When the Ranger girls track and field team took second at True Team Sections this spring by just 3.5 points, 50 athletes slumped their shoulders in disappointment in the White Bear Lake stadium. The mood carried on to the bus, where a mixture of silence, fatigue and somberness emanated from the girls and their coaches.
Head coach Eric Kaluza held his head in his hands and assistant coach Devin Swanberg leaned back against the glass. Both seemed shocked about not taking the team to True Team State, as they had done the year before.
Senior Jessica Dhaene, a hurdler and all-around standout on the team, sat near the coaches to tell them her thoughts.
“We did our best and things are going to get better, I know they are,” Dhaene said. “We’ll have a good year yet.”
Kaluza said he won’t forget Dhaene’s encouraging words so soon after a loss, but explained that her simple positivity is what makes her unique.
“It’s her maturity as an athlete, she can recognize the qualities and characteristics of all people of the team and has that ‘see the forest through the trees’ mentality,” Kaluza said. “That, and her ability to just always do her best and she’s always honest, whether it’s saying ‘well, that was a terrible race’ or ‘yeah, I did well.’”
More often than not, Dhaene performed her best. She qualified individually for state competition a total of eight times: twice in track and field, four times in gymnastics and twice in diving.
Dhaene was also the recipient of the prestigious East Metro Athena Award for Forest Lake, given to female student athletes who display excellence in athletics and academics.
“I thought it was kind of cool, because it was out of the whole school and I was the one who got it — like someone saw what I’ve accomplished,” Dhaene said. “I think they like that I show of a lot of dedication and hard work. A lot of it is I like to push myself and I don’t like to hear what I’m doing well from the coaches, I like to hear what I really need to do to get better.”
Dhaene joined the Forest Lake swimming and diving team after prompting from friend and now-Minnesota Gopher diver Jessica Ramberg. After eight years of gymnastics, the tumbler listened to Ramberg to take her moves to the pool. In just her second year in the sport, Dhaene took fourth overall in the Section 7AA meet to complete a Forest Lake sweep in diving for the team.
This fall, the Ranger took first in seven out of nine dual meets this season and earned first in three of four 11-dive meets. She also qualified for state again, this time clinching second place at the section meet in the one-meter dive. Dhaene placed in the top-23 in both state meets.
This winter, Dhaene took to the gym to earn her fourth consecutive trip to state in gymnastics and her fourth individual section champion title.
While she qualified only on the uneven bars her ninth grade and sophomore year, Dhaene had a breakout season and advanced in bars, floor, vault and the all-around her junior year.
The gymnast did it again this year, and earned Forest Lake gymnastics its first state medal since 2008 with her fifth-place finish on the vault.
Head coach Ashley Brett said Dhaene’s progression as an athlete is determined by her rigorous training.
“Jessica is unique as an athlete because she does not know how to say that something is impossible or ‘I can’t,’” Brett said. “She was constantly setting new goals because she was constantly making them. I have never worked with an athlete with her work ethic — while most kids leave the gym at the end of practice, we would sometimes have to force her out after she had ‘one more-ed’ for half an hour after the end.”
Track and field
Dhaene didn’t stop her stellar senior year this spring.
After joining the Forest Lake girls track and field team as a ninth-grader, Kaluza told the Ranger that hurdling would not be her event after recording over the 18-second mark in the 100-meter hurdles. Two years later, Dhaene not only won the section title in the 300-meter hurdles, she also qualified for state in the 100-meter hurdles with a second-place finish. Her personal best in the latter event? Nearly a four-second improvement from three seasons prior at 14.8.
Despite not qualifying for the finals at state in the 300-meter hurdles, Dhaene earned another state medal in the 100-meter hurdles by taking fourth place.
The trackster continued her quest this season with another fourth-place finish at the state meet in the 100-meter hurdles to close her high school athletic career, prompting her head coach to reflect.
“I’ll never coach another kid like Jess, and that’s what makes her special,” Kaluza said. “She’ll do whatever you need her to do, even if I said ‘OK, run the 2-mile,’ she’d do it. She’s flexible, she’s honest and she just takes care of other kids too — there are so many superlatives you could say about her, and she’s just been a really great kid to have as a captain and to see the progression of.”
Dhaene plans to attend the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where she plans to major in pre-med and compete in gymnastics and possibly track and field.
Brett also attended UW-Eau Claire and trained under Blugold coach Jean DeLisle. Brett said she believes Dhaene will only continue to excel in college, especially following her decorated high school career.
“She has acquired a skill set of work ethic, time management and drive that is required to take her gymnastics to the next level,” Brett said. “I believe Jean and Jessica will be a perfect fit and Jessica will continue to grow as a gymnast and a young woman.”