Natalie Windels has earned a state meet medal in hurdles five consecutive years – a feat few in Minnesota track and field history have matched.
One medal was missing from her collection, but the Eagan junior filled the gap in her resume by winning the Class AA girls 300-meter hurdles Saturday at Hamline University.
In 2013, Windels was a rare seventh-grade state meet medalist, taking seventh in the 300 hurdles. It seemed just a matter of time before she became a state champion. But others had something to say about it – people such as Rachel Schow (Rosemount), Karina Joiner (East Ridge) and Meleah Biermaier (Thief River Falls), talented hurdlers who now run for college teams. Over the last few seasons, they won some of the state high school meet medals Windels had been seeking.
Once they moved on, Windels said she thought, “finally, I have a chance. There was Rachel Schow a couple of years ago, and Karina and Meleah are here, they’re watching.”
But it wasn’t just the graduation of top-flight hurdlers that helped put Windels at the top of the awards podium. She made major strides this year. In 2016, when she finished fifth in the 300, her time was 44.48 seconds. About 11 months later – in April 2017 – she ran on a cold day at the Hamline Elite meet and ran a personal- and school-record 43.35. Her winning time at state was 42.93, just off her current personal best of 42.91.
Her improvement is “mostly technique,” Windels said. “In the 100, it was getting lower over the hurdles. A lot of technique in the 300s, too, but also some endurance work.”
Although the runners had a tailwind in the last half of the race, that doesn’t necessarily help in a technical event such as hurdles. “I felt pretty good despite the wind,” Windels said. “I was just watching Kalley (Harris, of Coon Rapids) and Erika (Townley, of White Bear Lake) to see if I could get up with them.”
Windels also reached the state finals in the 100 hurdles, finishing seventh in 14.83. Rosemount junior Shae Buchman won the event in 14.08.
Windels also finished sixth in the long jump at 17 feet, 3.75 inches, meaning she was responsible for 19 of Eagan’s 29 team points at state. The Wildcats were eighth in the Class AA team competition, won by St. Michael-Albertville.
She describes the long jump as something she does to help the Wildcats earn more team points. She’s good at the 100 hurdles, but says “the 300s are more my baby.”
Winning her first state championship in her specialty is an experience Windels said she won’t forget. “I’ve been working hard toward it,” she said. “It feels good to finally win one.”
Eagan’s girls came close to a second state championship Saturday as their 4×100 relay team placed second. Nyeaee Robins, Ashley Lentsch, Carly Czaplewski and Jailyn Robinson were runners-up in 49.01. The same group of North St. Paul sprinters won the 4×100 and 4×200 relays.
Robins and Robinson also ran in the Class AA 100 dash preliminaries, but neither advanced to the finals.
Eagan senior Ryan Steger was second in the boys 800, capping a season in which he became a late-arriving state meet contender. He came into the state meet with the fastest seed time and also ran the fastest time in Friday’s preliminaries. East Ridge senior Marcus Haskins won Saturday’s final in 1 minute, 56.94 seconds, edging Steger, who finished in 1:57.21.
“(Friday) we had a lot better conditions,” Steger said. “When I saw the wind (Saturday), I thought it would be a slower, more tactical race. I was kind of expecting a time like that.”
Until this spring, Steger might have been better known as a skier. He competed in the state Nordic meet the last four years and finished eighth in pursuit in 2016. He will compete in skiing and track at the College of St. Scholastica.
That’s a combination he might not have considered until this spring. He announced himself as a contender for the state championship in the 800 by winning that event in the Hamline Elite Meet in late April.
“I just went out there to see what would happen,” he said. “It was my first time making it in the (800) at the Elite Meet. When I ended up winning it, I was excited and started thinking maybe I could do something special.
“This season, I was definitely not expecting to burst onto the scene like this and do so well. I worked hard my four years in high school, but I wasn’t expecting to do something quite like this.”
Eagan senior Noah Hillesheim also earned a state medal in the shot put, finishing ninth with a throw of 52-2.75.
The Wildcats’ Grant Oettinger finished 16th in the triple jump. Eagan qualified for state in all four relays, with the best finish an 11th place by Trenton Allen, Joe Kelly, Seth Jackson and Steger in the 4×800 in 8:10.85.
Burnsville senior Stephan Olson Jr. finished third in the Class AA boys long jump. He went 22-6.75 at state, 2.5 inches farther than his winning jump in the Section 3AA meet. Anthony Fleischfresser of Spring Lake Park/St. Anthony won the event with 22-10.75.
It was the second state long jump medal for Olson, who finished seventh in 2016.
Olson also ran in the 100 preliminaries but did not qualify for the finals. Also competing at state for the Burnsville boys was senior Joe Fee, who cleared 6-0 in the high jump to tie for 14th.
The Blaze’s Sophie Nilsson and Miah Keller competed in the Class AA girls triple jump. Nilsson earned a medal, jumping 36-10.5 to finish eighth. Keller finished with a 35-11.75 jump. Both bettered their distances from the Section 3AA meet, where they finished first and second.