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Pine Island boys track team ready for True Team stage once again

The Pine Island boys track-and-field team will compete in the state True Team meet for the 11th time in the last 12 years on Saturday in Stillwater.

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Pine Island’s Jesse Olson, left, and Stewartville’s Josh Langseth compete in the 4x800 meter relay during a Hiawatha Valley League Track & Field Championship meet on Saturday, May 22, 2021, at Pine Island Elementary Track & Soccer Complex in Pine Island.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin file photo
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Pine Island boys track and field under the 25th-year guidance of Matt Northrop has been special.

Tough to call it anything else considering the Panthers will have made 11 trips to the state True Team meet in the last 12 years. Pine Island makes its seemingly annual trek to state True Team site Stillwater High School again on Saturday, having earned the right by demolishing the field in last week’s Section 1AA True Team meet.

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In 1986, Linda Barsness set the girls high jump record at the Minnesota High School Track and Field Championship Meet. That record still stands in Class AA. She went undefeated in Minnesota high school high jumping for three straight years. And track probably wasn’t even her best sport.

Pine Island scored 624.5 points. Nobody else came close to that, including second-place Stewartville, which finished with 461.

So, just how is Pine Island — which will likely have the smallest enrollment of all 12 of the teams it will compete against on Saturday — getting this done, year after year?

Well, look no further than the spirited direction provided by the 47-year-old Northrop, whose voice cracks with emotion as he considers this latest Pine Island edition, one that includes his senior son Gabe Northrop.

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“Every year, we establish from Day 1 that we are a team,” Matt Northrop said. “We let these guys know that everyone is a part of this team. Yes, it is an individual sport, but it is a team above all else for us. We’ve done that ever since I’ve been here and it’s something the kids buy into. The kids know their job and their role. They also know the value of the work they put in. We’ll challenge you, but there will always be somebody ready to pick you up. They all pick each other up.”

The Panthers picked up something exquisite a year ago from the state True Team meet. It was a first-place trophy, the first time in program history that they’d finished as champions.

That title came while competing in the Class A division, as Pine Island has toggled between A and AA the last few years in a True Team meet that features three classes.

It also came without actually performing at state. The meet was a virtual one due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Scores were tabulated based on each team’s individual performances at their section meets.

When the math was complete, Pine Island had won its first state True Team title.

“It was crazy,” Northrop said. “We were on pins and needles as we saw those state totals coming in.”

With COVID-19 fears having abated, the state True Team meet will happen for real beginning Friday with Class AAA, then Saturday with Class A and AA.

As thrilling as it was for Northrop and his team to watch scores come in much like an election night, they’re thrilled that it is going to take an actual performance Saturday to come up a winner.

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“It will be a real breath of fresh air to actually be competing against the best this time,” Northrop said.

It’s going to be much tougher for Pine Island to emerge a champion in Class AA. Still, Northrop said his athletes are undaunted and giddy to give it a go.

In 2019, Pine Island competed in the Class AA division at state True Team and finished fifth.

“We’re excited about the challenge,” said Northrop, whose team graduated eight seniors last year and has 12 this season. “I think this year’s team is a little bit deeper than last year’s. And we still have outstanding senior leadership that’s been able to carry on what we do. Our expectation is that these guys are going to go out with a great legacy. We are loaded with talent and leadership.”

Byron girls, others state bound

Byron will be representing Section 1AA in the girls meet. The Bears, led by sophomore phenom sprinter/jumper Paige Halder, were impressive in winning the section title a week ago.

Halder was first in the 200, 400 and high jump. The Bears also won three of the four relay events, showing their depth.

In Class A, the Section One girls champion was Grand Meadow/LeRoy-Ostrander/Kingsland/Southland. It will be joined at state from Section 1A by wild-card teams Lanesboro/Fillmore Central/Mabel-Canton and Lake City.

The Section 1A boys True Team champion was Lanesboro/Fillmore Central/Mabel-Canton. Joining LFCMC at state will be wild-card teams from Section 1A GMLOKS and St. Charles.

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Rochester Mayo has advanced to the boys Class AAA True-Team meet, also getting it done as a wild-card entrant.

Each class has 12 teams in the state True Team meet, with four wild-card teams apiece.

The Class AAA True Team meet begins at 4 p.m. Friday for boys and girls. The Class A meet starts at 10:15 a.m. Saturday and the Class AA at 4 p.m.

Pat has been a Post Bulletin sports reporter since 1994. He covers Rochester John Marshall football, as well as a variety of other southeastern Minnesota football teams. Among my other southeastern Minnesota high school beats are girls basketball, boys and girls tennis, boys and girls track and field, high school and American Legion baseball, volleyball, University of Minnesota sports (on occasion) and the Timberwolves (on occasion). Readers can reach Pat at 507-285-7723 or pruff@postbulletin.com.
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