Just a 1A/2A school when it opened its doors in 1998, Northwest High School won its first track state titles in the girls 4x200 and 4x400 relays during the 2000 indoor track season. Through the end of 2010, Northwest girls could boast 19 individual and relay state titles in the school's first twelve years. The school had no track & field team state title to show for all of its success, however, they were not alone. No Montgomery County girls team had ever won a track & field state title in the largest classification, indoors or outdoors.
Coach Beth Muehl considers herself a "Title IX baby" having grown up a female athlete with excellent support from her coaches and parents. She is also a history teacher with an appreciation for all things historical so she was very much aware of the historical potential for this year's indoor state championship. Her expectations this season, however, were no different than any other year. It is Muehl's goal every year for her team to win the state title.
This year was different though. Olivia Ekpone and Britt Eckerstrom are two of the best athletes to ever come through Montgomery County. They are also seniors with one final chance to make a push for a team title. On paper, Northwest was the best public school team in the state from day one.
From the bleachers, Northwest sometimes made it look too easy, but Muehl described day to day training as a "nightmare." Icy temperatures through December and January confined the team indoors almost every day. Hallway sprints and stairs were status quo. If a warmer day came along, coaches would have to break the training schedule to take advantage of it.
Just prior to the county championship, India Knight pulled her hamstring. Muehl said it was like a kick in the stomach when she heard the news of one of her star athletes getting injured. The reality of the situation set in and she had no choice but to make contingency plans and move forward as if Knight would miss the rest of the season. Hamstring injuries have the potential to linger.
The hamstring injury may have been a blessing in disguise. Not only did the supporting cast step up their performance in Knight's absence, but Knight did all the right things and actually came back faster than ever. Muehl said Knight went to physical therapy, took it easy, iced, and was always honest with how she felt. Three weeks after the injury, she ran a personal best 500m time of 1:18.39 to easily qualify for the state meet, making Northwest the overwhelming favorite to bring home the state title.
Britt Eckerstrom had an aura of invincibility around her this season. She ran numerous 500's under 1:17 and routinely split 2:15 or faster on the 4x800 relay. After the Montgomery Invitational, she held the nation's fastest 500-meter time of the year (1:15.07) for a brief time. At the state meet, when she brought the 4x800 relay team into the lead from third place and six seconds back, it was not a surprise to anyone. She split 2:11 to win the race by four seconds in a season best time of 9:34.70.
Muehl said that race spoke volumes about Eckerstrom's character to win a state title for three less experienced athletes including two newcomers without thinking twice. Afterwards, she did what she could to cool down and recover. They knew that Udeme Akpaete from Springbrook had been closing the gap on her for the last several meets.
As much as she had improved recently with a personal best of 1:17.66, Akpaete still needed to run a perfect race to catch Eckerstrom who would typically be a good two seconds faster. In the final 100 meters, Akpaete was right behind Eckerstrom and summoned a surge of energy to move into the lead. Eckerstrom responded and dug deep but didn't have the legs. Akpaete finished with a two second personal best time of 1:15.27 while Eckerstrom finished in 1:15.82. Knight was a distant third in 1:19.35.
Everything went according to plan for Olivia Ekpone who won state titles in the 55-meter dash in 7.05 and the 300-meter dash in 39.32. She raised her individual state title count to eleven and also brought the 4x200 and 4x400 relays from behind to win both races. She went undefeated against Maryland athletes during the regular season and three days later ran a blazing 60-meter dash time of 7.46 against an elite high school field in Seattle, Washington.
Muehl says the thing people don't know about Ekpone is that she has goals every day and leaves practice every day faster than the previous day. Muehl says that she is a great teammate and a fun and happy person to be around, but approaches track as a profession and takes care of business when she is on the track.
The businesslike attitude seemed to be contagious when it was announced that Northwest won the 4A state title. Muehl explained that it was a long day and the team had an expectation to bring home the trophy so the enthusiasm and excitement was not there at first. It was on the way home that the reality began to seep in. She reflected not only on this season, but on 13 years worth of young ladies who laid the foundation with their hard work and commitment.
Coach Muehl loves the Green Bay Packers so much that she traveled to Dallas, Texas to watch them win this year's superbowl. When asked if she had to choose between a Green Bay superbowl win and a Northwest track state title, she said it was a tough call but chose Northwest.
Relays Relays Relays
Everybody knows Northwest's big three of Ekpone, Eckerstrom, and Knight, but Northwest did not sweep three relays at the state championship with only three girls. Here is a bit about the relay contributors.
Sophomore Hayley Henshaw stepped into the 4x200 relay during Knight's absence at the county championship and retained a spot on the relay through the state championship. She split 27 seconds.
Senior Sheridan Allen is running indoor track for the first time after first joining the team last spring. She brought her 55-meter time down to 7.42 and also contributed to the state-winning 4x200.
From cross country season we knew about freshman Naomi Sheppard. Her talent in the middle distance events became obvious through a third place finish in the 800 at the county championship and two relay splits at 2:25.
Tiara Wellman was a surprise freshman talent this season. Wellman ran 44.59 in the open 300 and split 60.2 on the 4x400 relay at the state championship. Muehl says you would never guess she is a freshman based on her poise.
Contributing to the winning 4x400 and 4x800 was junior Achankeng Acha-Morfaw who is always willing to try new things.
Katelyn Gularson is brand new to track and did not record an individual result all season. Muehl says the junior's learning curve is huge but got her 4x800 relay split down to 2:28 and ran 2:29 on the state-winning relay.
Basketball players Camry Torian and Kendra Meredith will return to strengthen the team this spring.