MONTICELLO — In Class 2A girls track, it's hard to imagine building a team contending for a state title with just 22 athletes.
But that's just what Monticello's coach Cully Welter has done the past two seasons.
Last year's team finished sixth overall at the Class 2A tournament and this year the Sages improved to third overall, the best finish in program history.
In an impressive feat, all nine girls competing in the first day of the state tournament advanced to the finals.
"We came close to doing that last year and we were ecstatic last year because so many girls made it. This year we did even better and were perfect from Friday to Saturday and then we upped it and got some seconds and third-place finishes," Welter said.
Welter's exceptional team management made him the Herald & Review Area Girls Track Coach of the Year, an award he also won last year. As the head coach of Monticello's football team, Welter guided the Sages to the Class 3A State title and also won the Area Football Coach of the Year.
At the start of the season, Welter was uncertain of his track team's prospects.
"We graduated some kids last year and so we weren't sure if we were going to be as good this year and it turned out we were better this year," Welter said. "We figured out that early in the indoor season. I said, 'Wait a minute, the girls we had coming back were improving and getting better and they were already pretty good.' We had a couple other surprises and next thing you know we thought we had a legitimate chance of being better than we were last year."
After winning a fifth consecutive sectional title, in total nine girls competed in 10 events at state — pole vault, 100-meter hurdles, 300-meter hurdles, 100-meter dash, 200-meter dash, 1,600 meters and the 4x100, 4x200 and 4x800 relays — an accomplishment Welter relishes.
"A lot of times in the state meet, teams win with a small number of girls but we felt like we had a lot of kids contribute this year," he said. "That's the thing that I take the most pride in."
Top finishers included Emelia Ness (silver medals in the 100 and 300-meter hurdles), Mattie Lieb (fourth in the 200-meter dash) and Landis Brandon (fifth in the pole vault).
The team's lone senior in the finals, Alyssa McPike, finished seventh in the 1,600 meters.
"Our girls team, the last four or five years, has relied very heavily on sprints and hurdles and jumps, and Alyssa was kind of our whole distance team in a way. In my opinion, she graduates as the best distance runner in Monticello history," Welter said. "She also brought a pretty solid group of younger girls along this year and mentored them and we look forward to feeling that impact in the future."
The move from sixth to third at state, and many key performers reaching their senior year, has the Sages poised to make a final jump to the top of the podium next season.
"We really feel like that group has been such a staple of our program now going onto their fourth year and I know a lot of schools think they have been here forever," Welter said. "If we can improve a little bit on their success last year and see some improvement, and if we add a couple of eighth-graders, I feel like we have a pretty good chance of being good again."