Southeastern Minnesota athletes make huge splashes in Division I track-and-field meets

Mar. 1—Southeastern Minnesota has forever been a hotspot for producing excellent boys and girls track-and-field talent.

That has rarely been more true than right now, with men and women from the Rochester area having had huge showings at Division I colleges in the last week.

That includes Pine Island graduate Jarod White setting the pole vault record at North Dakota State University during the Summit League indoor meet, Triton grad Nell Graham winning the 400 in the Summit League indoor meet for North Dakota State, Century grad Penelopea Gordon finishing second in the 800 in the Big Ten Conference indoor meet for the University of Michigan and Lewiston-Altura grad Marcus Weaver finishing second in the heptathlon in the Southeast Conference meet for the University of Arkansas.

Here's a look at each of these athletes and their most recent feats.

White showed up at North Dakota State one year ago with hype.

The Pine Island 2022 graduate was the state high school record holder in the pole vault, clearing 16-feet-9 as a senior. Until Century 2023 graduate Nathan Nelson broke it last year, he also held the state meet record.

White has since left his high school marks in the dust. He came up with his best performance ever this past Feb. 23 in the Summit League Indoor Championships in Fargo, N.D. He did it by sailing 17-7 1/4, breaking the 28-year-old North Dakota State record of 17-4 by Ryan McGlynn. It placed White third in a meet stacked with high-profile pole vaulters.

After some stumbles early in the indoor season, things had recently been going in the right direction for White. Still, he didn't quite see this coming.

"I can't even really remember the jump," said White, who now ranks top 30 in the country in the pole vault this season. "But after I cleared the bar and landed, I went ballistic. I ran off the mat screaming and tackled one of my teammates."

A year ago, White went 17-3/4 in an indoor meet and in the Summit League outdoor meet cleared 16-10 1/4.

It was a matter of getting his approach step downs that led to his school-record vault. White went from a six-step approach, which is normal for him early in the season, to a more powerful eight-step start Feb. 23.

"For some reason, my full approach (eight steps) had not been super consistent," White said. "I'd been working on figuring it out. It finally clicked in a meet for me. I was expecting to do pretty well, but I wasn't expecting (17-7 1/4) I guess."

NDSU pole vault coach Jackson Schepp believes that White is just getting started.

"Jarod has the best body control and body awareness of any athlete I've ever coached," he said. "The way he can manipulate his body is remarkable. I don't like putting ceilings on athletes. I have no idea what he might do. But I think he is just at the beginning right now."

Gordon put herself in the transfer portal last summer following her freshman year at St. Mary's College of California.

That was despite an extremely productive season for the Century 2022 graduate. Gordon, who finished third in the state meet as a senior with a 2:13.30 time, trimmed 6 seconds off that as a St. Mary's freshman and advanced to the NCAA Championships.

Still, she felt like she needed a change.

"I wanted to be closer to home," said Gordon, who wound up picking the University of Michigan. "My parents have made it to every race this season. Plus, I wanted more competition."

At Michigan, she is getting and giving that competition. That sure played out last weekend in the Big Ten Conference indoor meet at Geneva, Ohio.

Gordon ran a scorching and personal-best 2:03.94 in the preliminaries, then a 2:05.34 the next day in the final. Both landed her second behind Penn State's Hayley Kitching (2:03.59, 2:04.08). Gordon managed the 2:05.34 despite being tripped and knocked two lanes over during the race.

"I almost saw the ground there," Gordon joked. "But when that happened, I knew it was time to really go."

Those 800 races weren't nearly Gordon's only work in the Big Ten meet.

She also ran legs on Michigan's 4x400 and distance-medley relays, anchoring the former. When the meet was done, Michigan Associated Head Coach Mike McGuire couldn't name a better Wolverines performer.

"Penelopea had an incredible meet," McGuire said. "We had two individual champions, but when you consider Penelopea's entire body of work over the weekend, she was probably at the top of our list."

It hasn't taken Gordon long to fall in love with her new school and track program.

"I love Michigan so much," Gordon said. "I can say I am one of those people who bleed the Michigan blue. The academics here are great and the coaches are the best."

Weaver spent his first three college years at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Prior to that he'd been an all-around athletic standout at Lewiston-Altura, showing particular and diverse talent in track and field. He reached the state meet in the high jump and the 110-meter hurdles, placing fifth in the former with a 6-4 clearance.

Weaver was big (a wide-shouldered 6-4, 185 pounds), fast, springy and strong as a high schooler, and with plenty of room for more physical growth. In terms of track and field, the only thing seeming to hold him back from true greatness was commitment. Weaver allowed the sport to only be a seasonal one for him.

"In high school, I was definitely into sports, but I also liked to hunt and fish and do other things," Weaver said. "In track and field, the only real work I put into it was at practice. When the season was over, I just enjoyed my free time."

Weaver headed off to UW-Eau Claire ready to be a student and also a Division III track-and-field athlete. He wasn't really thinking about greatness in the sport until he'd competed there just a bit. Things started to immediately look good for him. Greatness was also starting to seem a possibility, on one condition.

"I began to realize that the only way to get where I wanted to be was with full dedication," Weaver said. "I needed to put all of my time and thoughts into track and field. You do that for 4 1/2 years, and I found out I could make it to places where I didn't think I could ever go. It's a cliche, but it's all about long, hard work."

Among those places that Weaver has found himself is on the awards stand during the Southeast Conference indoor and outdoor meets, a league that includes many of the best Division I track-and-field teams in the country. Among them is the University of Arkansas. That is who Weaver has been representing the last two years after transferring from UW-Eau Claire following three seasons there, the first one a wash thanks to the COVID-19 epidemic.

Weaver is fresh off a second-place SEC finish in what has become his signature event(s). That is the seven-pronged heptathlon during the indoor season, which then becomes the 10-pronged decathlon during the outdoor season.

Weaver scored a career-high 5,970 points on Feb. 24 in the heptathlon, leaving him only behind teammate Yariel Soto Torrado in the event as Arkansas claimed the top three spots in the heptathlon and also won the SEC indoor meet for the fifth consecutive time.

Weaver was no novice to big-time track-and-field success before transferring to Arkansas two falls ago. He won the Division III decathlon and javelin national titles in consecutive years at UW-Eau Claire. Still, he has to occasionally pinch himself that he has landed at Arkansas and is essentially tearing things up.

"I have to give a lot of credit to my coaches at Eau Claire," Weaver said. "When I was a freshman, they put a lot into me. They told me that I have some gifts and talents, but that I'd never see my potential if I didn't go all in. They helped speak (his success) into existence, telling me that I could be great if I wanted to be."

Weaver is now that and with hopes of becoming even greater. Giving him confidence that he can do it is an Arkansas multi-events coach (Travus Geopfert) who he considers phenomenal, all of his talented teammates and Arkansas possessing some of the best track-and-field facilities in the country.

Weaver is hoping to use all of that, plus his now undying work ethic, to come up with a top-eight finish this spring in the decathlon. That would make him a Division I All-America.

When the Summit League indoor meet finished up last weekend in Fargo, Nell Graham had a lot to celebrate.

The Triton graduate and fifth-year North Dakota State senior had led her Bison to the team title by finishing first in the 400 (53.82), third in the pentathlon (3,822 points), running the anchor leg on the NDSU second-place 4x400 relay team (3:42.81) and placing sixth in the 200 (24.79).

All of that brought on even more Graham celebrating a couple of days later, when it was announced that she was named the Summit League's Most Outstanding Performer of the Championships. Graham had won the same award after the Summit League outdoor meet last spring.

It's been quite a career for Graham. But it's the team stuff that drives her most. She says this Bison bunch is as close a collection as she can imagine.

"The team part of it is the best part," Graham said. "I'd do anything for my teammates. We all celebrate together. Winning team titles, that is what I'll always remember. Nobody cares about (personal records) here. They just want to do it for the team. When we say 'Bison pride,' people don't understand how important that is to us."

When it comes to Graham, it's NDSU assistant coach Jackson Schepp's hunch that people don't understand just how special she really is.

Her talent is undeniable, with Graham being one of the most dominant all-around performers that the Bison have ever had, including her qualifying for the NCAA national meet a year ago in the 400 hurdles.

But her athleticism and drive is just part of what has made her so revered in this NDSU program.

"Nell is a genuinely great person," Schepp said. "She is super humble and always has a positive mindset. She is always caring and cheering on others. She is the pinnacle of a team leader and so enjoyable to work with on a day-to-day basis."