Whether it was running outside in sub-30 degree temperatures or competing in four events in six days due to rescheduling efforts, the athletes that pushed through to state-qualifying performances this particular spring showcased more than just talent, but an extraordinary willpower.
"It's been a challenging spring season," said Spring Lake girls head coach Mary Amy Bajt. "Luckily, we were able to get outside for most of it. There was really only one or two days that we were practicing indoors, which helps when you have a really nice aquatic center at your school to use in those situations.
"We just had to work through it and hope for the best. Since track is an outdoor sport, we just told the girls to dress for the weather."
Other than a March 22 indoor meet at Grand Valley State University and a bone-chilling March 28 meet against Holland, the Lakers didn't see true competition until after spring break. The squad was able to sneak in an April 11 conference meet with Allendale, but winter storms and snow flurries put the track season on ice until April 21.
By that point, the Lakers were forced to compete in four events in six days.
"The kids really rallied and were great for three of those four meets," said Bajt. "By the third meet of the week, everybody had PRs in an event. That was really cool to see. By the end of the week, however, we were pretty shot. We went over to East Lansing for a big event (Spartan Classic), and we didn't do as well as we would have liked.
"We had a 10-day lull after that, and we got a chance to collect ourselves and recover. As great as it was for the kids to recover and catch their breath, as coaches, we had to make sure they were motivated throughout that break. That was difficult at times, but the team really responded."
Spring Lake seniors Sophia Tardani and Rebekah VanDeWeg knew that stretch was going to be difficult but came out on the other side of it more prepared for the state meet.
"It was difficult because all of our important meets were in one week, basically," said Tardani. "We had four meets in a week, so that was a grind to get through. Now, we have to deal with the heat at practice as we get ready for the state meet."
"There's been a lot of challenges this season," added VanDeWeg. "It was tough dealing with the cold weather at first because our times weren't where we wanted them to be, but we pushed through it."
The Laker girls not only powered through the elements but cruised to the finish line at their May 14 O-K Blue Conference Championship meet, taking first-place team honors with an impressive 121-point outing.
At the event, VanDeWeg set a new personal best in the 100-meter hurdles (15.93), while Tardani had a season-best time in the 300 hurdles (48.49), as both veteran athletes took home gold medals in their events.
The duo teamed up with sophomore Sophia Tilton and senior Caroline Loiseau in the 400-meter relay to add another event win for the Lakers with a time of 52.91.
The team continued to carry that momentum forward, finishing fifth at regionals and adding some new PRs to their resumes.
Loiseau finished runner-up in the 100 dash (13.14 seconds) to qualify for the state meet, while Julia Bajt added a third-place finish in the 400 (1:00.71), VanDeWeg and Tardani both took third-place finishes in their respective hurdle events and the 400 relay team took a silver medal in their event.
The state-qualifying bunch then took on the 40th annual West Michigan All-Star Meet a week later, as bigger schools and faster competition saw more Laker PRs added.
Louiseau finished runner-up in the 100 dash with a new personal-best time of 13.11 seconds, and Bajt tried her hand at the 200 dash, coming away with a gold medal with a new PR time of 26.51 seconds.
VanDeWeg and Tardani would finish fifth and fourth, respectively, but the pace of the race helped both athletes mentally prepare for what they will see at today's Division 2 state meet at Zeeland East High School.
"The All-Star meet is a pretty good sneak peek at what you'll probably be running against at the state meet, as far as times go," said Tardani. "There's a lot of Division 1 kids there and it's an exciting thing to be a part of.
"I'm excited to run in the 400 relay because this is my first year running the event, so I kind of got thrown into it. I love it, though. It's awesome and it really pushes you as a sprinter."
"The All-Star meet helps us know what to expect," added VanDeWeg. "You don't always get a good idea of what you'll see at the state meet during the regular season, but the All-Star meet really helps prepare you. "I would love to end my career with a PR. When you're running against fast competition, it makes you move faster and pushes you, and I'm sure that is what will happen on Saturday."
For sophomore Sophie Tilton, the opportunity to finish the season on a high note is the goal.
"I really want to place, but it really all comes down to our handoffs," she said. "We all have the speed, but if one hand-off goes wrong, the whole thing gets thrown off. We're definitely going to try our best and we hope that's enough to place."
The Lakers' sprint squad was boosted by the addition of Caroline Loiseau to the 100 and 200 dash. The French foreign exchange student joined the cross country team in the fall but was more excited to showcase her talents on the track this spring.
"I run in France, so I'm used to running a lot," she said. "I really wanted to come out for track after doing cross country in the fall. I really enjoy the speed of sprinting, and I like to run fast. This season has been a lot of fun so far, and I'm just hoping to run fast again on Saturday."
"During the cross country season, Caroline looked at our record board for track and told Coach A (Aaron Andres), ‘I bet I could run that.' He told me that Caroline thought she could run that time in the 200, so we welcomed her to the team with open arms," said Bajt.
"She was coming off an injury, so she started off a little slow, but once she was fully recovered, you could just tell she wasn't kidding. She's had a great season, and she's a fantastic sprinter. She'll have a year of eligibility left when she goes back to France next year, and I'm sure this experience is only going to make her better."
The Spring Lake boys track and field team is headlined by twin brothers Andrew and Ben Hylen, who have helped push the distance squad for the Lakers into a formidable opposition.
Andrew finished 13th in the 1,600 run and 36th in the 3,200 at last year's state meet. After an impressive spring thus far, there's no doubt he'll be in the running to place this time around.
"It'll be a little bit of a different challenge, because the field I'm running against is going to be different, and the guys that are back this year are a lot faster than they were last year," said Andrew.
Much like the girls, the Spring Lake boys squad also hit their stride at the end of the season, finishing fourth at the conference championships and sixth at regionals.
At the conference finale, Ben Hylen finished second in the 800 with a new personal-best time of 2:04.58. Andrew won the 3,200 run (9:51.45) and finished second in the 1,600, followed closely by his brother, who came in third (4:38.74).
Senior Jason Keena won the long jump with a new personal-best score of 20 feet, 11.5 inches.
At regionals, Andrew won the 1,600 (4:29.08), while Ben finished runner-up (4:32.47). Andrew would go on to also win the 3,200 with a new PR time of 9:30.92.
Keena finished fourth in the long jump event with a state-qualifying mark of 20-9.5.
At the All-Star meet, Andrew finished second in the 1,600 with a new personal-best time of 4:26.42 and fourth in the 3,200 (9:40.34), while Keena finished fourth with a jump of 20-8 in the long jump.
"At the All-Star meet, I got a PR by two seconds in the 1,600," stated Andrew Hylen. "I didn't do as well in the 3,200, but that was the last event of the night, so I thought I did OK.
"I like the 2-mile more than the 1-mile run. It's more endurance based, and I feel like I can get into it more and there's more strategy involved. The mile just seems like a sprint when you compare the two."
When asked what it's like running with his brother, Andrew was quick to throw a friendly verbal jab.
"He's mostly behind me," Andrew said with a laugh.
"Well, I've been injured a bit this spring," Ben was quick to point out. "My whole side is sore at this point, and it's gotten worse as the season has gone on. "I'm just hoping to run better at the state meet than I did at the All-Star meet."
While the friendly rivalry has brought out the best in both Hylen twins, their offseason training between cross country and track seasons has also pushed them to new heights.
"Over the winter, we did some cross training, some indoor track events and some strength-band training, too," said Andrew. "We did more weightlifting this offseason than we have before, and I feel like that has made a difference."
As for his state meet expectation, Andrew hopes to place in the 3,200 race.
"I'm seeded third in the 3,200, so I'd like to finish around there and get All-State," he said. "If I can run a 9:20, I would be really happy. My PR right now is 9:30, so cutting some time off of that would be a great way to end the season."
For senior Jason Keena, qualifying for the state meet in his final season as a Laker has been the ultimate landing spot.
"It's very exciting. I've never made it before, so to make it my senior year is a fun way to go out," he said. "This season has been difficult. The long jump is a pretty technical event, so that was tough early on in the season when we were dealing with bad weather. Nobody was jumping well at that point though, so it brought everybody's marks down.
"Once the snow cleared up and it got hot out, I really found my groove."
Keena's personal-best jump of 20-11.5 that he set at the conference meet could be in jeopardy, as the future Ferris State student preps for his final attempts of the season.
"My goal has always been 21, so I'm right there," he said. "I feel really good about where I'm at right now and I've had a good week of practice this week. I'm just going to leave it all out there and give it my best shot."