VERMILLION — The competitive running career for Megan Hilson is down to one final meet.
Hilson, a Yankton native and senior at the University of South Dakota, will wrap up her career with the Summit League Outdoor Track & Field Championships, which begin today (Thursday) and run through Saturday in Fargo, N.D.
It wasn’t that long ago, she admits, that she was running for the Yankton Gazelles.
“I don’t even think my brain realizes what’s happening,” Hilson said this week.
“Every year has an end. But this is the end to my whole career. I think it’ll be a total shock to my emotions.”
It’s been quite a ride for the 2010 Yankton High School graduate who has been running competitively since eighth grade — Hilson jokes that she took up running after realizing “I wasn’t going anywhere with volleyball.”
And so began a successful career in cross country and track.
“I’m excited to be done, but it’s sad,” said Hilson, who will run the 10,000-meter run in Fargo. “It’s been so fun. The people I’ve met will be my friends for the rest of my life.”
Hilson was one of 37 USD student-athletes to walk across the DakotaDome stage at last Saturday’s commencement ceremony — Yankton native Alex Hohenthaner also received his diploma.
Hilson has not only been a valuable member of the cross country program, she also helped further USD’s track success at the Division I level, according to women’s head coach Lucky Huber.
“She’s been such a joy to have in our program. She’s been a hard working student and been so much fun to get to know,” Huber said. “She came in and helped the program grow.
“She’s been big in helping us recruit some other kids.”
Hilson’s four years with the Coyotes haven’t come without setback, though.
A “freak” knee injury after the 2011 cross country season kept her out of both track seasons in the spring of 2012. And earlier this spring, Hilson hurt her back while training and was out of competition for a week — missing the Howard Wood Relays.
Through it all, Hilson ran on USD’s cross country team for all four seasons, and was a member of the track team for four seasons — competing in three.
“All we know is being a student and being a runner, and now they’re both done,” she said. “It’ll be weird to start a whole new life.”
As for what’s next, Hilson leaves May 27 for St. Cloud, Minnesota, where she has an internship lined up with an Occupational Therapy clinic. She plans to potentially apply to an OT school as well, she said.
First, though, comes the matter of completing her career at the conference outdoor meet in Fargo. Hilson enters the meet ranked fourth in the 5,000-meter run and 23rd in the 1500. The 10K is her “focus” race, however, she said.
“I just want to place,” Hilson said, “and make a difference on the team for my last meet.”
Hilson has run the 10K only one other time this season, at the prestigious Mt. SAC Relays in California.
Her Coyote women’s teammates figure to be in a fight for third or fourth place in the team race, because of injuries. North Dakota State is the favorite once again.
For USD, Amber Eichkorn is ranked first in two events: The 5000 (16:52.08) and the 10,000 (35:00.46), while Danielle Waldner has the top mark in the shot put (48-2).
The Coyotes also have a number of athletes seeded second, including Katie Wetzstein in the 1500 (4:27.63), Ashley Thompson in the triple jump (41-2.25), Breanna Janovy in the discus (161-5) and Meghan Dennis in the javelin (156-8).
“Right now we’ve got a lot of opportunities for young people to step up and compete,” Huber said. “We feel like we’ll get in there and compete.”
The USD men are projected to finish around 30-40 points behind favorite North Dakota State.
For the Coyotes, Teivaskie Lewin leads the league in two events: The 200-meter dash (21.29) and 110 hurdles (13.99). Brant Haase is ranked first in the 5000 (14:18.92), Mubarik Musa is ranked first in the 10,000 (30:10.81), Kyle McKelvey has the top mark in the shot put (60-4.5) and Dustin Valind is seeded first in the discus (175-10).
Also in field events, Jeff O’Connell is ranked first in the long jump (24-5.75), along with second in two other events, while Jeff Mettler has the top time in the steeplechase (8:51.05).
The Coyote men are also seeded 1-2-3 in the pole vault, led by Kyle Ballew (16-10.75).
With her competitive career coming down to the final days, Hilson is understandably nostalgic about her college days.
“There are so many little moments, all the conference meets when there’s so much emotion involved,” she said. “Then you have those days at practice where it’s 90 degrees and we’re on a gravel road and feel like dying.
“Now we look back, and we’re like, ‘Man, we’re funny.’”
It didn’t take long for teammates and friends to mention possibly training for a marathon within a year. In short, more running.
“I thought, ‘Don’t you want to take some time off?,’” Hilson said, chuckling. “We’ll see if they talk me into it.”