The glass case affixed to the wall outside Riley County’s gymnasium is supposed to preserve every track and field record in Falcons’ history.
For the past three seasons, however, the girls’ shot put and discus records have been neglected. Falcons’ senior Ames Burton broke the “current” records, which the display case attributes to Jesse Reed (shot put, 2001) and Tammie Zeller (discus, 1983), as a freshman, and she’s broken them several times since.
That’s why Riley County head track coach Jesse Woodard refuses to update them.
“I haven’t put those up because I don’t want to change them all the time,” Woodard said, “She’s going to keep breaking them.”
Burton set her most recent record two weeks ago at the Council Grove Invitational. Her 153-foot, 6-inch discus throw cleared the competition by 40 feet, a margin closer to ordinary than outlier when Burton competes.
She’s a Division I athlete in a Class 3A world; Burton signed last week to throw for Missouri beginning next spring, while most of her contemporaries won’t compete beyond high school.
Her dominance presents Woodard with a difficult dichotomy: The shoo-in wins help the Falcons’ every week, but he worries that Burton will plateau without a challenge.
So Woodard manufactures challenges. He’ll ask Burton to throw with the boys’ team in practice. And instead of winning meets, Woodard dares Burton to break meet records.
Both tactics are designed to keep Burton engaged. Winning every week feels good, but Woodard knows his star senior needs an adversary — be it human or historic — to maximize her potential.
“The competition is what drives Ames,” Woodard said. “We’re just trying to be creative and find other ways to challenge her, other things to shoot for and strive toward.”
Woodard accepted the Riley County job in 2017, the same year Burton started high school. He’d played football with Burton’s father, Zach, at Kansas State, but he didn’t realize how talented Zach’s daughter was until he started talking to middle school coaches.
They said Ames was bigger, stronger and more athletic than all her peers. Her form could improve, but she still was “killing everybody” as a seventh and eighth grader.
“I was kind of naturally good at it,” Ames said. “I got the hang of it pretty fast, and I won a lot of meets growing up.”
That trend continued as Burton entered the high school ranks. She still could out-talent most of her rivals, but once in a while, she encountered someone better, more experienced, or both.
Ames still remembers the “gut-wrenching” feeling that overcame her after watching Jacy Dalinghaus out-throw her for first place in the discus and shot put events at the 2019 state meet. At discus, Ames maintained a top distance of 136 feet, 11 inches until Dalinghaus’s final throw, when the Nemaha Central then-senior won the meet by heaving her final attempt 139 feet and six inches — less than three feet farther than Ames’ best.
Ames told herself she was young; she had time. But she couldn’t shake the nagging torment that accompanied coming so close to her goal.
“I told myself I needed to get serious,” Burton said. “My teammates are actually counting on me. People are going to count on me, and I need to count on myself.”
Burton has spent the past two years preparing her body for this season, her last chance at a state title. During the pandemic, she practiced her discus and shot put forms both with and without the required projectiles.
She practiced her rotations at her family’s home off Anderson Avenue (the hardwood floors skewed her results). And behind Bishop Stadium, home of Manhattan’s track team, she practiced her throwing motions and recorded videos of the sessions to share with her coaches afterward. She’d have practiced at Riley County, but the Falcons’ track was closed.
“I don’t know if I was supposed to be (at Bishop),” Burton said. “But it didn’t say Riley County people couldn’t come.”
This season, Burton has maintained that determination at practice. She keeps a disciplined warm-up regimen that includes practicing her throwing motions, two 50-, 75- and 100- yard dashes and a weightlifting session before she throws anything.
On the days she feels like throttling down, she reminds herself that she’s still not a state champion, of how it felt to come in second.
“I’ve been using that ever since,” Burton said. “I don’t want to get beat by anyone else.”
Woodard won’t update the Riley County record books until Burton has graduated. He refuses to place limits on her after she threw the discus 165 feet in practice a few weeks ago.
The crazy part, Woodard said, is the fact that Burton missed out on a year of coaching. If the coronavirus hadn’t canceled last season, Woodard thinks Burton could be throwing even longer distances.
She still over-rotates during her discus throws at times, and she tends to open early while throwing the shot put. But no one has thrown the discus farther than Burton this season, and she finished just 1 foot, 3.25 inches behind Andale’s Kaitlyn Fairchild, who has the top shot put throw in the state, at the Wichita Pre-State Challenge three weeks ago (rain hindered both participants, according to Woodard).
Burton tracks Fairchild’s results via Twitter. Each time Fairchild, a Texas A&M commit, earns a personal-best, Burton is reminded that she’ll need to bring her best to achieve her state title dreams, and each reminder serves as fuel for the next day’s practice.
Burton won’t need her phone for those reminders next season. She’ll stand next to the dozens of other Burtons who dominated their high school meets in practice.
That’s what keeps her pushing on the her most dominant days. There might not be many throwers in 3A who can match Burton’s power, but dozens of her college competitors are stronger, faster and can throw farther.
Burton reminds herself of that fact whenever she steps inside the ring. Even if she’s leading her meet by 20 feet, she’s trailing someone else.
“I have to think beyond this,” Burton said. “Next year, it’s gonna be a lot tougher. I’m going to be so young and inexperienced relative to college. You have to keep one step ahead.”