Lea Nelson came into high school passionate about softball.
So when classmate and close friend Carly King tried to get Nelson out for track and field her freshman season at Davenport Assumption, it took some convincing.
“I was such a diehard softball player,” Nelson said. “Carly and her family knew I had some potential in track, so she brought me to a couple practices and even let me borrow some of her tennis shoes to run in.
“I’m glad she did because I ended up falling in love with it.”
Now four years later, the sprinter prepares for her final lap at Drake Stadium in an Assumption uniform.
While Nelson won't graduate with the individual track accolades like King or past greats such as Maddie Irmen, Rose Ripslinger and Joy Ripslinger, she has left an indelible mark on Assumption’s program.
Nelson is part of school records in the 800, 1,600 and distance medley relays. She has won Drake Relays titles along with conference and state championships. She has competed at national meets in New York and North Carolina.
“Lea is kind of that mortar and glue,” Assumption coach Tim O’Neill said. “She’s the kid that you can’t have a championship level program without. She can do so many different things. Wherever we had a hole in the lineup, we tried to use her to fill that hole.”
Nelson has found her niche in the sprints (100, 200 and 400), but has competed in the 800, long jump and even a brief hurdling stint early in her career.
But more than the splits she runs in each of her relays, Nelson’s infectious personality rubs off on her teammates and is vital to Assumption's success.
“She’s very optimistic and outgoing,” fellow sprinter Amaya Jackson said. “Very bubbly. She’s like the jokester of the team.”
When the Knights appear nervous before a race, Nelson usually is the one to lighten the mood with a joke or with some dance moves.
“You’re not going to see an overly impressive individual time on paper from her, but the things she brings to a team is so invaluable and that's what I've told some college coaches,” O’Neill said. “Her personality, she’s one of the neatest kids I’ve ever coached in 19 years with this program.
“She’s fun, witty, has great comebacks, good material and a lot of fun to be around.”
An outfielder on Assumption’s two-time state championship softball team and a setter on Assumption’s state-qualifying volleyball team last fall, Nelson is being used solely on relays in the postseason.
She anchored the 400 relay along with participating on the 800, 1,600 and sprint medley relays last Friday at the Class 3A state-qualifying meet in Mount Pleasant.
“Honestly, whatever spot the coaches put me in, it doesn’t matter,” Nelson said. “I know they have a bigger plan. As long as I can help the team score some points, that’s all that matters.”
Nelson contributed to Assumption state championships her freshman and sophomore seasons, the program’s fourth and fifth in a row.
A rash of injuries, including a stress fracture in Nelson’s right foot, resulted in the title streak halting last May. The Knights are eager to get the championship trophy back in their possession.
“I was a little naive my first two years thinking we were going to win everything,” Nelson said. “Last year, it showed me the reality. I needed it personally to see you can’t always be at the top.
“Our team and I want it that much more. There is a little bit more hunger.”
Assumption, Dubuque Wahlert and Glenwood are among the favorites in 3A. Defending champion Pella, Sioux City Heelan and Iowa Falls/Alden also could factor into the conversation for a trophy finish.
King and Jackson are projected to score substantial points in the individual sprint events, but the relays ultimately could determine Assumption’s fate.
The 400, 1,600 and 3,200 relays are seeded between seventh and 16th. If Assumption can produce points in two or all three of those events, it would put them in a favorable position.
“We’ve got to take each one of these relays seriously,” said junior Natalie Moore, who also is expected to run on four relays. “You don’t want to have any small errors because that can go a long way.
“The relays are important to scoring points to get us to our end goal of a championship.”
Jackson, a senior, missed all of last season following her transfer from Davenport Central. Moore was sidelined all of last year following reconstructive surgery on her left ankle.
“I have one chance to make a name for myself,” Jackson said.
"To be back a part of it means so much more," Moore stated.
King has college track in her future at Duke University.
In all likelihood, this will be one of Nelson’s final track and field competitions. She plans to attend Iowa State in the fall to major in mass communications and journalism, but athletics aren’t part of the plan.
“We’ll see how that works out,” she said. “I’ve played sports my whole life, so I don’t know how I’ll react when it is taken out of the equation.
“I try not to think about it because it has been such a big part of my life the last four years. Hopefully, we can go out with a bang.”