Last spring was a track season to remember for the Newman Comets.
The finish was most memorable, as the Comets added a boys track state championship trophy to all the other titles in the school's illustrious athletic history.
But with three-fourths of both the state champion 400 relay team and the third-place 1,600 relay team having graduated, and half of the state-best 800 relay quartet gone, there might not be as much pressure on Newman's returning athletes as one would normally imagine coming off a state title season.
"It's more motivation than anything else," said junior Nolan McGinn, who ran a leg in the 800 relay. "We lost some key seniors, and that means we have a lot of new guys ready to step up and show what they can do."
The loss of Nick Rude and Maison Bittner loom the largest. Rude was part of both state champion relays, and added a third-place finish in the 100 and a sixth in the 200. Bittner ran on all three of the medalist relays, and added a seventh-place finish in the 100.
Also take away Tyler Rockwood, who was on two of the three relays, and Alex DeForest, who took part in the 1,600 relay and was a state qualifier in the 800, and it would seem there may be too many holes to fill to repeat as state champs.
"We're not looking to an individual or two to replace all that talent and leadership we lost," said sophomore Brady Rude, Nick's brother and a member of all three medaling relay teams. "It's going to come down to all of us trying to improve, helping the team whenever and wherever we can."
Those losses show up mainly on the depth chart. Andy Accardi, entering his 21st season as the Comets' head coach, says that the plethora of sprinters has been whittled down, and knows Newman is going to have to rely heavily on some young, less-experienced athletes.
But what the Comets lack in depth and experience in places, they make up for with a deep reserve of distance runners and field event talent.
"We have a good core of kids back, and I think things will even out," Accardi said. "These kids have a lot of faith in each other, a lot of trust and belief. There's not really that feeling of trying to live up to last year, having that pressure hanging over their heads; it's more of an excitement to build on it, using it as an example to strive toward.
"Winning state isn't on my mind – it wasn't really last year, either – but these guys know what it takes to get down to state, and we want to keep that goal of getting as many kids down there as possible and have them do well individually. We'll find out what happens when we get there."
The key, according to Accardi, is the standard Newman goal of focusing in the small things and watching them add up. Instead of worrying about what's waiting 2 months down the road, he has the kids put on blinders and just focus on the task at hand.
For their part, the kids have bought in … and say track is an easier sport to do that with than others.
"You have to be patient, keep working hard, and just concentrate on every event, every practice, every meet," McGinn said. "It's different than other sports, where you maybe have fewer games or events and it's easier to take in the big picture.
"Our conference is tough, and we're going to see good competition and get pushed every time out there. That's only going to help us in the end."
And with third-place state finisher Erie-Prophetstown and fourth-placer Oregon also in the area – and bringing back loaded teams once again – some of the attention may wander away from the Comets.
Could it be they might actually be able to fly under the radar a bit thanks to their heavy losses to graduation?
"Because of what we lost, no one is really expecting as much out of us, so there's less pressure on us," Brady Rude said. "That's going to give us the chance to maybe surprise some people … and we're looking forward to it."
Living up to last year
• Newman won the Class 1A state title last spring, beating runner-up Monmouth-Roseville 41-31. The Comets won six medals in five events, including state titles in the 400 and 800 relays.
• Both individual medalists (Nick Rude & Maison Bittner), and at least half of all three medaling relay teams, were lost to graduation.
• Sophomore Brady Rude (400 relay, 800 relay, 1,600 relay) and junior Nolan McGinn (800 relay) are the lone state medalist returning.
• Newman also boasts returning state qualifiers in McGinn (triple jump), and senior Micah Trancoso, junior Bryson Reyes & sophomore Clay Jungerman (3,200 relay)