Hurdlers run exercises during a track and field practice after school at Lake Stevens High School in Lake Stevens, Washington on Wednesday, March 22, 2023. The team has over 300 members. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Hurdlers run exercises during a track and field practice after school at Lake Stevens High School in Lake Stevens, Washington on Wednesday, March 22, 2023. The team has over 300 members. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Viking army: Lake Stevens track and field team boasts 344 members

The staggering turnout creates many challenges the Vikings’ coaches are happy to take on.

LAKE STEVENS — Jeff Page has experienced plenty in over 40 years of coaching track and field in the Lake Stevens School District.

Yet he’d never seen anything quite like the small army of student-athletes turning out for this season’s Lake Stevens High School squad.

It’s been a busy spring for Page and his staff. The Vikings had a whopping 344 athletes on the opening day roll sheet between their boys and girls teams — a program record and 60 more than the previous high a season ago.

“I was just blown away by it,” Page said. “I just don’t quite understand.”

The team’s immense size is evident on afternoons at the school’s stadium. When Page gathers the team on a grassy hill just to the west of the field, the team resembles what could be mistaken as an outdoor assembly for some smaller schools.

After training starts, seemingly every inch of the stadium is in use.

“Most track practices you look at certain parts and it’s empty,” Page said. “Here you’re looking and you don’t see an empty area.”

Page recalled the end of an early season practice when most athletes have typically finished training with their groups and already left for the day. But the Vikings still had over 150 kids on the track with just 5 minutes until the session’s official end.

“That’s a big team by itself,” Page said with a laugh.

Track and field athletes listen to coaches speak during practice after school at Lake Stevens High School in Lake Stevens, Washington on Wednesday, March 22, 2023. The team has over 300 members. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Track and field athletes listen to coaches speak during practice after school at Lake Stevens High School in Lake Stevens, Washington on Wednesday, March 22, 2023. The team has over 300 members. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

So, why has the team become so massive?

There are a number of different factors.

Lake Stevens is one of the state’s biggest high schools with an enrollment of 2,141 students for the 2022-23 school year, according to the state’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. And it was the third largest school in the state at the start of the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association’s latest reclassification cycle in 2020, a number that’s determined by average enrollments of grades 9-11.

“It’s nice having one of the biggest high schools in the state,” said Noah Wallace, one of three Vikings sprints coaches. “We’ve got a lot of options and we have a good community that wants their kids to participate.”

The community is something Page also pointed out. He said turnout numbers have always been high dating back to when he started at the school was about one-quarter of the size.

Relay racers practice next to sprinters during a track and field practice after school at Lake Stevens High School in Lake Stevens, Washington on Wednesday, March 22, 2023. The team has over 300 members. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Relay racers practice next to sprinters during a track and field practice after school at Lake Stevens High School in Lake Stevens, Washington on Wednesday, March 22, 2023. The team has over 300 members. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

“This has always been a really good place to coach track,” Page said. “… We’ve always gotten really good support and this town has always had great kids.”

And it doesn’t hurt that the Vikings have been one the area’s top programs on both the boys and girls sides for many seasons.

The boys are the defending Class 4A state champions and have won back-to-back 400-meter relay state titles, including in 2019 when they became the first-ever Snohomish County squad to claim gold in the 4×100 relay in the state’s largest classification.

The girls placed second at state in 2019 and 10th a season ago. They also brought a near-decade long dual-meet win streak into the 2023 season, a run that dated back to 2014 and was snapped at 53 straight wins by Kamiak on March 30.

Having such a large group has plenty of benefits. More athletes means more chances to score points at meets, and a greater likelihood of finding standouts who can make a major impact. But it also creates some logistical challenges.

Track and field athletes check to see what events and races they are participating in during practice after school at Lake Stevens High School in Lake Stevens, Washington on Wednesday, March 22, 2023. The team has over 300 members. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Track and field athletes check to see what events and races they are participating in during practice after school at Lake Stevens High School in Lake Stevens, Washington on Wednesday, March 22, 2023. The team has over 300 members. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

There’s the challenge of finding reliable transportation to and from meets for so many athletes during a time when many school districts are dealing with a shortage of bus drivers. Lake Stevens sent six buses to a meet in Snohomish earlier this season. Last season the team didn’t have transportation for a meet at Mariner High School and the Mukilteo School District sent buses to pick up the team so the meet could go on as planned.

“The word is that that’s not going to be a problem this year,” Page said.

Page said he spends a couple hours each day communicating with coaches, posting practice plans and preparing entries for meets. The immense time commitment is something he thinks wouldn’t be possible if hadn’t already retired from teaching.

“Honestly, I don’t know how I’d do it,” Page said.

The Vikings also need their own small army of coaches to keep up with rising turnout. Page finds himself lucky to have a staff with 11 paid coaches, a number that increased by one this season after Page saw the team’s size and filed a request with the district.

In total, the team has three sprints coaches, three distance-running coaches, two hurdles coaches, two jumps coaches, two throws coaches and two vault coaches, including volunteers.

Lake Stevens sprinters line up during a track and field practice March 22 at Lake Stevens High School. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Lake Stevens sprinters line up during a track and field practice March 22 at Lake Stevens High School. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

It helps the program stick to Page’s main philosophy of all athletes being coached whether they’re a state-title contender or somebody who’s just out there to have fun and give the sport a try.

“Obviously a program with 350, we care about more than just the top 20 that are going to score at state,” said jumps coach Cliff Chaffee, a longtime assistant and former distance-running coach. “If that’s all we care about, it’s time to quit.”

Chaffee and others said the tradition of senior leadership that’s continued to be passed through the program has been a major contributor in managing over 300 athletes.

“How do you coach that many kids?,” Chaffee asked. “You don’t. You convince your senior leaders, your upperclassmen that know what they’re doing, that they have to. … This is their team.”

Track and field athletes practice after school at Lake Stevens High School in Lake Stevens, Washington on Wednesday, March 22, 2023. The team has over 300 members. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Track and field athletes practice after school at Lake Stevens High School in Lake Stevens, Washington on Wednesday, March 22, 2023. The team has over 300 members. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Chaffee worried that the COVID pandemic, which wiped out the 2020 season and shortened the 2021 season to just six weeks, could halt the passing of that tradition.

It didn’t. And Lake Stevens came out on the other side of the pandemic as strong as ever, with the boys winning their first-ever state title at the first post-COVID state meet.

There’s hope the Vikings can compete for another this spring.

The team figures to be strong again in the events that carried it to a championship in 2022. The Vikings netted 56 of their 58 points at the state meet from hurdlers, 400 runners and relay teams.

Hurdlers run exercises during a track and field practice after school at Lake Stevens High School in Lake Stevens, Washington on Wednesday, March 22, 2023. The team has over 300 members. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Hurdlers run exercises during a track and field practice after school at Lake Stevens High School in Lake Stevens, Washington on Wednesday, March 22, 2023. The team has over 300 members. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

The biggest catalyst of the state title — 400 state runner-up and relay team anchor Trayce Hanks — has graduated, but the Vikings return a top-three state placer in the 400, a state placer in the 110 and 300 hurdles, three of four 4×100 relay team members and two 4×400 relay team members.

The group is headlined by senior Grant Buckmiller, who competes on both relay squads and placed third in the 400 last season. He currently holds the second-fastest 4A time in the state in the 200 (21.90 seconds) and fourth fastest the 100 (1.84 seconds), according to athletic.net. Junior Steven Lee Jr. sports a pair of top-three 4A times in the 110 and 300 hurdles, with teammates junior David Brown (110 hurdles) and senior Leif Holmes (300 hurdles) also producing top-five times in 4A. The Vikings’ 4×400 relay team holds 4A’s top time this season at 3:30.29.

Top-three shot putter senior Ashten Hendrickson and top-five high jumper sophomore Teagan Lawson add to potential point scorers for Lake Stevens come late May.

“I think if we stay healthy and we keep our focus that we can go down to Tacoma with the hope that we can defend,” Page said. “I learned a long time ago that you don’t need to just be good. You need to be lucky, too.”

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