WEST LIBERTY, Iowa – Ever since horror struck on Friday the 13th last October, Nathan Schemmel set out to redefine his senior year at West Liberty High School.
Schemmel broke his left tibia and fibula early in the second quarter against Mount Vernon on senior night, later finding out from his doctor that he wouldn't be able to play high school sports again.
"There was a pass play Mount Vernon ran," Schemmel said. "It was like a bubble screen. I was going to tackle the receiver, but one of my teammates tackled the guy, and I happened to be standing right next to him. Trying to avoid the hit, I turned my leg, and I didn't hear a pop or anything.
"I tried to get up, and my leg was just dangling there. I knew that something bad happened. The best way I can put it is it was like Jello."
Schemmel was forced to watch from the sidelines as the Comets advanced to the state playoffs for the first time since 2013.
He had to shut down his final high school basketball season before it began.
Yet, he was still determined to make a comeback.
"I didn't want to be one of those kids who just was defined by one incident in their senior year of high school," Schemmel said.
Schemmel's leg began healing faster than the doctor originally anticipated. He started using an Elliptical and exercise bike in February for 10 or 15 minutes a day.
Schemmel found out during an appointment in early April that he no longer had any limitations and could start running again.
While his left leg was no longer an issue, Schemmel admitted that he lacked the necessary conditioning and started suffering shin splints due to what was believed to be overcompensation from his left leg.
"I'm feeling good now," Schemmel said. "I wish my times were better than they are. I told some of my teammates that if I would have broken my leg a month and a half earlier, then I think I would have been running my times last year – mid-52s in the 400s."
A key contributor in helping lift the Comets out of the cellar of the River Valley Conference and transform them into serious contenders over the past three years, Schemmel is completing his comeback. He will travel with West Liberty to the state track and field meet in Des Moines as an alternate on the 1,600 and distance medley relays.
"I'm kind of bummed that I'm the only senior not participating in an event, but it will be a good time with all these guys," Schemmel said. "I knew our track team was going to be good, but I didn't know it was going to be 12 events to state good."
Schemmel epitomizes two of the greatest strengths of the current West Liberty track and field team – hard work and dedication. Those two characteristics have transformed the Comets from a model for disappointment into a model for success.
West Liberty coach Gus Garcia cringes when he's reminded where this team was just three years ago.
"Like Tanner Iske told me a week ago after conference, he goes 'coach, remember when I was a freshman and we finished last in the conference?'" "I go, 'Why did you have to say that?' Ever since we did that, we came back the following year and we actually worked harder."
In order to understand how far they've come, it's important to know how far they had fallen.
As soon as the weather started warming up last year, the Comets began practicing outdoors in February. This season, when a fresh blanket of snow covered the outdoor track during spring break, a large group of the West Liberty athletes packed into the wrestling room at the high school for a workout.
And once the temperatures started climbing above freezing, even if it was just 32 degrees, Garcia made sure his athletes were outdoors practicing.
The new approach is paying off. The Comets are sending a school-record 12 events to state after winning the team title at last week's Class 2A district meet in Tipton.
Included among those is Iske, who is tied with Clarinda Academy's Tavares Boykin for the fastest 100 time clocked in the state this season at 10.68 seconds. Always fueled by motivation – Iske false-started at the Drake Relays as a sophomore, missed the finals by .01 second as a junior and won the title as a senior – Garcia’s "silver bullet" still likes to remind everyone that he isn't the favorite in the 100 heading into the state meet.
"I'm the underdog coming into the 100," said Iske, who's seeded second in the event, .02 second behind AHSTW's Gage Clay's 10.75. "That gives me more motivation."
Joining Iske, who will also run in the 200, will be Joe Kelly in the 100, Austin McMichael in the 110 hurdles, Michael Hartman in the 400 hurdles, Bryce Esmoil in the discus and Spencer Daufeldt in the shot put. West Liberty’s 400 relay, 800 relay, 1,600 relay, shuttle hurdle relay and distance medley relay also will make the trip to Des Moines.
Combined, the Comets have eight events seeded eighth or better and four in the top three.
Garcia credited his assistant coaches – TJ Kopet, Marc Hauschildt, Brad Daufeldt and Michael Hart – for helping make it all possible.
Garcia knows, though, there is still work left to be done.
"As an old coach used to say, don't just make the playoffs," Garcia said. "Make some noise in the playoffs."