Stein’s saga: Central runner’s whirlwind trip to national meet

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(from Central College)
PELLA — “You got into nationals. Do you want to go?”

That was what associate head track and field coach Joe Dunham said when he called Mari Stein (freshman, Okoboji) at 11 a.m. Wednesday, March 11 before the NCAA Division III Indoor Track and Field Championships were set to begin on Friday in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Stein, a middle distance runner for the Dutch, had been outside the top-20 qualifying list when it was first announced Sunday afternoon. As the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak started trickling in around the nation resulting in several athletes dropping out, Stein was offered an alternate spot in the mile run.

“I said ‘Yeah, of course,’” she said. “I got really, really excited and was at the airport within three hours of finding out. That day was pretty crazy.”

Stein and Dunham were in North Carolina later Wednesday night and even put in a practice session at the JDL Fast Track, the venue for the national meet. Just as suddenly, the decision to cancel the event came down. It was barely 24 hours after learning Stein would even make the trip.

“We found out at about 4 p.m. it was canceled,” Stein said. “I remember Kennedy Morris (junior, Earlham) came into the room to tell us and we all started crying. We didn’t know what to do.”

In addition to Stein, Morris had qualified in the women’s weight throw and Mary Gray (junior, West Des Moines, Waukee HS) was entered in the pentathlon. Brothers Drake and Brock Lewis (sophomores, Lathrop, Mo.) were there to compete in the men’s high jump and long jump, respectively.

“We felt like the whole trip was for nothing after we found out it was canceled,” Stein said. “Which was false because we ended up having a really good time together. They were some really awesome memories I will always cherish.”

All of the student-athletes representing the American Rivers Conference gathered in a hotel conference room Thursday night and received a video call from Iowa track and field icon Mike Jay. The Central crew spent a few more days in North Carolina awaiting a flight home, allowing for some sightseeing around Winston-Salem.

At the conference meet in Decorah Feb. 28-29, Stein was the 800-meter run champion (2 minutes, 17.42 seconds) and finished third in the mile (5:08.41). The Dutch were fifth as a team with 78 points. During the cross country season, Stein was Central’s top finisher in three of six meets and received the team’s Most Valuable Performer Award. Her best finish was fourth at the Sept. 4 Dutch Invitational.

Stein hopes to be back in action for the 2020 Dutch Invitational Friday, Sept. 4 at 6 p.m. at Central’s cross country course.