The Paonia girls are a perennial powerhouse in both the track and field events. The Eagles will seek their fifth consecutive state team title this May. At Saturday's season opening meet at Delta the girls were missing several of their top athletes, who elected to take a week off after winning the state basketball title a week earlier.
Brian Mitchem is entering his 10th year as head coach of the Paonia Eagles track and field program. Paonia sets a high bar for itself and other competitors. During his tenure the boys set the state meet record in the 400-meter relay, and the girls hold the state record in the 1600-meter and 3200m relays. The girls have also won the state 2A title the last four years.
Senior Brianna Van Vleet didn't take a week off. In Saturday's long jump competition she cleared 18-02 for the win, breaking the 2016 meet record of 17-08.50 set by Kenzie Henderson of Cedaredge.
"Very content with that," said Van Vleet, who holds the 2A state meet record of 18-9.5. "First jump of the season, feels good to already be hitting 18." On an early jump she cleared 17-8, but judges measured from where her long pony tail hit the sand in the pit, giving her a mark of 16-3.
Van Vleet, who as a senior finished fourth in the 400-meter dash, and ran on the state champion 800m and 1600m relay teams, has signed to compete in Division I track at Idaho State University, where sister Ashley also competes. She also finished fifth Saturday in the shot put with a throw of 32-06.75. Not bad for a senior who's never competed in a throwing event.
Van Vleet said she wasn't ready to sprint a 400m just one week after basketball. "Just messing around" in practice she threw 35 feet and asked coaches if she could throw in place of running a relay. While the experience could come in handy at ISU, "It was for fun," she said.
Despite missing several athletes, the girls finished sixth with 34 points. The relay teams should be good once everyone is back, said Van Vleet.
Sophomore Poppy Lightfoot was also coming off the basketball season and finished sixth in the 400m with a personal best time of 1:07.50.
Junior Brooke Hillman won silver in the 800m and 1600m runs. Hillman who is a 400m state qualifier, was a sixth-place finisher in the 800m, and a member of the state champion 3200m relay team.
Freshman Katya Schwieterman won bronze in the 3200m with a time of 15:58.81. Junior Randi Rapke finished fourth in the 1600m, and Schwieterman placed eighth.
Senior Courtney Van Vleet placed eighth in the 100m hurdles. Van Vleet competed at state in the event her freshman and sophomore years, but spent most of last season recovering from a shoulder injury. She trained the last three weeks of the season and competed in the final qualifying meet of the season, falling just shy of a top 18 time.
Junior state qualifiers include McKenna Palmer (100m hurdles, triple jump), Shira Woods (400m, 800m, 1600m and 800m sprint medley relays), Kassidy Rapke (400m relay, 800m sprint medley), and Randi Rapke (3200m relay).
Other returning state qualifiers include Lightfoot (800m, 3200m relay), juniors Nora Dransfield (1600m) and sophomore Alexandra Eaton (400m relay).
Rounding out the roster are sophomores Taralee Mautz, Sabrina Leighton and Emily Miller; and freshmen Carly Horn, Jessica Deaton, Lyla Hayutin-Baril, Sadie Miller, Nicole Jefferis, Mercedes Norris and Alexis Newland.
On the boys side, Paonia can rely this season on points from its throwers, seniors Blake Benson and Warren Minerich, and junior Cyrus Malek-Madani. At Saturday's season-opening Delta Panther Invitational, Minerich had a seventh-place finish in the discus with a best throw of 120 feet, 3 inches. A bit rough, said Minerich. That afternoon he took silver in the shot put with a throw of 42-7.
Minerich is making the best of his senior year. In February he won the Western State High School Indoor Open at Gunnison, setting a new personal best distance of 46-3.
Benson took silver in the discus with a throw of 135-5, an inch shy of his state-qualifying season best throw in 2016. At Gunnison Benson tied his 2016 personal best in the shot put with a throw of 37-9.
Malek-Madani placed eighth in the discus and was in the top 10 in shot put.
Throwing coach Scott Rienks said that for the first meet of the season he was "very happy" with the throwers' performances.
Paonia placed sixth overall with 34 points. This year's team is heavy in distance runners, said Mitchem. One goal this year is to get a boys 4x800 relay team to state. The last year Paonia competed in the event at state was in 2014. Mitchem said he'll run two 4x800 teams in the opening weeks of the season to see who floats to the top.
Junior Cade Meilner is the top returning distance runner. At Delta Saturday, Meilner ran against top runners from Gunnison and Montrose to finish ninth in the 1600m and third in the 3200m, despite having only a week of practice after ending the basketball season a week earlier.
"I think we're definitely looking good to take a guys' four-by-eight to state," said Meilner. "I'm really optimistic about that."
Meilner also ran in the 4x400 and 4x800 relays. He said his main goal for the season is to focus on his individual events and qualify for state in the 1600m run. He is driven by the fact that he missed a qualifying mark by one second last year.
With two seasons ahead of him, Meilner also has his eye on the 1989 school record in the 1600m. With a personal best time of 4:51, Meilner is 17 seconds off of the record of 4:34. With two seasons to go, "I'd like to get my times a lot faster and start to creep toward the school record in the mile," he said. "Quite a ways to go."