Watford City track and field lost several important athletes to graduation last spring, but on Thursday at the Minot State Dome, the Wolves asserted themselves as the North West Region's team to beat.
Both the boys and the girls teams triumphed over the competition by considerable margins at the Northwest Conference Indoor meet.
"I'm seeing our kids do some really good things," said David Gumke, Watford City boys coach, "and that makes me excited about what we're gonna be able to do as a team."
Watford City’s Brenden Leaming, right, rounds the corner next to Des Lacs-Burlington’s Will Burke during the 4x1 lap relay Thursday at the Minot State Dome. Leaming later took first in the 200-meter sprint (24.96).
Watford City sophomore Asha Smith broke two of her own meet records by a combined 29.68 seconds, winning the 1,600 and the 3,200 with ease. Smith also belonged to the winning 1,600 relay team.
The Watford City boys finished with 139 points, 25 ahead of second-place Velva. The girls' gap was even more severe: Velva took second with 63 points; the Wolves scored 164.
"We gained some new girls that look like they're gonna be able to help us out quite a bit," said Watford City girls coach Greg Brown, who led the Wolves to a third-place finish at the Class B state meet last season. "We have enough people around. We just have to put the pieces together now."
Brown admits that it will be difficult for his team to return to the level it reached in 2013, particularly after losing senior McKayla Haugeberg.
Haugeberg, who captured the state title in the javelin and pole vault, racked up 24 of her team's 60 points at the state meet.
"I don't know if you can ever really replace McKayla," Watford City sophomore Asha Smith said. "We're just gonna have to build up the younger kids, try and find out what they're best at, and that will definitely bring in more points. As for us older kids, we need to give it our all every time."
Fortunately for the Wolves, Haugeberg wasn't even their top point-scorer at state. Smith was.
As a freshman, Smith won state in the 1,600-meter run, 3,200 and took fourth in the 800.
She kicked off her season Thursday with wins in the 1,600 (5:26.90) and 3,200 (12:05.32), breaking her own meet records by a combined 29.68 seconds.
"(State) is definitely one of my goals," Smith said, "and I also want to have fun doing it."
Watford City senior Haley Moe is another key performer for the Wolves.
The defending regional champion in the high jump, Moe took the top spot in the same event on Thursday with a jump of 4 feet, 11 inches - the same mark she managed at last season's state meet, where she tied for ninth.
"We're all pretty excited for this year," Moe said. "Even though this is the first meet, we're all still out here cheering each other on, and for me, I love that.
"I think that if we keep up the teamwork, we can go as far as we want."
Moe also took first in the 400 (1:09.59).
Out of the 15 events, the Watford City girls registered nine first-place finishes.
The Watford City boys also enjoyed a successful day, finishing with three victories.
The Wolves, who took fifth at state last season, anticipate a difficult road back to state.
Watford City earned 24 points in individual events at the 2013 state meet, all of which were won by either senior Tyler Bates, the 400 champion, or senior Guy Ross, who took fourth in the 800.
"Those guys scored a lot of points for us, and those are tough points to replace," Gumke said. "But we've got some young kids that are still going to develop and come along. I still think we'll be competitive."
Gumke is confident that the young athletes that he currently has will fill the void as they continue to mature and improve.
"With age and work, they'll start to come into their roles and get better," Gumke said. "We've got our work cut out for us to get these kids to live up to those standards, but I think we can do it."
Joe Mellenbruch covers high school sports and general assignments. Follow him on Twitter @Mellenbruch_MDN.