North St. Paul's Brianna Parsons (left) has a chance to join Jebeh Cooke, J'Ianna Cager and Shaliciah Jones on the Polars relay team. Cooke, Cager and Jones are members of the relay teams that won both the 4x100- and 4x200-meter relays at the state meet
The North St. Paul girls’ relay teams won two state track titles last year and three of the four runners returned to compete this year.
That’s led to a lot of new faces vying for one open spot.
The three athletes who returned, sophomore Shaliciah Jones, junior J’ianna Cager and senior Jebeh Cooke, helped the Polars win the 4x100- and 4x200-meter relays in the Class 2A girls’ state track and field meet last season. Eighth-grader Alexis Pratt also was on those relays, but she is attending Stillwater High School this school year.
Polars coach Todd Wallert has yet to find a permanent replacement for Pratt. He plans to try different athletes on those relays as the season progresses. Wallert said track and field is a good sport for that because he can line up potential competitors and have them race.
“What it’s been for the kids is very exciting, because all of a sudden your next five or six kids are trying to earn that spot,” Wallert said. “We have kids working very hard and know that if they can be the No. 4 person, what a great opportunity it is.”
One potential replacement, eighth-grader Tamia Horton, tore her ACL playing basketball, so she is out for the season. Wallert said Horton was likely the next person in line for the spot.
Another prospect is junior Brianna Bixby. Wallert said she could earn the leadoff spot this season based on her indoor times. Cooke said Bixby sometimes ran with the relay group last season when other runners were injured.
“It will take some time,” Cooke said. “We’ve had some issues, but we’ve figured it out, where [Bixby] is.”
Even with a new runner in the lineup, the relay group picked up right where it left off last season. Facing some of the state’s best teams in the Hamline Elite Meet on April 27, the Polars placed first in the 4x100 relay with a time of 48.83 seconds.
“It’s been different,” Cager said. “Right now, we’re still getting used to how things are going to work with different people.”
Cooke, Jones and Cager don’t talk to Pratt, their teammate, as much anymore. But the four still like each other’s photos on Instagram and occasionally communicate via Snapchat.
“If she runs summer track I’ll see her again,” Jones said of Pratt. “We’re just in the same age group; she’s a competitor for me.”
Pratt, who also wanted to play basketball at Stillwater, said it was tough adjusting at first because Stillwater’s teams are bigger. But it’s been easier in her second semester.
“I was shocked that I was going to go there. I didn’t really think I was,” said Pratt, who called it her parents’ decision. “I just thought it would be a little bit weird, not knowing people and stuff like that.”
Wallert said last week that the team is sticking with the same relay lineup, then switching it up this week to work in new athletes before the conference meet.
The weather delays have helped the team from a lineup standpoint because a cast of new faces can practice more before competing in meets. However, Wallert said he would rather have more times from meets to compare the athletes, as opposed to more practices. The Polars have competed in four meets so far while four others have been canceled.
Besides Bixby, Wallert said, Hayley Pedersen, Brianna Parsons, Colette Anigbogu and Lauren Stenman are all possible candidates for the final relay spot.
“The girls know that the pressure is on,” Wallert said. “Those next group of girls are all racing head to head and want to compete well, so it’s created a good atmosphere.”
Jack White is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.