PARKSTON — The starter’s pistol never fired for the 2020 track and field season. Now South Dakota’s prep track coaches are hoping for a dry spring.

With an entire season lost to the COVID-19 pandemic, track programs are hoping to use early-spring meets as a barometer for their athletes. Freshmen were seventh-graders and juniors were freshmen during the 2019 track season, which means coaches must decipher which athletes can be placed into certain events.

For returning athletes, early-season times and distances cannot be compared to last season and using results from two seasons ago can be inaccurate. For example, former McCook Central/Montrose standout Jacy Pulse, now competing for the University of South Dakota, won the 2019 Class A 100-meter hurdles in 14.81 seconds, shaving more than a second off her time (16.21) at the state meet two years prior as a freshman.

“Going from junior high to high school is a big jump,” MCM girls coach Doug Durfee said. “Getting them used to the track routine and high school meets is the biggest thing right now. You always want to build off of last year, but we didn’t have a last year. So, we don’t have any times to compare our goals. That’s why these early meets are important — so we can get some times down and see what we need to improve.”

Some coaches were concerned that a year layoff may cause a reduction in participation. Wessington Springs has 35 competitors on the boys and girls teams this season, but 17 are middle school students and seven more are freshmen.

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The coaching staff has spent portions of the early part of the season acclimating those young athletes with competing solo and ensuring they check-in for events on time and warmed up without being told to do so.

“Track and field is not a favorite for anyone to come out for,” Wessington Springs head coach Becky Bell-Krueger said. “You actually have to work hard at what you do. You are more independent, as well as part of a team. You really have to push yourself to get the results that you want. You can’t rely on four other guys or eight other guys.”

Ethan/Parkston head coach Joe Shepardson — formerly the Mitchell coach — believes the top-end athletes will shine regardless this season, but a gap is noticeable for underclassmen after missing an entire year.

During the Ethan/Parkston Relays Tuesday, several competitors record personal-best times and distances simply because they are older, bigger and stronger than the last time they were able to compete. So, rather than basing early goals off the previous season, Shepardson and his staff will create and change goals as the season progresses.

“It’s just being patient and telling the kids that,” said Shepardson, who is filling in for Jared Digmann, who was deployed to Africa with the South Dakota National Guard. “It’s been a while, so you just need to take baby steps. Some have taken big steps because it’s been two years. An eighth-grader has never had (high school) track before. You might have an eighth-grade girl that’s just starting to figure things out, and as the season goes, she might be able to help you a bit.”

Luckily, Shepardson has not seen a decline in participation, particularly since his pitch to kids if often that track and field can be used to improve in other sports. Shepardson does not mind if his kids acknowledge track is not their favorite sport, as long as they come out for the team.

“There’s the stigma of seeing people running non-stop, but yet in a basketball game you’re running several miles,” Shepardson said. “You have to learn how to compete. If you’re down in the finals of the shot (put) or the last 20 meters of the 100, you have to gut it out and compete. That will help you in those other sports. Track will do nothing but benefit you and we need to have more kids out.”