splint and placed 13th in both the 1,600 (5:49.46) and the 800 (2:32.68).  But other than that, Team Purple was pretty golden on Day 1.
 "Good first day," Dodgeland track and field coach Kevin Klueger said. "One of the better first days we have had at the state meet. Really excited for Miranda. We were really excited for her coming in. We knew she had a chance, but you never know with a freshman. She's extremely confident. She just does her thing and doesn't sway one way or another. She's a competitor."
Firari established herself quickly as a 10-foot vaulter during the season, which led to slew of first place finishes. But ten of the 16 competitors cleared 10 feet, forcing Firari to match or better the 10-3 height she cleared at the Princeton sectional on a big new stage.
"It was really exciting," Firari said. "I kind of just took it as a regular meet. It was more concentrated, I guess than other meets. I liked (the competition) a lot, because I had something to push myself."
Firari missed on her first attempt at 10 feet, temporarily putting her in a tie for fourth place in a crowded field. But everyone else bowed out at 10-6. Firari missed her first two attempts before hitting the state championship winner on the third and final attempt.
"I was more excited that I won state as a freshman than I was that I PR'd," Firari said. "Oh my gosh, I'm a freshman and I won state. I don't think it's actually hit me yet."
Dodgeland pole vaulting coach Doug Miller had no problems processing it. After all, he has coach more than 40 state qualifiers in this event during a legendary career at both Waterloo and Dodgeland.
"It's nice to have kids that can do that stuff," Miller said humbly.
"She's not afraid of the moment. She made 10-6 on what would have been the last jump of the meet. (Had she missed), she would have tied for fourth, which wouldn't have been bad at all.
"She's done that kind of stuff during the course of the year. She runs her best times when we need her to. She's not afraid to compete on the big stage.
She had a great day today. She was a little nervous early. By the time she made 9-6, she really felt like she was vaulting well. At 10, we were just a little too close so we backed her up and then she was big over the bar. She felt pretty good about that.
"When she went to 10-9, she went to a bigger pole and she had nice shots. She looked good there. She was less than a half inch of going over twice."
Miller saluted a large supporting cast for its role in this success story.
"The big advantage that Miranda and some of our other kids have is that our district and our school board were willing to cut into our gym floor four years ago and put a plant box in, and we've had great practice time," Miller said. "Coach Klueger gives me a lot of time with those kids. The district made a commitment to our kids and it paid off. "
One year ago, Huber was laid up at home with mono and missed joining Benzing as three-time state medalists on the 3,200 relay team. She returned to La Crosse for her final go-around armed with plenty of motivation and a newfound ability to outkick the opposition.
She entered Friday's 1,600 meter race as the eighth seed with a 5:20 from the sectional and left no doubt she would reach the medal stand.
The lead pack of six opened up a sizable gap by the end of the first lap. Huber was content to run on the back end of a tight cluster, then outkicked Kickapoo/La Farge freshman Anelise Egge over the final 200 meters to move up a spot on the medal stand. Benton Co-Op freshman Kayci Martensen won the race in 5:02.53.
"It definitely was (a great way to finish after last year)," Huber said. "I am definitely going to cherish this moment, being able get my first individual medal. Senior year has seen some good things thus far ... a six-second PR and a fifth place.
"You can't get that (80 degree heat) in your head. You've just got to go. 
That was good (running in lead pack of six). I got out in a good enough position and I got right up with the four girls and it was good. The end was awesome.
"I think a lot of treadmill training in the winter and biking (helped improve my kick). I didn't have that last year and out of nowhere one meet, I had this kick and ever since, I've just been giving it. I know I have it, so it was great."
Klueger was gratified to see Huber overcome earlier setbacks in this sport.
"Great for her, especially the last two years, with the run of bad luck she had," Klueger said. "She got tripped up in the mile in our sectional at Hilbert two years ago. We protested and nobody had seen it. It was an illegal cut and she ended up missing it up by one place. Last year, got sick and wasn't able to run. She's been a top six runner for years for us and she finally got what she deserved here.
"She's one of the hardest workers I have ever coached. She does all the little things. She's really strict about her diet and her winter training. I just couldn't be happier about her being able to do this, and she's not done yet."
Huber solidified an outstanding distance running career which included four trips to state in cross country, one team state title and one top ten finish by padding her medal totals on the track.
"It's definitely different," Huber said of the two sports. "Now that I've done so well in track ... I used to love cross country better. Now, being able to run good and hard for the first time in a long time, I can't decipher one being better than the other."
The cross country season surely helped Dodgeland's boys 3,200 relay team, which made huge strides as a first-year group in less than three months together.
 Esteves handed off the baton in a heavy pack vying for the sixth spot.
"It was kind of nerve racking," Esteves said. "I knew people were going to be fast, but I just tried to stay with the pack around the first 400. I knew it was going to be close because we were all still in a bunch. I just held my own and ran my race. That's pretty much all I could do for my team and let the boys take this thing from there.
"It was my second year running the 4 by 8. It felt pretty good. It was state. It was nerve racking. It was such a good experience. First time running at state. I feel like I handled it pretty well. I got a medal out of it so that's all I can really ask for."
Stuebe was the No. 2 runner on the cross country team behind Finger and ran the No. 2 leg of this relay. He improved slightly on Esteves' position by the time he handed the baton off to Ura.
"Cross country really helped with this," Stuebe said. "This was my first full year doing track. It's a great experience. I put myself in a great spot and kept us with the pack. I knew a couple guys were going to be flying so I got past them initially. I knew if we just ran our race, we'd be all right. We got a school record, so we're really happy with that. Three of us being seniors, last time running together, it was something special."
Ura made his first and only state appearance a good one, giving the baton to Finger with only a few meters needed to push the team from sixth into fourth place.
"It felt amazing," Ura said. "It's like a dream come true. I have been waiting for this to happen for a long time. I am so happy and I couldn't ask for anything more. They are my team, my family right here. We broke our pr the school record by eight seconds, so we were flying. We all ran rally fast.
"I've been running since seventh, eighth grade. It was definitely was worth it. It all paid off in the end."
Finger qualified for this meet in the 800 and a relay last year, then qualified for state in cross country in the fall. He shattered his own PR to bring the relay home in style. He runs again in the open 800 and the mile relay today.
"These three did an amazing job getting me in the right position," Finger said.  "Apparently, I ran a 1:57. That's like four seconds faster than I have ever ran before. It makes me feel great about tomorrow and the rest of today, not hurt or anything. Feeling good.
"It's a weird feeling being a sophomore and being the most experienced guy up here. It's awesome being with these guys and to run that fast and to get my first medal up here with these guys, helping them have a good time up here."
St. Mary Catholic won the race in 8:08.2. The next five teams were all within three seconds of each other. Despite never having faced any of those teams, the Trojans met the challenge.
"They did amazing," Klueger said. "We were a little disappointed last year, because we missed coming up here by one place. We had a lot of the guys coming back and we felt like we owed it to them. For coach (Andrew) Perkins and myself, it was a big goal to get these guys here with those three seniors.
"You just don't know what's going to happen with a group like this, that is so inexperienced when they get here. But every meet, they have stepped it up, getting faster and faster. Really, we were unmatched up until today. We haven't had great competition like we had today, so it was great to see the guys answer to the call. Extremely happy. Three seniors, to finish like this and to have no expectation at the beginning of the year. Jake coming from baseball, Hirochi never being here before. Early on, they set a goal. They had a bond this year. They worked together, they pushed each other and it paid off."
Hustisford senior Matthew Greeb also had a successful first day at state. He placed ninth in the 400 meter dash prelims in a personal best time of 51.69 and qualified for today's finals. Freshman Ari Hildebrandt made her state debut in the girls 400 meter dash trials and finished 15th in 1:02.49.
Waterloo junior Christi Forman placed eighth in the girls 1,600 meter run in 5:22.48, which was nearly three second better than her seed time out of the Princeton sectional. Waterloo senior Spencer Noel competed in the boys 300 intermediate hurdles and finished 14th with a time of 43.89. He will compete again today in the pole vault.

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