As strange as it may now seem, Sam Spranger began his prep track and field career as a distance runner. Specializing in the mile run, he entered St. Mary’s Springs with the expectation he’d continue along that path.
That didn’t last long.
“When I came to high school my freshman year, I started out as a long-distance runner for like two days and I realized that’s not for me,” Spranger said with a laugh.
With the encouragement of teammate Ryan Grandlic, the explosive Spranger moved to shorter distances, eventually focusing on the 400-meter dash.
Two years after making the transition, Spranger capped off his junior season by winning the WIAA Division 3 state title in the 400-meter dash at the state meet in La Crosse the first weekend of June — breaking his old teammate’s school record in the process — and as a result is the 2015 Action Reporter Media All-Area Boys Track and Field Athlete of the Year.
Spranger narrowly beat out Fond du Lac senior Peter Andrew for the honor. Andrew finished seventh in the shot put and 13th in the discus throw at the Division 1 state meet. Waupun’s Adrian Harmsen was also in consideration after finishing seventh in the 400 and eighth in the 200 at the Division 2 state meet.
But ultimately it was Spranger’s state title that gave him the nod.
Back in 2013, in Spranger’s freshman campaign, then-senior Grandlic took him under his wing — guiding Spranger in his development as a sprinter. Using Grandlic as a role model, Spranger soon began to showcase his own exceptional talent in the 400. In his first-ever race in the 400, Spranger was well ahead of what anyone expected.
“I’ve always been fast, sprinting-wise. It was a little different at first because ‘Oh I’m only a freshman, I’m not going to do that great,'” Spranger said. “But then the first couple indoor meets, Ryan was saying don’t worry about it. The first meet I ran a 53 (seconds) as a freshman and Ryan was really surprised because when he was a freshman, he ran 52. I was just excited to run a 53.”
As a freshman, Spranger qualified for state as part of the 4X800-meter relay before advancing to La Crosse in three events as a sophomore — the 400, 4X400-meter relay and 4X800. He finished fifth in the 400 at state last year, a disappointment in his eyes, which provided motivation for his junior season.
Goal No. 1 was to put his name at the top of the St. Mary’s Springs record board for the 400-meter dash. A state championship, although a pipe dream at the time, was also in the back of Spranger’s mind.
However, 2015 was not without its share of frustrations. Apart from the 400, Spranger expected to qualify for state in the 200-meter dash and potentially in the 4X400-meter relay as well. No, Spranger was far from a one-trick pony this spring.
Unfortunately for him, his body didn’t cooperate.
Straining a hamstring during a meet at Winnebago Lutheran in mid-May, Spranger sat out the Flyway Conference meet to rest.
He gutted out the regional meet, but then his other hamstring flared up during sectionals on May 29. Fortunately for Spranger, he was able to qualify for state in his premier event, the 400, but the 200 and 4X400 were a no-go. He actually ran the fastest 200 time in preliminaries at sectionals, but finished last in finals when his hamstring tightened up midway through the race.
Needless to say, he was a hobbled man.
Yet somehow, some way he was at his best for the 400-meter dash at state. Finishing with a blazing time of 48.71 seconds, Spranger demolished Grandlic’s old school record of 49.43 seconds in the event en route to the state title.
On two bad hamstrings.
After it was over, and he realized he’d won, Spranger was in disbelief.
“I didn’t think it was real,” he said. “I thought like ‘OK, what did I just do?’ I never thought coming into the season I would win state — my goal was to try and break Ryan’s record. Just get down under 50 (seconds) was my goal. That happened. I never thought that I was going to get under a 49.”
So how in the world did Spranger go from jogging the final 100 meters of the 200-meter dash because of a strained hamstring to state titlist in the 400 in the span of a week?
He credits his athletic trainer.
“It had a lot to do with my athletic trainer, Tyler Schwartz,” Spranger said. “He pretty much pieced me together with rehab and I wore two thigh sleeves to keep my hamstrings warm. I had to stim(ulate) every night. I stimmed every night before state, even before prelims. I took an ice bath the night before.”
Springs coach Shane Smith talked about how Spranger was smart about his injury, doing what was necessary to heal — a frustrating experience for an athlete in the midst of the most important part of the season.
“He was patient,” Smith said. “That’s very important. It’s hard for runners to be patient, especially at the end of the season when it’s tough to be patient.”
A few weeks later, Spranger’s hamstrings are on the mend and he’s in full preparation mode for the football season. Last year, Spranger ran for 1,546 yards and 20 touchdowns as the star tailback for a Ledgers squad that won the Division 6 state title. This season, he’ll play an even more integral role.
His experience and training this year in track, and the success he was able to have despite injuries, should help him on the football field in the fall. Only weeks removed from a state title, Spranger will bring the attitude and mindset he used to take gold in La Crosse to the gridiron, where the Ledgers will look to capture another championship come November.
“I need all the endurance I can get because I might not come off the field this year, pretty much,” Spranger said. “That’s what you get for being at a small school, which is fun. It kept me in shape because when you put the hard work into track, you get out of it what you put into it. If you put in a lot, you get out a lot.”
Sam Oleson: (920) 907-7930, email@example.com or follow on Twitter @sam_olesonFDL
2015 Action Reporter Media All-Area Boys Track and Field Team
Nick Park, Junior, Fond du Lac
Kyle Marcoe, Soph., Fond du Lac
Brian Luteyn, Senior, Fond du Lac
Trey Halfmann, Soph., Fond du Lac
Peter Andrew, Senior, Fond du Lac
Jason Toshner, Senior, Fond du Lac
Adrian Harmsen, Senior, Waupun
Bryce Verheyen, Senior, Waupun
Matt Kuik, Senior, Waupun
Brandon Poellot, Senior, Mayville
Matthew Tadych, Senior, Winnebago Lutheran
Sam Spranger, Junior, St. Mary’s Springs
Austin Feyen, Junior, St. Mary’s Springs
Kurt Mueller, Junior, St. Mary’s Springs
Central Wisconsin Christian: Daniel Miller. Fond du Lac: Kyle Pierce, Justin Maratik, Luke Curran, Wyatt Holzman, Eddie Negron, Quinn Woelfel, Jimmie Diener. Laconia: Brett Wittchow, Cory Stahmann, Justin Johnson. Lomira: David Flynn. Mayville: Andrew Nothem, Donovan Lee. St. Mary’s Springs: Mark Austin, Tony Bednarek, Alan Burkart. Waupun: Brandon Morrissey, Mason Domask, Kyle Miller. Winnebago Lutheran: James Huey.