BILLINGS — Jaeden Wolff knew she was going to play college softball.
She wasn’t in high school yet, but in Wolff’s mind, her future was set. A steady center fielder, Wolff was blessed with so much speed that her coaches encouraged her to switch from batting right-handed to left-handed and become a slap-hitter. She could outrun any ground ball, after all, and batting from the left side put her that much closer to first base.
Growing up in Arizona, softball was a year-round pursuit. It was about all Wolff knew athletically, so what other future than a college career could there be?
Then again, Wolff had no inkling where those churning legs were really going to take her. She certainly had no idea she might have a chance at a state-record 100-meter dash time for a high school female in Montana.
The wheels of change began to spin when the Wolff family moved to Montana just over four years ago. Wolff was in eighth grade, and since it was near Christmas, the summer softball season was long over.
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Figuring it was a way to meet and make friends, the newly arrived Wolff — with some encouragement from her father — decided to run track in the spring. She had participated in track as a sixth-grader in Arizona but didn’t keep at it. She found some enjoyment in her latest attempt, however.
“I found that I was pretty decent at it,” Wolff said.
There was one problem, though. If she wanted to pursue her new sport further while still playing her old favorite sport, they’d conflict with one another. Softball and track are both spring sports in high school.
The West High track coaches, particularly head coach Rob Stanton, are amenable to multi-sport athletes. In fact, the track staff encourages athletes from every other sport to give theirs a try, explaining the benefits that track-and-field training can bring to any athletes’ other endeavors.
Trying to balance the track and field schedule with a softball schedule just wouldn’t work, though, and Wolff made a difficult decision. She was going to run track. Wolff gets her softball fix now by watching her West schoolmates play when she can.
“Like, right now, I kind of miss it,” she said. “Sometimes I wish I was out there still playing, but I obviously can’t do both. And I felt like track was just for me.”
It’d be hard to argue her decision. After finishing in eighth place in the 100-meter dash at state as a freshman with a 12.93 clocking, and missing the entire 2020 season because it was canceled due to COVID, Wolff hit her stride last spring.
Still, in a way, Wolff took her natural talent for granted. It wasn’t until her first race her junior year that a light bulb went off. She finished in first place in a meet at Billings Skyview and standing at the finish line waiting for her time Wolff figured she ran in the 12.7 neighborhood.
When the timer told Wolff she clocked a 12.36 she was shocked.
“That was the race where I was like, ‘OK, I could definitely do this in college,’“ Wolff said. “That’s what gave me the drive to work out and put a whole bunch of work into liking track.”
Drive. That word is among some of the character traits West strength coach Mark Johnston uses to motivate the athletes he works with. Wolff certainly has that.
She’s immersed herself in the weight room, challenging herself and others to be better. She and fellow Bear Taco Dowler, one of the fastest Class AA boys in the state who recently won the Midland Roundtable’s male athlete of the year award, are known to challenge each other to sled-pushing contests.
Once started, neither wants to give in. Johnston said one such contest lasted for more than an hour.
“(Wolff) pushed our heavy sleds and our lightweight sleds almost every day this winter, as well as weight training four times a week,” Johnston said. “She’s put in a lot of work to get to the point she is now, and I’m so proud of her.”
Gone are the days of sprinters simply relying on their ability to run fast. The last couple decades have seen a transformation that requires a sprinter to have not only speed, but explosiveness, strength and, yes, even endurance, according to West sprint coach Chris Blomquist.
Thanks to her dedication, Wolff has all that covered.
Wolff, Blomquist said, “just looks different than just about anybody else” when she’s running the 100. Wolff hits her “top end,” or top speed, about 30 to 40 meters into a race, which is about normal for sprinters. It’s what happens in the rest of the race that makes all the difference.
“The 100 is an endurance race, (because) you can only hold your top end for about 30 to 40 meters,” Blomquist explained. “So basically, the last 30 to 40 meters of your race you’re decelerating. The kids who have the ability to hold on longer or decelerate the least look like they’re pulling away, but they’re actually just decelerating the least of anybody in the race. (Wolff) has that unique ability to just kind of look like she’s continuing to open a lead all the way to the finish line.”
Before she finishes her high school career this weekend at the Class AA state track and field meet in Butte, Wolff has a few things she wants to accomplish. She aims to help the Bears win another 400-meter relay title (she already has two) and perhaps add a 200-meter dash gold medal to her resume.
What she really wants is to repeat as the 100-meter champion, setting the record along the way. She’s also trying to be the first high school female in Montana to run a sub-12 second electronically timed race. Wolff toppled the 30-year old West school record for the 100 (previously held by Michelle Henderson) earlier this season, and set a new Eastern AA Divisional standard over the weekend as well by running 12.08.
State records can only be set at the state meet, and currently that mark for the 100 sits at 12.19 seconds, held by Billings Senior’s Morgan Sulser (2014). Wolff’s PR this season is the 12.06 time she ran in April at a meet in Wyoming, so some of those goals are in reach.
Whether she accomplishes those goals or not, it’s amazing to consider how far Wolff has come by plunging herself into the sprints for basically just two years. Given that, Blomquist is eager to see what’s to come for Wolff, who has signed to run at Montana State. Just the fact she’s taken ninth-tenths of a second off an already top-eight time her freshman year is food for thought.
“And she missed a whole year,” Blomquist said, referring to the COVID year of 2020. “The amazing thing is that she’s been able to go this far in such a short amount of time, when you really think about it.”
Wolff said she does think about it from time to time.
“I definitely was not like, ‘I’m going to go to Montana and run track,’” Wolff said. “I felt like I was just going to play softball. Sometimes, like, I can’t believe four years ago I was running those times compared to today … how different everything was to how it is now. It’s kind of crazy to think about.”
And to think, if not for a fortuitous move to Montana, Wolff might still be slapping hits to the left side of some softball diamond, using her speed for 60 feet at a time rather than 100 meters.
Email Mike Scherting at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @GazSportsSchert.