Tiger trials and triumphs

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LISA JAMES/Press Timberlake seniors and track standouts Brayden Menti and Kassidy Hammond will be headed to Boise for the state championships this month.

Kassidy Hammond couldn’t figure out why she wasn’t running as well as she was earlier in her high school career.

Brayden Menti thought being a three-sport athlete, in this day and age of specialization, was a no-brainer.

Both are Timberlake High seniors looking to close out their high school careers in style this weekend, at the state 3A track and field meet Friday and Saturday at Middleton High.

Both have had their share of success wearing the Tigers’ colors of navy blue and gold, but both have taken different paths to get there.

Hammond overcame an ailment that could have spelled the end of her athletic career.

Menti will earn as many varsity letters (12) as is possible for a three-sport athlete.

HAMMOND, A cross country runner in the fall and a distance runner in the spring, had a nice freshman year at Timberlake.

As a sophomore, she led the state 3A cross country race with a mile to go, before finishing second, helping the Tigers to a runner-up finish at state.

“And track came around and I wasn’t doing as well and I couldn’t figure out why,” Hammond recalled. “That summer I couldn’t really breathe when I was running, and I thought it was just my asthma, because it was that smoky summer when we had all those fires.”

Then came her junior season in cross country.

“It’s not smoky anymore, I can’t breathe and I’m running super slow,” she said. “Someone recommended blood work because they thought I might have iron deficiency. My iron was fine, but it turned out my thyroid levels were off. The hormone that your thyroid puts out, which basically controls your metabolic process ... it was producing too much of the hormone, so it was too high. I had hyperthyroidism ... my metabolism was super high. So I was eating a ton, but I wasn’t gaining weight. And my heart was going too fast. So I couldn’t catch my breath. My thyroid had enlarged to the size of an orange, over my trachea.”

“It just crushed her that season,” Timberlake cross country coach Shawn Lawler recalled. “Her sophomore year she was district champion, second at state, girls were second, and her junior year, she can’t run a 30-minute 5k. And she ran 19 minutes the year before.”

The situation came to a head — or more accurately, the throat — when Timberlake traveled south to compete at the Bob Firman Invitational at Eagle Island State Park, a cross country meet that attracts many of the top cross country runners in the region.

Before the race, her mom noticed how swollen her throat was, and Kassidy told Lawler she didn’t think she could run that day.

It turns out, she didn’t run the rest of the season. Blood tests revealed the thyroid condition, and she had surgery to remove the entire thyroid gland in early November.

Meanwhile, her twin sister, Taylor, took third at the same Firman meet Kassidy had to miss, after finishing second in the 1,600 at state as a sophomore.

Kassidy returned to running last spring, but still wasn’t at the level she was a year or two earlier. After a summer of training, she was a state medalist in cross country last fall.

After more work over the winter, she’s made big strides this spring.

She broke the Timberlake school record in the 3,200 meters (11:52.40), and ran a 5:27.73 in the 1,600, just 5 seconds behind the school record held by Taylor.

“The great thing about this story, and I get so emotional when I think about it, having a teenage daughter myself who’s the same age as Kassidy (Keelie), she’s overcome so much,” Lawler said. “Honestly most kids would have walked away (after the surgery). That spring (her junior year) she tries to run again, she got a little bit better, last summer she got some good training in, and last fall she was a state medalist, and then this winter she gets after it again. She breaks our school record in the 3,200, she runs 5:27 in the 1,600, after her body changed, after a thyroid issue, after having all these struggles, she runs faster. This is that story that I’m going to tell for the rest of my career, for every single girl whose body changes, from a little girl to a woman, you can go from being a weak little girl to a strong woman and be a better version of yourself.”

Kassidy said there was a tiny risk, since the thyroid was near her vocal chords, that her voice could change after the surgery — or she could possibly lose my voice.

“Obviously that didn’t happen,” laughed Kassidy, who after this interview returned to her job for the afternoon — as P.A. announcer at a junior high track meet.

“I was mainly nervous about getting back into running,” said Kassidy, sporting a 2-inch scar on her throat. “I took three months off before surgery, then two more months before I got back into it. I was worried if I was going to be able to get back into shape. Would I be as good as I used to be?”

Turns out, she is.

She has to take a tablet every day for the rest of her life, to replace the hormone the thyroid produces.

At state, she plans to compete in the 800 and 1,600, and run a leg on the 4x400 relay.

After high school, she plans to go to Boise State, and become an athletic trainer or a doctor — a decision influenced by her thyroid episode.

“I’m taking anatomy this year, and we’re actually learning about the thyroid right now,” she said. “It’s cool to actually understand what’s going on.”

“It’s obviously really nice to be back running again,” Kassidy said. “It was really hard not to be out there doing stuff, because all my friends were into it ... I when I feel super stressed out or not feeling very good about my races, it could be a lot worse. You could be not running at all. I guess I have a bit more perspective on life now.”

MENTI HAS earned four letters in cross country and basketball, and will earn his fourth in track and field this spring.

Menti shrugs at the stature of a three-sport athlete, saying a lot of kids at Timberlake do that.

“But I’m really, really proud of the four letters in all of them. That’s a real achievement; a real honor for me,” he said.

“We tell our kids, we want you to play multiple sports,” Lawler said. “His basketball coach knows he’s going to stay fit in cross country. As a track coach, I know he’s being active all winter. Nobody tries to steal from anybody else, and the kids see the value in that.”

Menti’s favorite sport is basketball, where he helped Timberlake qualify for state this winter for only the second time in school history.

He took up cross country in junior high, and had success, so he stuck with it.

“I was really good at cross, and I really enjoyed it, so I did that,” he said. “And it really helped me for basketball, and then I did track, because I was good at cross, and that helped me for summer ball.”

Lawler credits his wife, Stacie, who is Timberlake’s junior high cross country coach, and also coaches junior high track, for getting Menti involved in running track as a seventh-grader, which led to running cross country in eighth grade, which led to ...

“He’s just a really great kid; just a high-quality kid,” Lawler said. “Great leader. He came into our cross country program where he’d been good in junior high, and he just got better and better. But because he had been so good when he was so young, he kind of took the leadership role. I felt kinda bad, because you never want a sophomore taking a leadership role, but he had to take that role, and he handled that pressure really well. Coming in and being good from the very beginning, a state medalist his freshman, sophomore and junior years, being a district champion his junior year, and having to be a leader all those years was challenging, but in every case, he did a great job.”

Like Kassidy, Brayden was a three-time medalist at state in cross country.

Menti said when he was growing up, he looked up to Keegan Scott, another three-sport athlete at Timberlake, who graduated in 2014 and is now playing basketball at The Master’s University in Santa Clarita, Calif.?“He was a real inspiration to me because he worked so hard for what he did, and he just wanted it above anything else,” Menti said.

Michael Scott, who is Keegan’s father and who took over as Timberlake’s boys basketball coach last season, can understand.

“The similarities are the work they put in,” Scott said. “Both are three-sport athletes. I never had to ask (Menti) to work outside of practice. He would go run cross country, then go to the gym and shoot. Keegan would play football, then go shoot. Both would do stuff that most guys don’t like to do, but need to do.”

Scott, who works for a mortgage company, would call Menti if he was going to be a few minutes late for practice, because he could count on his senior leader to get the team going before the coach arrived.

“But he also took it upon himself to get everybody together over the summer, to work on conditioning and ballhandling and shooting,” Scott said.

Last week, Michael and Keegan were watching the district track meet at Timberlake. Menti was anchoring the medley relay, in which the Tigers were trailing.

“I said, he’ll catch ’em, because he does not like to lose,” Michael Scott said.

Sure enough ...

“I wish I had a player like him every year,” Scott said.

Like Hammond, Menti says this is it for competitive sports once high school is over.

He plans to major in kinesiology in college, with the hopes of being a physical therapist someday.

At state, he’ll run the 800 meters, where his best of 2:02.02 is less than four seconds off the school record, and run a leg on the medley and 4x400 relays.

Whatever the team needs.

“I’ve always tried to be a team-first kind of guy,” Menti said. “I don’t like playing for myself; I don’t think there’s a lot of value in that.”

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