Two years ago, the Mercer County High School boys track and field squad captured the Lincoln Trail Conference championship in a meet that literally came down to the wire.
First-place finishes by Princeville in the 200-meter dash and the 4x400 relay fueled a late charge by the Princes in the 2019 LTC Meet at George Pratt Memorial Field, but the host Golden Eagles used a runner-up 1600 relay showing to hold on for the title with 139 points, edging Princeville by just one point.
Along with all other spring sports, last year's conference meet was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After a one-year wait, the Golden Eagles will get the chance to defend their title at Tuesday's LTC meet at Galva High School.
However, a delayed start to its season precipitated by a two-week COVID pause coupled with one of its meets being rained out has resulted in Mercer County having just two meets under its belt. That will make the conference event almost like a season opener.
"In a normal season, sectionals would be this week," said MerCo head coach Mick Louck. "Coaching-wise, in 35 years of doing this, this has been by far the hardest season. It was hard to plan with guys still in football (at the start of track season), coming and going.
"Then, we were shut down for a few weeks because of COVID-19, and we lost a lot of meets that way. We've only had two track meets so far, which really makes it tough. But when we've had a meet, we've looked good."
Among the key returners from 2019's title team is senior sprinter Brady Fluette, whose third-place finish in the 200 two years ago was also key in getting the Eagles over the top. He also contributed to MerCo's conference-winning 4x200 relay and its runner up 4x100 quartet.
Also back is junior Jared Cheline, the reigning LTC discus champion who also finished second in the shot put in '19. Together with Fluette, they provide veteran leadership for an otherwise youth-laden squad.
"Here and now, about three-fourths of our team are freshmen and sophomores," Louck said. "They're talented, but we don't have as much depth; there's a couple of events where we have only one entry, so that really hurts us."
Among the younger standout Eagles, Louck cited the sophomore trio of Derek Coulter (distance), Brecken Heinrichs (hurdles, high jump) and Matthew Lucas (hurdles), along with junior Trenton Coulter in the high jump.
"He's looked good so far; he's cleared 6-1 and 6-0 in the two meets we've had," said Louck. "I like his chances (at conference)."
With the lack of meets, Louck feels that the key for his team will be to concentrate more on individual efforts and let the team chips fall where they may.
"The kids are fired up just to have some competition. That's the main thing," he said. "We're going to go out and do our own thing. If it (a title repeat) happens, then it happens. We're going to do the best we can and see what happens."