If a track athlete had a dollar for every time someone outside the sport asked, “You just run, what exactly do you do at practice?” he or she would probably be able to afford a new pair of spikes for every meet.
At Eau Claire North, the recent all-in dedication to the strength and conditioning program gives the Huskies plenty of answers to that inevitable question.
When Joe Eisenhuth took over as athletic director in the summer of 2012, he gathered coaches from all sports and asked for input.
“It was a resounding ‘We need something that’s unifying, and we need a strength program that is unifying,’” track and field coach Adam Sturgis said.
Six years later, the Huskies are enjoying the fruits of that labor thanks in large part to the individualization strength coach Scott Whirry has provided each athlete.
Whirry was North’s lone track state champ before Brock Holman’s recent success, winning the 1997 long jump crown before going on to an All-American career at UW-Eau Claire, where he is still the indoor long jump record holder. He returned to his roots after spending a decade and a half in the Louisville, Ky., area.
A guru at what he does, Whirry understands that high school bodies are still developing and that track and field provides a unique challenge in which many of the athletes have to train very differently. So he starts with the basics, using an Olympic-style lifting method instead of crossfit programs other high schools are turning toward.
“The program has main lifts that every group does,” Whirry said. “We might switch up the weights and reps for different groups, but everyone is trying to build strength. Since they are high school kids and not super advanced, they are all going to benefit by doing the main lifts.”
Since the Huskies began this program, success has followed. A track program that very recently couldn’t fill out enough of a roster to have JV teams suddenly has seen a plethora of school records fall and representation at the state meet. There’s 160 boys and girls on the team. With only two varsity spots per event, competition in practice has allowed for depth in all events.
That was evident when the Huskies swept the boys and girls team titles against some of northwest Wisconsin’s best competition on April 6 at UW-Superior’s Packy Paquette Indoor Invitational.
North got it done with winners in the short sprints, jumps, distance, sprint relays and hurdles, along with top-three placings in the throws.
“It’s really neat to see, and that’s one our biggest accomplishments as far as the culture goes,” Sturgis said. “The kids are buying into that. (The mentality of) I’m trying to be the best on our team and then the best in the conference, regional, sectional or state.
“It took them a very long time to understand that it’s OK to want to beat your teammate.”
■ ■ ■
Championships are won in front of thousands in early June. They’re earned inside with nobody watching when the sun sets before 5 p.m.
The Huskies have gone all-in on Whirry’s program in the offseason, and that’s the same for every sport.
With just two-and-a-half months of actual season, the Huskies get to Sturgis and the rest of the coaching staff already having a base. The top athletes can then focus on maintenance and mechanics. The car’s already put together, and track season is about fine-tuning.
“In the track season, it’s more than lifting,” Sturgis said. “They have to learn explosiveness and how to run properly and how to decelerate properly, jump properly.”
While those grueling days in January and February might make it hard to see light at the end of the tunnel, recent history has proven there is nothing but bright rays greeting the Huskies who go through the process come championship season. North has had a string of seasons in which athletes are peaking at either sectionals or state.
The boys 1,600-meter relay team from last year is a perfect example. Arik Skifstad, Braden Pick, Jason Voelker and the now-graduated Austin Werdin ran sub 3:30 midway through the year and worked it all the way down to a school record time of 3:23.59 in the state prelims.
“It’s kind of interesting,” Skifstad said. “Obviously in the offseason, we do a lot more right-to-the-point, harder workouts. And then slowly throughout the season, you can tell and it’s kind of nice that it starts tapering off. It really helps, because we start to peak and he turns down the percentages. Right when we need it the most, it starts paying off really well.”
Everybody’s body reacts differently to certain workouts, and understanding that has made this program tick. If someone has a tendency to have tight hamstrings, Whirry and Sturgis will realize that and adjust accordingly.
Kary Petricka, who won three events and was the meet MVP at UW-Superior, has found success with squats and base jumps with weights to really drive home explosiveness in her lower body. That’s helped her get off the line quicker.
“I definitely notice my 40 time dropping a lot,” she said. “(I’m) seeing that also on the track definitely.”
David Ecker, who has qualified for state in the mile the last two seasons, runs a high volume and doesn’t necessarily need to pound his lower body in the same way Petricka does. So he and the rest of the distance crew have their own program structured around stride length and running at a lower percentage at their top speed, which conserves energy. Ecker, fellow phenom Miciah Mills and the rest of distance crew are only in the weight room two days a week to compliment the higher volume of running.
Regardless of events, strength in track and field is a common denomoniator in some way, shape or form.
“It’s all about applying force and then applying it forcefully,” Whirry said. “So basically, the only way you can increase force production is by getting stronger.”
It’s created a competitive but fun environment for athletes to be a part of. And with everybody on the team getting equal access, it unifies the team and builds a culture of accountability, even with something as simple as recovery tactics.
“I think a lot it of has been with our new training,” Petricka said. “A lot more stretching, and now we focus more on the weight room stuff and not just running. And we have more intensity on the workouts. I think a lot of the new track things we’ve been doing have helped a lot.”