Many chapters ago I talked about the sounds the large track crowds at La Crosse make when animated by tight finishes, sudden changes in momentum, and the sheer awe in being able to bear witness to something truly amazing.
I called it as “A collective gasp of disbelief.”
In my mind, and others may disagree, but prior to 2011, it had last been seen in 1997 when sprint star Michael Bennett of Bradley Tech and distance ace Gabe Jennings of Madison East were dueling comets of excellence flying higher and higher into the skies of history (and yes, Chris Solinsky was and remains amazing, but his was a more sustained brilliance, not necessarily made up of individual flashes of lightning).
Arrowhead boys coach Chris Herriot had the pleasure of helping with Bennett’s blocks at state in 1997 and said he will never forget the experience. “Three strides in and it was already over,” he recalled.
That was the kind of tingle and awe Dezerea Bryant of Bradley Tech inspired in 2011, the kind of reaction she was able to elicit repeatedly.
She was literally a woman among girls.
She already set state records in both the 100 and 200 dashes in the 2010 meet as the Trojans won their second straight D1 WIAA state title. That following summer her talent was honored by a slot on the American gold medal 4 x 100 relay that ran at the World Junior Championships in Canada.
But in 2011 she took a deep and memorable bow at her final WIAA state meet in La Crosse, an effort that left the 17,000-plus that attended the two-day event thunderstruck.
That’s because, five out of the six times she stepped on the track this weekend in the 100 and 200 dashes and the 4 x 100 relay, a new record was set. Argue with me if you must, but I still say Bryant’s 2011 takeover of La Crosse is the greatest single performance by a girl in WIAA state track history.
Because all three of the records she finally did set in 2011 are still there. Not because worthy challengers have not come along, they have, but simply because the marks are just that good, that transcendent.
To put it in context, she was ranked second nationally at the end of the 2011 season nationally in both the 100 and 200 while the Tech 4 x 100 reached sixth. Wisconsin athletes simply don’t do that very often!
And also remember, Bryant was the freshman lead-off of the Trojans’ still standing state record 4 x 200 relay in 2008 giving her four WIAA marks that have withstood the test of time.
We can argue further about the astonishing efforts of Brooke Jaworski of Wausau West and Roisin Willis of Stevens Point, among others, who were still years away from competing, but in my mind, the 5-1 flash of lightning Bryant is easily the best female athlete in the 30-year run of state track in La Crosse.
And getting back to the task at hand, Bryant and Tech were the point of the spear on a spectacular 2011 girls and boys state meet where an astounding 24 state records were set, sometimes more than one an event.
As I wrote in a column back then, anytime there are 10 or more records set at state, it’s a great meet. This one in 2011 was astonishing, especially on the girls front. It showcased seniors going out in grand style, it had underclassmen continuing powerful runs and it opened the door to amazing freshmen who would only get better and better.
At the center of it all was Bryant.
In accomplishing so much, so quickly in her valedictory season of 2011, she led Tech to its third straight state team championship, again turning back Arrowhead, just as the Trojans had the year before. This time it was by a 64-40 count.
A repeat state athlete of the year honor was a foregone conclusion for her.
It was only in her first race, the prelims of the 100 that Bryant did not break the sound barrier, clocking a still very quick but pedestrian by her standards 11.78 time.
Then came the highlight of the first day, a race for the ages, as Bryant anchored a 4 x 100 relay that included Elexis Fuller-Stewart, Tahje Whittley, and Angelina Howard that obliterated Milwaukee King’s two-year old state mark by an amazing 1.1 second with a national level time of 46.64.
Then for good measure, Bryant closed the day by nicking .03 of a second off her year old 200 standard with a 23.34 effort.
She and the Trojans would go much, much faster still the next day in the finals on Saturday contested on a warm and sunny day that was a sprinter’s paradise.
They would set four state records this afternoon, three of which still stand, creating levels of noise and excitement amidst the crowd that are still reverberating off of Grand-Dad’s Bluff today.
Bryant got things started by taking down her year old 100 dash mark of 11.5 with a sizzling 11.33 effort.
Then in the stunner of the day and in a race I will always remember because I looked up at the scoreboard and thought there had been a timing malfunction because the times were so fast, Bryant’s teammate Fuller-Stewart carved out some history of her own, as she beat two-time state 100 hurdles champ and standing state recordholder Marissa Savitch of Homestead in a race for the ages, as both shredded Savitch’s year-old mark of 14.52.
Fuller-Stewart hit the line in 13.89 while Savitch came across in 13.98. They were the first two girls in state history to ever go under 14 seconds for the event as Savitch had set the unofficial state best at an earlier meet with a 14.04 effort.
Tech coach Ken Williams always said that Fuller-Stewart, who didn’t even run the hurdles in 2010, had the potential for something great in the event in her if she could just get her timing down.
She did this day.
“It was just strange,” Fuller-Stewart told me. “I know I have the potential to do even better, but in this situation, it was definitely an honor and a pleasure to run against her (Savitch).”
Savitch, who worked hard to control her emotions after her bid for a three-peat in the hurdles fell dramatically short, was diplomatic.
“It was a great race,” she said. “Just good competition. I hit a hurdle early and that was that. …I was happy with my time but the most important thing was to win the race. The second most was to set a record. I’m all right. She (Fuller-Stewart) just ran a better race.
“…Funny, all spring long I kept saying ‘I want competition, I want competition’ and I got it.”
Inspired by that dramatic and unexpected win, Bryant and the rest of the Trojans created a couple of more gasp worthy moments this day. The next came in the 4 x 100 final, as Tech dropped more than a half-second from its day old mark with an astounding 46.02 time.
Bryant’s feet barely seemed to be touching the ground as the crowd carried her home on its echoes.
“She’s just unreal,” said an unnamed Hudson relay runner in the cool-down pit. No one who watched Bryant would disagree with her.
And as a final punctuation mark to her almost unmatchable career, Bryant went out with one more dazzler, dumping more than .3 of a second from her 200 mark, flirting with the crazy fast 23-second barrier before settling on a merely stunning 23.01 time that put the exclamation point on Tech’s third straight title.
Her entire performance truly was as Williams, who retired after the meet, had told his assistants before getting to the track Saturday morning “You thought records flew yesterday, records are going to fly today.”
My friend Todd Sommerfeldt at The La Crosse Tribune summarized Bryant’s weekend perfectly with this note: “The gasps multiplied and the buzz grew each time she approached the finish line and widened the gap between herself and the rest of the runners.”
Those were glorious days for Bryant. But about a year later, as she was just starting up a brilliant career at Clemson University her life would take tragic turns not once but twice within a year as two of her older brothers (auto accident and a shooting) were killed.
She dug down deep and amazingly battled back from all that horror but needed a change of scenery and transferred to Kentucky. In the end she would have a spectacular collegiate career, earning All-American honors 17 times culminating with a NCAA title in the 200 dash at the 2015 outdoor meet.
Bryant would go on to win the 200 at the US Nationals in 2019 and earned a bronze medal at the World Championships later that year as part of the US 4 x 100 relay team. She also recently married and is planning on making a run for the rescheduled 2021 Olympics.
From my vantage point, I don’t think she’s done eliciting sounds of amazement from people just yet.
HALAMA ALSO LEAVES ON A HIGH NOTE
Also taking her leave with a bang was Bria Halama of Independence/Gilmanton. She had already won three consecutive titles in the D3 triple jump going into 2011, and joined the elusive four-time championship on the highest note possible.
In doing so, she took down Deb Hafenstein of Waterloo’s 26-year old D3 mark of 37-3 by over a foot with a hop, skip and jump of 38-5. What made Halama’s effort all the more impressive was that Tessa Thurs of Edgar pushed her hard, also taking down Hafenstein’s standard with a runner-up showing of 37-7 1/2.
Halama also repeated as D3 400 champ and her mark in the triple jump would last for eight years.
But she was not done yet. Halama would come back to UW-La Crosse for college and succeed grandly. In her junior year, she was second in the NCAA DIII outdoor meet in the triple jump and then in her senior year she won the DIII national championship with a school record of 42-2 3/4. She also earned All-American honors in the 400 dash and as part of the 4 x 400 relay.
OBASIH GETS ONE LAST TITLE
The terrific Brookfield Central sprinter Chidera Obasih whose only mistake in her career was to come along at exactly the same time as Bryant and Tasha Allen of Milwaukee North was able to close out her career on a fine note repeating as D1 400 champion. The title gave Obasih five state championships over her four year career in four disciplines (100, 200 and 400 dashes and long jump). She was also fourth in the 100 and third in the 200 dashes.
She graduated still holding the state 400 dash record (55.18) and her team credentials were impeccable, as she led the Lancers to their only D1 team title as a freshman when she won the 100 and 200 dashes. Central was also second in 2009 and third in both 2010 and 2011.
Obasih started out at Minnesota but transferred to Indiana State where she was part of ISU’s Missouri Valley Conference champion 4 x 100 and 4 x 400 relays. She was also a three-time NCAA East Region qualifier and competed in the 2014 NCAA Outdoor meet as part of the Sycamores 4 x 100 relay.
BLAHNIK TAKES THE STAGE
And as Bryant and Halama were making sure their names would be cast in bronze for all of Wisconsin track history, others were ready to take their first steps towards similar glory and some didn’t mind if they upstaged older siblings to do it.
Zach Blahnik of Algoma would win D3 boys shot put titles in 2010 and 2011 and would go on to claim the discus title in 2012. Unfortunately for his long term notoriety, he was being chased quite successfully by his little sister.
Kennedy Blahnik came on the state stage in 2011 as a freshman in an impressive way. Usually big time and historic throwers take time to develop, but not her. She came into high school with strength, speed and technique that state level seniors would envy.
She entered the D3 record-books that year in both the discus with a 150-7 effort and in the shot put with a 47- 1/4 toss. Blahnik won by 20 feet in the discus and by a ludicrous six-plus feet in the shot. Both efforts were easily all classes bests that year.
She would later improve on both those marks and nine years later she has not been budged from the record-books yet
Further, to this day, Blahnik is the only thrower, male or female, who has won four consecutive WIAA state titles in either the shot or the discus.
And she did it in both.
DRAXLER’S DOUBLE RAISES EYEBROWS
There are logical doubles that track athletes pursue and excel in, 100 and 200, both hurdle races, the 800 and 1,600 and of course the 1,600 and 3,200. But in 2011 freshman Bonnie Draxler of Wrightstown didn’t want to go the conventional route. No, she had another plan, try the 400 and the pole vault.
Two exhausting events, one terrific athlete. She won both the 400 (56.28) and the vault 11-3 and also took fifth in the 100 as the Tigers edged Nekoosa, 31-30, for the D2 team crown.
Then Draxler kept on winning both events for another three years, becoming arguably the most unique two-event, four-time state champion in Wisconsin and in the end becoming the best girls’ pole vaulter in state history. She would also go on to have a spectacular collegiate career in the event (more on that later).
SEIDEL KEEPS ROLLING
The unstoppable Molly Seidel of University Lake School was not slowing down either. She broke the 3,200 record for the third consecutive year, taking down her own one-year old D3 mark with a 10:33.15 effort, winning by 28 seconds.
But in her most spectacular effort to date, she cleared the slate of Heather Murphy of North Crawford’s 20-year 1,600 standard by 10 seconds with an all-classes best effort of 4:51.54. Seidel won by 16 seconds and it was also her third straight championship in the event with a record that still stands nine years later.
WOODWARD MAKES HISTORY ON MULTIPLE FRONTS
But even as great as Seidel was, the single-most impressive distance effort in 2011 went to Allie Woodward of Green Bay Notre Dame. She was trying the challenging distance triple of the D2 800, 1,600 and 3,200 and was denied a second straight D2 1,600 title by Andrea Ostenso of Ladysmith by just .05 of a second early in the day on Friday.
Later that same afternoon, she put in a solid effort in the 800, but could only take eighth. But after what had to be a very good night’s sleep, she then came back with a purpose on the warm and sunny Saturday for the 3,200. At that point, she not only defended her 2010 title but also took down the records of not one but two Mt. Rushmore style figures in Wisconsin girls’ track history as she shattered Ashley Beutler of Belleville/New Glarus’ three-year old D2 record by an amazing 22 seconds with a 10:11.48 effort.
Woodward’s time not only took down Beutler, but also the legendary 26-year old all-classes mark of Lori Wolter of Sauk Prairie (10:15.4). So good was Woodward’s time that it still remains the all classes best. Interestingly enough, Ostenso also gave Beutler’s D2 record a run, as she finished second to Woodward in an excellent 10:35.25.
Woodward achieved this after a brilliant fall of 2010 where she won the D2 state cross country championship in her only year in the sport, becoming just the second girl in Wisconsin history to go under 14 minutes for 4,000 meters. Interesting enough, Seidel became the first girl to achieve that feat just a race earlier in the D3 championships.
A brilliant overall athlete, Woodward, prior to turning to cross country in 2010, was part of Notre Dame’s state D2 tennis team champions in 2009, playing third doubles. Following the conclusion to her high school career in 2011, she took off like a meteor, becoming the US Junior track champion in the 5,000 meters and taking eighth in the Junior World meet in the event.
She initially went to Oregon and had a spectacular freshman year, earning first team NCAA DI All-American track honors in the 10,000 meters and second team in the 5,000. And in the fall of 2012, she was PAC-12 freshman of the year in cross country and was a key part of the Ducks’ NCAA team championship.
But things changed for her. She transferred to Wisconsin, took a year off and ended her career quietly as a Badger. She now lives happily in New York City still following the Ducks and Badgers on Twitter.
EDGAR DOES IT: AGAIN
And oh yes, also in this busy year on the girls front, there was Edgar.
The Wildcats dominated the 2010 girls D3 meet with a still state record total of 114 points. They hardly slowed down in 2011, lapping the field with 108 points and far outdistancing Manitowoc Lutheran (49).
For the second straight year, they swept the 4 x 100, 4 x 200 and 4 x 400 relays en route to an impressive seven state championships. Meanwhile, their individual talent was equally brilliant. Faryn Wirkus won the second of three pole vault titles with a D3 record of 11-7. Elizabeth Pospyhalla also won the second of three titles in the 800 and Thurs did likewise in the 300 low hurdles, also claiming the 100 high hurdles.
And as it turned out, this sophomore and junior dominated team was still just getting warmed up when it came to state team championships.
4 x 800 EXCELLENCE
Platteville won the second of what would be three D2 titles in a row in the event finishing nine full seconds ahead of Dodgeville/Mineral Point with a 9:23.21 time, but the real story in the 4 x 800 came in D1.
No one in the 17-year history of the event had challenged the amazing record of 9:03.38 that Marinette had set in 1994, the first year it was contested. But in 2011, a freshmen/sophomore-dominated quartet from Neenah that included Claire Knaus and Jennifer, Jessica and Alison Parker became the first team to go under 9:10 since Marinette when it won with a 9:08.64 time.
It would be the first of four straight event titles for the Rockets and in 2012, that exact same group would take on history.
MORE HISTORY BEING MADE
In the D2 200 dash, Deysha Smith-Jenkins of Whitefish Bay Dominican was also feeling the speed, as she earned the second of three straight titles with a record time of 24.64 which took down Allen’s three year old mark of 24.79. Smith-Jenkins also took the first of two state titles in the 100 with a 12.13 clocking.
“This feels good,” she told me at the time. “Despite the heat, there was no wind and that makes it so much easier. The track felt great and everyone ran well today.”
OLD FRIENDS MEET AGAIN
There is just something about the girls 300 low hurdles that breeds powerful sectional and state rivalries. In 2008, it had been champion Lindsay Schwartz of Watertown and runner-up Callie Burrows of Menomonee Falls, who battled each other hammer and tongs all through qualifying and eventually the state finals.
And in 2011, it was champion Michelle Garner of Greenfield and runner-up Maya Carter of Racine Case. Garner, who won the second of what would be three state titles in the event this year, had beaten Carter by more than a second in sectional qualifying the previous week, but Garner knew it would be much harder at state because in 2010, she had edged Carter for the state title in the 300s by a mere .04 of a second.
And she was right on that assessment, as in just one more great race in those crazy Saturday finals in 2011, the D1 girls 300 hurdles was one of the really fun finishes, as Garner edged Carter by just a lean, 44.05-44.06.
Garner explained the rivalry after the 2010 state final: “She (Carter) and I just go back-and-forth. I beat her, she beats me. It’s just so crazy!”
And crazy good was the story of this 2011 girls state meet.
UP NEXT: Brookfield East boys win their first state crown for some old friends, Moehn and Monroe begin a long run towards long-distance excellence, Rosholt and Aquinas earn their first titles, Willis has a meet for the ages and Gilman runs one heck of a 4 x 400.