Maggie Ewen of St. Francis never heard of the state track and field meet until she found herself close to a qualifying standard as a seventh grader.
Even now, as a sophomore with three all-state finishes (two in discus throw, one in shot put) and the all-time state record in the discus throw (166 feet, 8 inches) on her résumé, Ewen tries to maintain a certain innocence about her success. Her father, Bruce -- who participated in the 1988 U.S. Olympic trials in the hammer throw -- helps Ewen keep perspective.
"He asks me, 'Is it still fun? Is it still not a job?' " Ewen said. "It's still easy for me to answer, 'Yes.' "
Ewen broke the previous discus throw record in May, then reset her own mark later in the month. Her throw of 165-9 bumped Jessica Cagle of Grand Rapids to second on the all-time list. Then Ewen followed up with a 166-8. The best shot put mark this spring? Ewen again -- with a mark of 45-11¾.
Ewen's efforts earned her the Minnesota Association of USA Track & Field athlete of the month honors for May, which she shared with Eden Prairie's Mike Sandle.
Ewen is the defending Class 2A state champion in the discus. She also finished third in the shot put last season behind two seniors. Success at the state level used to be a foreign concept for Ewen. Now she knows her talents will attract interest from college programs.
"I think about the future seriously but I try to keep it fun," she said. "I don't want to go to college and not have fun with it."
She advises up-and-coming standouts to take the same approach.
"I'd tell them to keep having fun with it," she said. "And try to stay humble because no one likes a cocky, arrogant athlete."
Standing 5-11, Lakeville South's Morgan Pieri does not look like a typical freshman. She doesn't high jump like one, either.
Pieri's mark of 5 feet, 5 inches gave her second place at the Class 2A state meet as an eighth-grader. She has gone 5-6 this spring outdoors -- second best in the state -- and 5-8 indoors, meaning her stock is still on the rise.
While successful varsity high jumpers are generally older, Pieri's tall and lean frame gives her a physical advantage. She also benefits from strong technique.
"Mostly it's form that helps," Pieri said. "People can jump high, but if they don't have good form it can totally knock them down."
Pieri knows the feeling. After jumping 5-8 at an indoor meet this spring, she attempted 5-10 and came up just short.
"My back was over the bar but I didn't keep my hips up long enough," she said.
A combination of more experience and increased strength figure to keep Pieri among the elite high jumpers for several more years. She already has exhibited the proper mindset at the state meet.
"I was pretty comfortable," Pieri said of competing at state as an eighth-grader. "I can block out most of my distractions when I'm jumping, which is nice. I was ready to jump well, and I jumped well."
The performance allowed her to raise the bar of expectations.
"I really want to at least jump 5-10 in my high school career, maybe 6 feet," said Pieri, who added she hopes to compete in college and coach someday. She also plays varsity tennis -- her father, John, is the coach.
Already taller than a typical freshman, Pieri strives to display a maturity beyond her years.
"It's good to have fun but try to act a little more mature than you are," she said.
Disappointment haunted Jessica January after the 2008 Class 2A state track and field meet. She took the ninth and final spot in the 100-meter dash finals as a seventh-grader competing against girls three to five years older. It took time for her to realize her accomplishment.
So when January, now a seasoned sophomore, encourages younger teammates to keep a bigger picture in mind, she is sharing her own experience.
"Some kids get down on themselves when they don't win," January said. "I don't really think about who I'm running against. I just come out and do my best."
Last year, there was no one better in the hurdle events. January won the 100 hurdles with a new state meet record time of 14.33 seconds and later won the 300 hurdles.
So far this spring, she has the state's best time in the 100 and ranks second in the 300. Her best long jump mark of 18 feet, 3 inches ranks second in the state.
January remains a relative youngster in all three events. But she prefers to look at clocks rather than calendars.
"If anything, I look at the times of other girls, not their age," January said.
Growing up playing basketball and volleyball against older girls helped January learn to play hard and practice harder.
"When we have harder workouts it can be tougher for the younger girls to stay motivated," she said. "So I try, even when I don't feel like it, to be first and encourage the girls."
Self-motivation is no trouble for January, who must defend two state titles while pursuing one in the long jump.
"I put more pressure on myself since I've already won," she said. "But if anything, I just want to do better on my times. If I don't win, I don't win."
DAVID LA VAQUE