By BRAD KEITH
STEPHENVILLE (MAY 22, 2017) — Kylee Ponder reached the zenith of high school track in Texas under legendary coach Mike Copeland, who she lists as the second most influential man in her life.
The only man more influential on the Stephenville senior and 4A girls 100 meter dash state qualifier will be her college coach.
Kylee signed a national letter of intent Monday morning in the Mike Copeland Athletic Complex to run for Tarleton State, whose head coach of track and field and cross country is Pat Ponder, Kylee’s father.
“Coach Copeland has been like a second dad to me and so has Coach (Jeremiah) Butchee,” said Kylee. “It will be fun to go from that to being coached by my real dad.”
Among the many hats worn in his long career, Copeland, now the athletic director and head coach of girls track and field at SISD, was defensive coordinator for state championship football teams his son, Mitch, starred on. He understands what it means to coach your own child.
“I know it was special for me when I got to coach mine, and I’m sure this is very special for Coach Ponder to now get to coach one of his own,” said Copeland. “Not a lot of people get to compete for their dad, and I think she’s really looking forward to that.”
Kylee became one of the most decorated sprinters this century at SHS. She finished her career running among the final nine in her conference statewide in her primary event after also anchoring the Honeybee 4×100 meter and 4×200 meter relay teams to the finals at the Region I-4A meet in Lubbock last month.
She says the moment she crossed the finish line during the running finals at Lowrey Field and realized she was headed from Lubbock to Austin for the state meet was also the moment she knew she wanted to run in college.
“I guess after qualifying for state I felt like it’s more realistic that I can run in college,” she said as her coaches, parents and several high school track and field teammates celebrated alongside her Monday. “So I told my dad I really do want to run, and he was excited.”
Kylee also played volleyball at SHS, where she lost her junior track season – when she was also expected to compete for a spot at state – to a knee injury suffered on the opening day of practice in January, 2016.
Back and healthy this season, the Honeybee sprinter was on a mission. She was the fastest woman in 8-4A, winning the 100 in the district meet at Midlothian Heritage. She was second fastest at the 7-4A and 8-4A area meet in Springtown, and second again at the Region I meet, finishing behind new regional record holder Alexis Brown of Kennedale each time.
Great competitors seem to have a knack for saving their best for last, and that’s exactly what Ponder did in the postseason. Not so much literally, as her best time did not come at the state meet, where she finished ninth competing on the final night under the lights at beautiful Mike A. Myers Stadium. But her biggest improvement came before her last chance to get to the University of Texas campus to compete in one of the state’s marquee prep athletic events.
Ponder finished the 100 in 12.36 seconds at the area meet on April 18. With 10 days before the Region I meet in Lubbock, Ponder and her coaches knew the time for getting much faster physically had come and gone, so she went to work on the one key element to the sprints that can make or break you right at the start of any race.
She worked with Butchee on technique and explosion out of the blocks, and the result was stunning – a 32-hundredths of a second reduction in time for a personal-record 12.04 in the regional preliminaries on April 28. Roughly 24 hours later she turned in a time of 12.06 in the finals, and Copeland says once he saw her come out of the blocks in first he knew she was running all the way to Austin.
“Coach Butchee worked with me on my start and getting out faster, so I have to give him a lot of credit,” Kylee said. “I can’t imagine having better high school coaches than him and Coach Copeland.”
College coaches are normally not allowed to attend the signing of a national letter of intent by a high school prospect, but an exemption in the case of the coach being a parent meant Pat Ponder was able to be there with his wife, Michele, alongside their daughter, the newest TexAnn.
Pat declined to comment, as he was uncertain if the exemption allowed interviews or just his presence. He has been the head coach at Tarleton for 10 years, guiding athletes to national and conference championships and numerous All-America honors.
Kylee says she will major in biomedical science and plans to pursue a medical degree.
Copeland believes she will continue to succeed on the track and off.
“She’s one of the greatest competitors I’ve ever been around,” said the veteran of more than four decades in coaching. “The way she works every day, she will succeed no matter what she does.”