Track and field: Sophomore Lucea Wales sets a new standard for Ashby-Brandon-Evansville
Wales was not even in track and field until her freshman season. One year later, she qualified for the Class A state meet in three events, overcoming facilities obstacles that some of the smallest teams in the state have to deal with without the use of a fully functional track within the program.
BRANDON — In the world of high school athletics, not all sports are created equal — specifically in terms of the facilities that student-athletes have to work with in some of the smallest school districts.
Conditions vary, but basketball players on Minnesota State High School League teams are going to have a gym to practice in. Softball and baseball players have fields to prepare on.
That’s not always the case in track and field. Not all programs at the Class A level even have a track or jumping pits to work with.
The Ashby-Brandon-Evansville program practices in Ashby with the use of a dirt track. There is a short long-jump runway to practice on, but the pit is not usable, co-head coach Zach Traphagen said. Throwers have a cement pad to work from for shot put and discus with a limited throwing area. A high jump pit is set up in the gym.
A-B-E is certainly not hosting any home meets on its schedule.
That’s why seeing the way sophomore Lucea Wales burst onto the scene no matter the competition has been so gratifying for the A-B-E program this spring.
“It’s a great feeling,” Traphagen said. “I can’t tell you how excited I am, how excited the other three coaches are. Such a good feeling. I do think sometimes kids go into these meets and say, ‘I don’t get all this nice stuff. I’m still coming out here and I’m going to kick your butt anyways.’ It’s a mentality we’ve tried to instill into them that we can still go out there and do these things. Would it be nice to have a track? Absolutely. But we’ve made things work so that she does have some ability to go out there and do well in the jumps.”
Wales will compete at the Class A state track and field meet at St. Michael-Albertville High School this week in three different events. She qualified with top-two finishes out of Section 6A in the 300-meter hurdles, long jump and 200-meter dash.
Wales became the first A-B-E track and field athlete to qualify for state since 2018, and the first to do it in a running event since 2015. She almost qualified in all four of her events from the section meet, but fell just short in the triple jump.
Wales finished third in a talented field of triple-jumpers out of Section 6A. Her top mark of 34-feet, 10-inches from the meet would tie her with Anna Hennessy of Lewiston-Altura for the fifth-best seed mark of anyone in the Class A state meet.
“My goal at the beginning of the season was to make it to state in one event,” Wales said. “Throughout the year, I realized it was possible to make it in three. Going into sections, I wanted to make it in all four. To be honest, I was pretty disappointed in my performance at sections. My distances and my times were not where I wanted them to be.”
A natural on the track
Wales has proven to be a natural in track and field and an example of why so many coaches at the high school level encourage kids to be multi-sport athletes.
Wales, who lives near Millerville north of Brandon, was always fast as a young kid, but she was a softball player in 7th-grade. It was not until her freshman year that she joined the A-B-E track and field team.
Both Wales and Traphagen pointed to 10 years of competing in gymnastics as being a great benefit for her on the track, both mentally and physically.
She’s fearless, Traphagen said. The flexibility and strength-building exercises she worked on as a gymnast translate to the track where she is a natural hurdler, triple jumper and long jumper.
“I think (gymnastics) really helps,” Wales said. “I’m in shape for it, and the power I have for running comes from that.”
Coaches immediately saw flashes of the athlete Wales was early in her freshman season. They had her training in mid-distance events like the 400 dash and 800-meter run, but Traphagen quickly saw potential in her as a sprinter in practice.
At a meet in Ortonville in late April, 2021, he decided to run her in the 200-meter dash to see how she would do. It was cold that day, and Wales ended up suffering a leg injury that limited her for the next few weeks.
“That killed her. You could see it in her eyes that she’s a competitor,” Traphagen said. “That’s when I knew this kid could be really special. She is about as competitive as they come. She has that mentality of, ‘I don’t want to lose ever.’ She is not afraid of hard work. She desires to be pushed harder and harder.”
That competitive nature has been a big part of Wales’ success and ability to overcome some of the disadvantages of being in a small program.
Wales and her coaches were making the nearly 40-minute drive to Fergus Falls from Brandon the evening of June 6 to practice on the Otters’ facilities ahead of the state meet. Traphagen called the coaches for Fergus Falls incredibly gracious when it comes to allowing them to do some work on their track when needed.
They rely on that to get a full practice routine in. During most of the season, Wales was not actually completing any jumps outside of meets. Traphagen said the team uses early-season meets as "glorified practices" in preparation for the championship portion of the season.
“I’ve had like maybe one practice of actual jumping,” Wales said. “It’s kind of hard going into a meet where everyone has been practicing jumping, and I haven’t done anything.”
One thing coaches can work on with her consistently is her approach to the jumps.
“We can figure that out in practice, and that’s a big thing for athletes,” Traphagen said. “They need to be confident in their approach, where they’re starting from and where they’re hitting the boards. She’s pretty accurate every single time, but in terms of jumping goes, we don’t have any way to practice it. A great jumper is normally going to need very good speed, and she has that.”
Just the beginning
Wales enters the Class A prelims on June 9 knowing she has to be at her best to advance to the finals in all of her events.
Her seed mark in the long jump of 16-05 is 12th best out of 20 athletes, while her 200 dash time (26.77) is eighth and 300 hurdles time (49.58) is 14th fastest. Good and bad, seed times going into the state meet have potential to be deceiving with high winds sometimes being a factor at section meets that are run on different dates.
“I want to make it to finals in everything and place,” Wales said of her goals at state.
Perhaps more importantly than what happens this week, Wales and her coaches hope her success this spring could be a springboard for A-B-E going forward.
It’s not unrealistic to say that making a state meet can feel out of reach sometimes for the smallest teams in Class A sections that often feature 20 or more programs competing for limited entries.
“I hope that it makes people realize that it is actually possible to go to state,” Wales said. “For our school, it wasn’t really a possibility for people. It was just kind of a meet that only the top athletes make it to. Hopefully they realize they can do it too.”
Traphagen is in his final season coaching and teaching in Brandon-Evansville. He will take a teaching and head boys track and field coaching position at Minnewaska Area High School next school year, but that does not change what he wants to see from this A-B-E program.
“For me, it’s really gratifying being my last year here that we could get someone through to state,” he said. “I’m hoping that lays the foundation where they can just keep building off of that. I want to see the Ashby-Brandon-Evansville team competing with the Minnewaskas, the top teams and the bigger schools because I do think there are enough athletes here. We just need to get them more exposed to it.”
This season figures to be just the beginning for Wales’ success in the sport. She wants to compete in track at college in a few years. First-place finishes at the section meet and program records, in addition to the 200-dash A-B-E record (26.22) she already has, are her goals.
A challenge for coaches going forward will be figuring out the four events at a section meet that will allow Wales the best chance at advancing and placing high at state. Drive, competitiveness, athleticism — Traphagen said she has all of what it takes to thrive at the Class A level.
“She’s natural, but she’s very coachable. She soaks everything up. She listens, she makes changes, she doesn’t complain or second guess,” Traphagen said. “If she keeps that same mentality, I think she will end up in her career as a state champ. I’m not afraid to say that. If she keeps going on the road she’s going and she stays healthy, stays focused, that’s a very good possibility she’ll be at the top of the podium one of these years or multiple years.”