By BRAD KEITH
STEPHENVILLE (May 8, 2017) — As soon as Kylee Ponder shot out of the blocks to start the 100 meter dash in the Region I-4A track and field meet in Lubbock, head coach Mike Copeland had seen all he needed.
“She got out of the blocks one first, and I knew right then she was running all the way to Austin,” said Copeland, and he should know.
Copeland has spent most of four decades coaching track and field and has helped guide a handful of state champions along the way in an illustrious, multi-sport Stephenville High School coaching year that has already landed him a spot in the Texas High School Coaches Association Hall of Honor, the highest honor a prep coach in Texas can receive.
And he’s spent the second weekend in May in many of those years at the University of Texas in Austin working as an official whenever he isn’t busy coaching his own student-athlete at the UIL Track & Field State Meet.
“It’s the greatest high school track meet in the world and my favorite event each year,” said Copeland, currently head girls track and field coach as well as athletic director at Stephenville. “To stand beside one of your athletes and know first hand the amount of work and sacrifice they have made to be there among the final nine competitors in their event in the entire state, those have been some of my most favorite moments in my coaching career.
“I can’t think of a better individual honor for a high school athlete than to be introduced before a field event or to be backing into the blocks in front of the big crowd down at UT-Austin at the state track meet.”
He’s taking four athletes and their respective event coaches along to the 2017 UIL Track & Field State Meet, with 4A events set for Friday and Saturday at Mike A. Myers Stadium.
And Copeland knows all too well the adventures and obstacles each of the four navigated to arrive at the zenith of Texas high school track and field.
KYLEE PONDER, Girls 100 meter dash
Ponder has been in position to compete for a spot at the state meet each of the last three years. But injuries hampered Ponder, the daughter of Tarleton State track and field and cross country head coach Pat Ponder, at previous regional meets.
Not this time. Not in her senior year. Nothing would stand in her way when it came down to her last chance, not even an eleventh-hour mental obstacle when she had to quickly blot out thoughts of her 4×100 meter relay team being disqualified for a dropped baton before she ever got to run.
But Ponder put that behind her quickly, backed into the blocks, and charged to a time of 12.06 seconds, the second fastest of her career, to finish second in the regional finals, enough to automatically qualify for the trip to Austin, her dream destination throughout her career.
“Kylee is right up there with the fiercest competitors I’ve ever been around, and I’ve been around a lot of them,” Copeland said. “I’ve never been more proud than when I hugged her neck after that race, because I knew how she had poured everything she had into achieving a dream and then she went out there and made it come true.”
And to share the joy with her father, who has made a career coaching the sport collegiately, only added to the experience.
“I can’t imagine anything happier or anything making her daddy more proud,” said Copeland. “I’ve got to experience that one other time with a college coach’s daughter making it to the state meet, and I’m telling you it’s very special. Words can’t really explain it.”
Ponder knew the start was key, and credits assistant coach Jeremiah Butchee with working all the way up to the regional meet – and now again leading up to state – to tweak her takeoff out of the blocks to shave precious hundredths of a second off her time.
She actually shaved 32 hundredths off in the preliminaries at regionals, when she lowered her personal best from 12.36 all the way to 12.04.
“I was very nervous, but I just had to trust my start and run. I just knew I had to get a good start, and when I finished I kind of thought I was second, and they didn’t put it on the board right away so I thought, oh no they are debating, then it popped up I just smiled and thought, I’m going to the state meet.
“Coach Copeland has always been there for me, I can’t say enough about him or the influence he’s had on me as a person,” she added. “And Coach Butchee worked so much with me on my start and getting out of the blocks faster, and I just can’t wait to enjoy the experience being at state with them.”
NADINE ARREDONDO, Discus Throw
Nadine Arredondo saw a lot of highway during regional track and field weekend, and not just because it’s a long drive from Stephenville to Lubbock.
The senior was also starring for the Honeybee softball team that weekend, and even hit a grand slam on her way to seven hits and eight RBI in a two-game bi-district playoff sweep of Springtown. Game one of that series was the evening of Thursday, April 27, in Stephenville.
Following the 16-11 Honeybee win, Arredondo’s mother drove her to Lubbock, where the following morning she was in first place until the final throw in the girls discus. Arredondo, finished one foot from regional gold, but still took the silver medal to join a wide open field of competitors at state.
After her discus success, Arredondo and Mom were back on the highway, hurrying to Hawley, near Abilene, for the second game of the softball series. Fortunately, game three was not a necessity after the 17-7 Honeybee win in six innings, and Arredondo, was able to get an early start on her return to Lubbock.
The next morning, Saturday, April 29, Arredondo medaled again at the regional meet, placing third in the shot put and just missing double qualifying for state.
“Nadine, bless her heart, wants to do every sport she can and I don’t blame her,” said Copeland. “You’re only that age once in your life and you should make the absolute most of it.”
Early in the year, there was also powerlifting to work around, and Arredondo qualified for state in that, too.
“What’s so special about Nadine, is she is so consistent. You get the same smile, the same positive energy around her whether she’s on her first event of the weekend or the fourth,” Copeland said. “What makes her truly special is her ability to focus so well on what she’s doing at that moment, and then immediately move on to the next sport that day and focus just the same on it.”
Immediately following her performance, Arredondo was already looking at the state meet as next in a long line of great opportunities.
“It’s a great opportunity, just amazing. It was very intense, I didn’t think I was going to make it,” said Arredondo, who struggled in the prelims before shining in the finals at regionals. “I was very nervous (after the prelims), but I felt better after (throwing 126 feet, 1 inch). I always want to do al the sports I can and go as far as I can, so it’s great to know that I can finish this sport at state.”
Copeland expects Arredondo to be among the medal contenders at the state meet.
“I don’t know if we have ever really learned how strong that girl truly is, but I know I believe in her and I know she believes in herself,” said Copeland. “It just takes one great throw, that’s it, and I believe she’s still got something special in her and I’m just glad to know I’ll be right there watching at the state meet when it comes out.”
JORDAN CARTER, High jump
Jordan Carter didn’t travel with the track and field team to Lubbock, because of a prior commitment to a competition where she is an even bigger star.
One of the most celebrated Future Farmers of America competitors on one of the state’s traditional powerhouse teams, Carter began her weekend at Huntsville for the FFA state competitions. She was then transported to Houston and flew northwest to Lubbock, arriving the evening before her 9 a.m. high jump battle.
“We knew there was some questionable weather coming in, and all I could think about was that poor girl’s flight getting grounded,” Copeland recalled Monday. “When her flight to Lubbock went okay, I knew nothing else was going to ground her and she would go to state.”
Carter soared through the early heights and quickly found herself among the final five jumpers battling temperatures in the low 40s and the ever-present west Texas wind. She missed her first attempt at 5 feet, 3 inches, but cleared the height on her second attempt. Ally Andress of Glen Rose, a season-long friendly rival of Carter’s, was the only other jumper to clear 5-3, and the friends were soon hugging and taking the medal stand together for fun photos with friends and family.
Like Ponder, Carter also got to share the experience with her father on hand. In fact, as her high jump coach, Joe Carter was the last person Jordan spoke too before each jump and the first face she sought out every time she rolled off the landing mat.
“Oh it’s awesome, I love him as a coach,” said Jordan. “He’s always pushing me, making me better and now we get to go to state together,”
Carter also endured great disappointment, and now those memories only add to the joy of such high achievement. She was a favorite in the region last year, but missed out on reaching state.
“I’ve qualified three times (for regionals) and competed twice, and last year I really wanted to get to state, so when I missed out I was disappointed,” she recalled after winning regional silver on April 29. “But that just really motivated me this year to work my hardest every day so (Dad and I) could get back here and this time get to go on to state and we did it.”
BLAKE ARAGON, High jump
Following a sophomore season when his personal best was just 6-2, qualifying for the state track meet had to seem like little more than a day dream for Blake Aragon.
But that was eight inches ago, before Aragon became the No. 1 ranked 4A jumper in Texas.
The junior Yellow Jacket soared over the bar at 6-10 during the 8-4A district competition in Midlothian a month ago. No other 4A jumper has cleared a height above 6-8 as the final nine prepare to battle it out at state.
“I came into the season with my PR at 6-2 and ended up PRing by eight inches, and it was a lot of work to get there,” said Aragon after the regional. “Now, it’s just a mind set. I know we’ve trained my legs to get (6-10) and I know Coach Carter has taught me the form to get 6-10, it’s just preparing my mind and being ready to perform at my best when we get to the state meet.”
Copeland says he’s as proud of Aragon as he is any of the state qualifiers.
“What an improvement. He is the perfect example of a young athlete, and not just athlete, but a young man realizing his potential in something and then working hard to maximize that potential. That’s what Blake has done and that’s why he gets to finish his junior year in Austin,” said Copeland.
That, and great coaching.
“Coach Carter has just done a tremendous for years now working with our high jumpers, and we’ve had several good ones,” Copeland said. “Now he’s got not one jumper at state, but two jumpers in the same year, and that just shows the dedication he has to learning and teaching his event, and his dedication to working with his kids and motivating them to give him their absolute best when it matters most.”
All four Stephenville competitors will be giving it their absolute best this weekend, on the grandest stage in all of Texas high school track and field.
“It doesn’t get any better than this, and I couldn’t imagine any four kids being more deserving,” said Copeland. “These four just remind me again what I’ve known for many years now. Stephenville kids are some the best kids in the world, and they’ll work themselves to death to reach their goals. That’s why they are where they are. That’s why they get to finish the year down there competing with the best athletes in the whole state.”