Track club answers local need

Omega Youth athletes excel at Junior Olympic level
By: Eric J. Gourley, Journal Sports Writer
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LAKE OF THE PINES — As a sixth grader at Magnolia Middle School, Nick Mertens clocked mediocre mile times in his first season of competitive track and field. “Suddenly, this year I started winning and beating people by 100 meters, but I would just race against my school,” said Mertens, who will be an eighth grader in the fall. “It didn’t really get me anywhere.” That’s where Pete Negri came in. The head track coach at the middle school who also instructs sprints and jumps at Bear River High, Negri launched Omega Youth Track Club earlier this year. He was immediately sanctioned by the sport’s national governing body, USA Track and Field, as well as the Amateur Athletic Union. Composed primarily of Negri’s Magnolia and Bear River athletes, the club, which holds practice three days a week at Bear River High, was an instant hit. “Within three weeks we picked up 25 kids with probably another 20 who have been asking to jump on,” Negri said. “There was simply a need in this area. The biggest and more established track clubs are down in the Roseville area. There wasn’t anything extending up here.” The club has excelled since its inception, advancing athletes in both the USATF Junior Olympic Games and the AAU Junior Olympics. Last weekend, nine of the 17 Omega athletes who competed during the first round of the USATF Junior Olympics in Livermore advanced to the second round in Bakersfield. Joel Murnan won the long jump in the boys midget age group (11-12) and also took sixth place in the 200-meter dash. Madalyn Groulx also advanced in two events, placing third in shot put among young women (17-18) and fifth in discus. Breanne Mitchell won the 3,000-meter run in the intermediate girls age group (15-16) in 11 minutes, 32.56 seconds. Mertens placed fourth in the discus among youth boys (13-14) and Brandon LeBadour was fifth in the shot put for the same age group. Kendal Nielsen finished sixth in the intermediate girls 200-meter dash to advance, the same event in which she set a new Bear River High record as a freshman during a Pioneer Valley League meet at Lincoln in March. Negri’s three children also qualified to throw the shot put in Bakersfield. Cole, a soon-to-be eighth grader at Magnolia, took sixth in the youth boys event, while twin daughters Cassidy and Negri were seventh and eighth, respectively, in the bantam girls shot put. “These kids are jamming,” Pete Negri said. “They’re moving forward. None of them have run in track clubs. All of them have competed at Magnolia or Bear River. We’ve got some kids from Colfax, Foresthill and some up from the Grass Valley area, but they haven’t had any of this opportunity. That’s why we did it. I can’t believe we didn’t do this a long time ago. It’s especially a great thing when you’ve got a group of kids who are representing our area well.” Nearly two dozen Omega athletes will compete this weekend at the AAU West Coast Junior Olympic Games in Reno, Nev., which kicked off with an opening ceremony Wednesday night. The top six finishers in each event advance to the AAU National Junior Olympic Games in Des Moines, Iowa. “It’s a really great opportunity to finally have a club in this area,” said Nielsen, a sophomore-to-be who has been running competitively less than two years. “We finally have a chance to compete with kids all over the state and even go nationally.” Still a year from suiting up in a Bear River High singlet, Mertens already recognized the opportunities. “Now that the club has really taken off, I’m able to compete with some of the best, not just with what’s here,” he said. “I’m able to go to other places and be looked at by universities and colleges, which makes me visible. Being able to have something like this, we can say, ‘Hey, I have skill. I don’t have to be from a big school. I can run.’”