COLUMBIA — When Battle High School’s track and field team competes Saturday in Jefferson City, it will be a brand new experience for most of the athletes and half of the coaches.
Assistant coach Brian Hancock thinks the Class 4 District 5 meet will be the first postseason experience for 80 percent to 90 percent of his athletes.
“A lot of those athletes are going to be our key players at district,” Hancock said. “I think we’ll go in there, and I think we’ll shock some people. I expect to get quite a few athletes into the next round for sure.”
It’s been a year of firsts for Spartans athletic teams, and the storyline of inexperienced competitors is not a new one for the school.
However, the other Battle teams can’t boast the collegiate coaching experience the track and field team can.
Head coach Rebecca Wilmes coached at Missouri from 2000-13 with a focus on women’s distance runners. She helped groom five All-Americans.
However, Wilmes decided collegiate coaching wasn't right for her long term.
“It was always my intention to teach,” she said.
Wilmes is a physics teacher at the school, and her students hear all about the physics involved in Usain Bolt’s sprints and top field athletes’ jumps and pole vaults. And though teaching and grading add their own tough hours, Wilmes is grateful to be away from the travel and stresses of collegiate coaching.
“It’s a challenge taking care of your family,” between the travel and time investment, Wilmes said. “This lets me do the things I love.”
Wilmes and her husband, Jared Wilmes, have two children. Garrett is 10, and Elyse is 7.
As she raises a family, she has the task of raising a program, which was evident at the middle school meet held at Battle on Tuesday. The Spartans' practice ended early, and Wilmes had her athletes pass out fliers to middle school runners she hoped to recruit as she timed their races.
She knows her team has gaps to fill, but she enjoys the idea of starting a program fresh.
“You don’t have to fill anyone’s shoes,” Wilmes said. “You don’t have someone telling you the way it’s always been.”
Wilmes doesn’t have to build the team alone, though. In fact, she has two former All-Americans helping her out in Hancock and Liz Roehrig. Hancock is Missouri’s school record holder in the pole vault, and Roehrig came two spots short of making the U.S. Olympic team in the heptathlon in 2008.
Like Wilmes, Hancock jumped on the opportunity to leave his job as an assistant at Missouri. Roehrig became a physical education teacher in Columbia when she stopped training for competition in 2012 and was quite excited to apply for the Battle job.
“I went right in and made sure I sent extra emails to the athletic director, principals and head coach,” Roehrig said.
Wilmes was a two-time All-American herself, and her, Hancock and Roehrig all recognize the wealth of talent and competition experience that their coaching staff is blessed with.
"It just kind of fell into place," Hancock said. "We were all looking for the same thing. I think it is unusual for high schools to have coaches this knowledgeable about the sport – at every event.
"I think its kind of cliche to say the best coaches are Division I coaches. I think it’s kind of missing the point."
This weekend, though, will be the first district championship meet that any of the three coaches have faced.
Ryan Pingrey and Battle’s two other assistant coaches, Jacob Biener and Dru Nash, help balance this out, coming from backgrounds at Hickman and Rock Bridge high schools.
“We’re a good blend,” Pingrey said. “None of them (the former All-Americans) had done high school stuff. We (the other coaches) are really familiar with the competition.”
Hickman and Rock Bridge, along with 11 other schools, will both be at Jefferson City High School this weekend for the district meet.
While the coaches believe the season has been a success, they each are looking forward to successes in the upcoming weekends. However, with no senior class, results might be less important than if there were last-year competitors.
Pingrey also said he expects all this year’s coaches to return next year, which would certainly be a boon for the Spartans.
“Any experience we could get (this weekend) going into next year would be huge,” Pingrey said.
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