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NWU relay team

Nebraska Wesleyan's women's 4x400 relay team of Anna Frazier (from left) Kaylee Jones, Aspen Rolfes and Elizabeth Jones are chasing a fifth straight national title in the event this weekend at the NCAA Division III Championships in La Crosse, Wis.

Aspen Rolfes noticed early on during Nebraska Wesleyan track practices.

The Prairie Wolves freshman was new to the team, but she and fellow sprinters Anna Frazier, Kaylee Jones and Elizabeth Jones were all hanging together on splits.

But the first time it really clicked? That was when the four first combined to run a 4x400 relay in competition.

"After that, that's when I really knew," Rolfes said. "Wow, we actually have something here. This could be good."

It was February and NWU was competing at Nebraska's Frank Sevigne Husker Invitational at the Devaney Sports Center. That was the first time Rolfes, a Lincoln Pius X graduate, teamed up with the Jones sisters and Frazier, all Millard North graduates, to run the 4x400 at a meet.

But their time said it all. At 3 minutes, 46.21 seconds, they finished behind and competed right with the likes of Nebraska, Maryland, Iowa, Division II Missouri State and junior college powerhouse Iowa Central CC.

"Everything kind of fit into place," Elizabeth Jones said of that first run. "It was like, 'All right, guys let's do it. If this is what we can do, then let's do it.' Once we knew that we could do it, we were all on board."

Good is an understatement for Nebraska Wesleyan's recent run of 4x400 relay teams. The NWU women's 4x400 relay team has not lost on a national championship stage in nearly two years. That's four straight national titles, indoor and outdoor, with the newest group eyeing a fifth straight when the NCAA Division III Outdoor Championships begin Thursday in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

But to get to this most recent end, we must go back to the most recent beginning.

The Jones sisters ran legs, as freshmen, on the relay team that started it all. They teamed with Abbie Hunke and Katie Krick for the 2016 outdoor national title, which gave way to a sweep of titles in 2017. But Hunke and Krick graduated following the 2017 season, leaving holes to fill heading into the 2018 season.

Enter Frazier and Rolfes. NWU coach Ted Bulling said Rolfes was an incoming freshman the team was confident could step in right away and fill a role. Frazier put in the work over the past three years to compete at the national level.

Frazier ran with the Jones sisters when they won an all-class gold medal in the 1,600 relay at the 2015 state track meet, but she had to work her way to a spot. She recalled how she didn't earn a spot on the high school relay team until junior and senior years, and had to work pretty hard to get there. The story repeated at NWU.

It led to what Bulling thought was possible, combined with staying healthy and buying into the training. But Bulling said the 2018 indoor national title was significant because it was the first without the departed Hunke and Krick.

The Prairie Wolves take the second-fastest qualifying time, 3:45.45, into the outdoor championships, with relay preliminaries at 5:45 p.m. Thursday. The final is the last race of the meet, set to run at 4 p.m. Saturday. The NWU women have 10 total entries at the championships, covering eight athletes and the relay. The Jones sisters both qualified in the open 400.

That very first relay, Kaylee Jones led off, with Rolfes running second, Frazier third and Elizabeth Jones anchor. The order has since evolved to Frazier on the lead, Kaylee Jones second, Rolfes third and Elizabeth Jones holding down the anchor.

The quartet didn't run at the IIAC indoor championships, when NWU finished second in the event. But they returned to win the indoor national title in 3:47.06.

And their outdoor national qualifying time came at the ultra-competitive Drake Relays, where they finished third in the college division. By straight time, the Prairie Wolves had the 10th-fastest finals run, college or university division.

They also didn't run together at the IIAC outdoor championships, with Rolfes and Frazier sliding over to fill other lineup spots, but Devine Gines (Omaha Christian) and Abby Allen (Crete) stepped in to help the team capture gold.

So is there pressure to keep the national run going at five straight?

Bulling let out a quick laugh when asked that question. He recalled how the other day he was talking to the relay team about the drive for five.

"And while that's great, the previous four don't help us one bit this weekend," Bulling said. "We've got to be, make sure we're focused on now, this meet, these next three days, and what happened in the past is in the past.

"You know, I'm sure they feel (pressure) a little bit. But yet, it's a new day, it's a new meet and you gotta go out each time and do the best you can each weekend."

The Jones sisters both admitted there is some pressure. They've been here, done this before, but it's not about the past. It's about what they want to accomplish this time.

"If that's not a repeat, then it's not a repeat," Kaylee Jones said. "But I know that each one of these girls has heart and soul and we're going to go give it all we have and we're definitely going to work toward that fifth win."

For Frazier and Rolfes, this is their first outdoor championships. So they can't lose sight of that moment either, Frazier said. She explained how each new race is another opportunity, and you can't lose sight of being present in that moment.

From there, it's understanding the purpose behind past experiences and your training, right down to the moment of when you are on the track during competition.

"I think just taking that away, because no matter what place we get, we're always going to have those memories with each other and with the rest of the team that's here, too," Frazier said. "I think that's really the important part. Just go and enjoy it and give our best, and what happens is what happens."

Reach the writer at 402-473-2646 or crobus@journalstar.com. On Twitter @ClintRobus.

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Digital sports editor

Clint Robus is the digital and assistant sports editor at the Journal Star.

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