PELLA—Even with the graduation of a three-time national champion, with talent across the board entering 2020, there is optimism for the Central College men’s track and field team and second-year coach Brandon Sturman.
After sweeping the 2018 indoor and outdoor conference titles, Central was hit hard by graduation. A young Dutch team still managed a 24th-place NCAA Division III outdoor finish last spring behind decathlon champion Will Daniels, although the squad endured some growing pains in slipping to an uncharacteristic fifth in the American Rivers meet.
This year’s squad is headlined by All-American high jumper Drake Lewis and all-conference runner Will DeHaan. Another all-conference honoree, senior thrower Nathan Fitzgerald, will join the team during the outdoor season.
“I think we’ve added some depth in the sprints, jumps hurdles,” Sturman said. “The goal right now is to stay healthy, especially the distance runners. We need some of younger athletes to step up.”
Middle-distance and distance
This area has long been a strength for the Dutch men’s program, including Kyle Pape’s appearance at last year’s NCAA Division III Indoor Championships in the 800-meter run. Pape anchored the 4x800-meter relay team to an outdoor conference title as the Dutch scored in five of six distance events.
“We’ll continue to lean on the distance crew,” Sturman said. “We had some injuries last year but we seem to be healthier this year.
Daniel Sunvold (senior, Monroe, Southeast Polk HS) and Nate Sanders had breakout cross country seasons with Sanders earning all-conference honors. Preston Kizer missed most of last track season but is expected to headline the middle-distance races alongside DeHaan.
“Daniel and Nate will help us in the longer distances,” Sturman said. “Will and Preston will lead the pack in the middle distances.”
A deep group of distance runners also includes 10 additional returners and seven freshmen.
Lewis missed most of the indoor season in 2019 as a member of Central’s basketball team. His first competition was at the indoor conference meet where he placed fifth in the high jump. He won the outdoor crown and then landed on the All-American podium at the national meet, finishing eighth after clearing six feet, eight inches. He’s focused solely on track and field this season.
“Drake is super talented and he’s built for high jumping,” Sturman said. “He’s really motivated this season.”
Brock Lewis, who has given up basketball this year as well, was fifth in the conference long jump during the indoor and outdoor season. He also was eighth in the triple jump indoors, the event Sturman sees even greater potential for him.
“Our focus this year is consistency on his approach,” Sturman said. “We’ll continue to develop his speed and strength. He has the ability in both events.”
Jordon Woods is poised for one final season in the horizontal jumps
“Jordon has plenty of power, it’s just about being consistent,” Sturman said. “We’ll be a little more focused on his approach and trying to keep him healthy.”
Central returns five-time all-conference thrower Fitzgerald in the outdoor season. He finished third in the outdoor shot put and seventh in the discus.
“Nathan is going to be our go-to guy during the outdoor season,” Sturman said. “We’ll be focused on getting him qualified for the national meet.
Just a sophomore, Theo Baldus will be the veteran during the indoor campaign and Sturman likes what he sees.
“We’re excited about Theo,” Sturman said. “He’s really taken to the hammer throw and weight throw.”
Behind Baldus and Fitzgerald, some unproven commodities are gaining steam.
“The men’s throws are definitely an area we’re still trying to improve upon,” Sturman said. “We’ve picked up some younger guys that we are working with.”
Tanner Johnson was an all-conference performer in the pole vault as a freshman in 2018. He’s vying to improve upon his fifth- (indoor) and sixth-place (outdoor) outings from 2019.
“We’ll rely on him in this area,” Sturman said. “He’s our main guy.”
Nick Thompson is the only other returner to have competed in the pole vault and is primarily a multi-event athlete.
Three-time national champion Daniels has graduated but Thompson has shown great improvement. He was sixth in the indoor conference heptathlon and seventh in the outdoor decathlon last year. Sturman is also excited about freshman Lucas Heitz.
We have a lot of potential with those two,” Sturman said. “They can definitely help us, especially down the road as they learn and improve.”
Senior Cory Suedmeier contested a wide range of events last year, from the 60-meter dash to the 400-meter dash. Sturman thinks a more targeted approach will benefit him this season.
“We’ll focus Cory around the 400’s this year,” Sturman said. “Last year I wasn’t really sure where he fit best.”
Alec Stahl is also a candidate for the 400-meter races and will also extend out to 800 meters.
Jacob Dick, Woods, and Brock Lewis will factor into the equation for the shorter sprints.
Sturman also cites a very strong class of newcomers.
“We have a lot of good freshmen who can add depth,” he said. “I think maybe one or two of them could really pop out at conference.
Danny DeVenuto is Central’s top returner in the 110-meter hurdles having just missed scoring at last year’s outdoor conference meet. Drake Lewis is also a strong hurdler and Heitz is expected to excel in this area as well.
Carter Tryon, was the only Central hurdler to compete in the 400-meter hurdles during the outdoor season in 2019 and finished seventh in the conference meet.
“I think we’re pretty pleased with the talent we have coming back,” Sturman said. “There’s a lot of depth and I think several of them can really make an impact for us.”
Central expects to begin the climb back to the top of the American Rivers Conference this year. Loras College is in the preseason NCAA Division III top-10 according to the United States Track and Field Cross Country Coaches Association and will be among the conference favorites.
Three other league schools, Wartburg College, University of Dubuque and Nebraska Wesleyan University, are in the top-55 nationally.
“It will be interesting at conference,” Sturman said. “We’ve still got a few holes to fill in certain areas but if we can get some of our younger athletes to step and maybe sneak a few points, that could really help us be competitive.”