Jackson’s track and field program is no longer run by former head coach Jim Stoverink, who retired following last season after being on the staff for the Indians the past 12 years.
Taking over will be an assistant from last year’s team in Mike Gross, and this year will be his first time serving as a head coach at the high school level.
“As an assistant coach, you don’t have to deal with all of the extra paperwork, eligibility and rosters,” Gross said. “Stoverink has been a big help as far as getting all that stuff lined out, so it really hasn’t been too bad.”
Coach Gross is especially looking forward to this season since Jackson returns Class 5 All-State athletes in seniors Aaron Brown and Erin Huff, who are two-time all-state finishers. Other returning all-staters for the Indians include senior Ashlyn Prince and sophomore Layla Fliege, who were members of last year’s 4×800 relay team that took third place.
“I know [Fliege and Prince] have been running all winter and putting in those miles with teammates and Coach [Andrea] Talley,” Gross said. “They’ve stepped up their game.”
Brown became a two-time all-state runner in the 400-meter dash last season by finishing third overall with a time of 49.39 seconds after taking fifth in the event his sophomore year. Brown was also a member of the state-qualifying 4×400 relay team along with fellow seniors Caleb Craft, Donya Marx and junior Daniel Dickerson.
This relay team also won the SEMO Conference, Class 5 District 1 and Class 5 Sectional 1 Championship together in 2019.
“I’m excited to see what [Brown] can do again this year,” Coach Gross said. “He’s come in already [to practice] strong and working hard. He’s focused and understands what he has to do to make himself better and not worry about what the competition is doing.”
Craft and Marx also qualified for state in individual events as Craft competed in the 110-meter hurdles, while Marx returns as the boys team’s top jumper and finished ninth in the high jump. Marx won a conference title in his event, while Craft also claimed conference gold in the 300-meter hurdles.
As for Huff, she was the runner-up in last year’s pole vault event at the state meet and was only three inches behind state champion Olivia Lyon out of Ozark, who graduated in 2019.
“[Huff] really sees the opportunity for her to get that state championship [this year],” Coach Gross said.” It’s not going to be easy — there’s a lot of quality competition out there, but I think she understands the hard work and focus that it takes to get to that No. 1 spot.”
Other accomplishments the program had last season included sweeping the SEMO Conference Meet as well as the boys winning a Class 5 District 1 title.
“I like our chances [to repeat that type of success] — our kids are working hard,” Gross said. “We have a lot of kids having success [in other sports], and those experiences really help as far as learning how to compete and being mentally tough. In track and field, you have to be mentally tough if you face adversity in your race or in your event.”
The Indians also lost a few all-state athletes as Kennedy Bauer, Jack Rinehart and Kaylee Wilson all graduated following last season. Bauer and Rinehart have continued their careers collegiately at the University of Missouri – Kansas City and Southeast Missouri State, respectively.
Bauer and Wilson were members of the 4×800 team with Fliege and Prince, while Bauer also earned all-state in the 1600-meter run with a seventh-place finish.
Returning distance runners for Jackson include juniors Sophia McAdams, Elizabeth Steele and sophomore Maite Mendez. Freshman Mallorie Metzger will also be in the mix.
As the boys team’s pole vaulter, Rinehart took third in last year’s event to finish his career with the Indians as a two-time all-state athlete.
Another state qualifier for Jackson was sophomore Ryleigh Kilhafner, who did so in the 100-meter dash but took 16th in the race. Gross has served as the sprints coach for the past several seasons, and he said it is rare for an underclassman to qualify for state in the event.
“I’m super proud of her,” Coach Gross said. “She had a really good race in the sectional round last year. When we got to the state meet, she didn’t get out of the block like she wanted to and kind of fell behind early. That’s hard to make up in the 100, but it was definitely a learning experience for her.”
The final state qualifier for Jackson last season was junior Connor Tollison, who took second to last place in the discus throw. He recently committed to play football at the University of Missouri, and Coach Gross hopes Tollison’s technique will be cleaned up this year.
Another member of the football team who returns to the boys track team is junior Rhet Liley, who holds the school record in the javelin throw. He won a conference championship in the event last season.