WAPELLO, Iowa — Caden Thomas never thought he would have the opportunity to run at the state track meet as a freshman. He joined seniors Trace Howard, Trenton Massner and Logan Belzer on the 1,600 relay team and held his own as the Indians’ placed eighth last May.

“Being able to run with those seniors,” Thomas said, “it was a lot of fun.”

“Last year was pretty special with some of those kids we had,” Wapello coach Todd Parsons added. “It was good for our young guys to be around those guys and see their work ethic.

“I think that experience is invaluable for Caden because going into Drake Stadium can be pretty overwhelming, and I thought he handled it pretty well as a freshman.”

This year, however, Thomas has had to find his own way for the Wapello track team. So far, so good, as he’s showing off improved speed in his sophomore campaign.

In the first four meets, he’s earned seven first-place finishes and has yet to finish outside of the top five in any event. The start has been no surprise to Parsons, even if he did admit Thomas is “probably ahead of schedule” after losing most of his freshman season to a quad injury.

“It’s pretty much what we expected out of him,” Parsons said. “We knew the potential was there. The sky is the limit for the kid. He’s probably the type of athlete every coach would like to have.

“He’s a high character kid, extremely coachable, just a kid who will do anything you ask him to do.”

Thomas has been at the center of a quick start to the season for the track team, as Wapello earned three first-place finishes in its first three meets and placed second in Tuesday night’s Bullette Invite at Mediapolis.

The sophomore had a near-perfect night at the team’s home meet last week as he placed first in the open 200 and 400 and the 800 sprint medley relay and second in the high jump.

Parsons appreciates the results, but most of all he wants to see improvement each and every week. Thomas has done just that so far, as his times continue to drop with each passing meet.

He’s participated in a wide array of events — the open 100, 200 and 400, the 800 sprint medley relay, high jump, and the 800 relay to name a few — but both Thomas and Parsons say his best event is the open 400.

“I’m hopeful by the end of the year we can put together a decent sprint medley,” Parsons said. “The (800 relay) is a tough position because that and the open 400 are back-to-back. It’s one or the other.”

If Thomas has to choose one, it’s likely the open 400, where he set a season personal record with a time of 52.57 Tuesday, which would have ranked 20th in last season’s event at the Class 2A state meet.

“The goal is definitely to go back to state,” Thomas said, “whether that’s on an open event or for a relay team.”

Still, Thomas and Parsons feel there is room for improvement. That starts with striding out and keeping his arm swing “chin to hip.”

“Last year that was kind of a big problem,” Thomas said. “I’d tense up in my upper body and it’d make me slower.”

Parsons said that’s still a work in progress and often gives Thomas a hard time for “running like a robot.” The veteran coach is confident Thomas will continue to improve because that’s what he’s always done.

That’s evident by the first four meets of Wapello’s season.

“He’s got a great stride with his legs, and he’s gotten stronger from last year,” Parsons said. “You couldn’t ask for a better kid because of his desire, his will to want to be good and to be coached the way he needs to be in order to succeed.”

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