Helena Leyrer, 17 of Dorothy, and  Andrea Olsen, 16 of Estell Manor, practice the hurdles Wednesday at Buena Regional High School girls track and field practice.  Wednesday, March, 28, 2012  ( Press of Atlantic City/Danny Drake)

Despite a fairly young yet large team last year, the Buena Regional High School girls track and field squad added to its list of accomplishments.

The Chiefs won their fourth consecutive Cape-Atlantic League National Conference championship and went undefeated (9-0-1). They won their first state Group II title in program history.

Helena Leyrer won her first state Group II title in the 400-meter hurdles and the 4x400 relay team not only won the state championship as well but was named The Press’ Female Athletes of the Spring in 2011.

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This year doesn’t seem as if it will be much different.

However, the Chiefs’ success did not come without obstacles. Coach Stephanie Winkler had her biggest and youngest team in her six years of coaching last season.

This year is no different except those girls have seen what it’s like to be a part of a competitive team.

“Their mindset has changed, they saw all the success the main girls had and they got a taste of it last year,” Winkler said. “Now they are saying, ‘We can do that, too,’ and they’re asking me what the national qualifying times are and, instead of improving in small ways, they are setting much bigger goals and their sights on things like school records and making it to nationals.”

Buena has a solid core of 15 returning athletes, which includes senior standout Leyrer and relay-team members Emely Ramirez and Casey Sturts.

They also have sophomore twin sisters Gina and Lisa Testa, who are now in their second year and already have run personal bests this March. They qualified for the 3,200 run at the indoor state championship this winter and continue to improve much faster than Winkler expected.

“We’re ahead of schedule and a lot of that has to do with the weather,” Winkler said. “Helena is in the same spot right now as she was in at sectionals last year, and a lot of them are in that same kind of position. We haven’t had any cold, cold days, and we’ve been able to do those specialty events like jumping and hurdles, and we were outside a lot during the winter so the girls are in really good shape and it’s just outstanding.”

All 15 returners ran indoor track this winter and have set the tone for the outdoor season. The 4x400 team looks promising again as junior Andrea Olsen, who lives in Estell Manor, is back from an ankle injury and will replace graduating senior Ashley Roman on the team.

“She looks phenomenal,” Winkler said. “We had a very successful winter season and we didn’t miss a beat with Andrea taking over for Ashley.”

After a successful freshman year, Olsen, 16, missed her sophomore season due to a sprained ankle. This winter was her first time running again at full speed and the relay team is already running faster than the team last year.

“(Her sprained ankle) was unexpected, really,” Olsen said. “I’m so happy I didn’t fall behind from not running. I’m working really hard and I love having the other relay girls running with me. They really push me at practice and encourage me.”

Winkler knew last year, that even though the team may be rebuilding on paper, she saw a lot of potential in her first-year athletes — the Testa twins, Sturts, Ramirez and Courtney Curcio.

This year seems to be no different. Freshman Lynn Brown already is throwing the javelin 80 feet. Newcomer Breann Guilford is throwing around 28 feet in the shot put.

“We’re all going to get a lot better than we were and are right now and I’m really looking forward to an excellent season,” Olsen said.

The Chiefs also have set a lot of impressive goals for the 2012 outdoor season. The shuttle-hurdle team is looking to break the school record and qualify for nationals. The 4x400 relay team is looking to continue its two-year success.

Each athlete as an individual is looking to improve. Winkler had everyone write down her individual goals for the season. This way they are never out of sight and never out of mind.

“I think they’re more likely to achieve it this way because it’s right there in front of you and keeps you focused,” Winkler said.

The team will be tested right away as it prepares for its first goal, beating conference foe Bridgeton. The Chiefs will start the spring season Wednesday at Bridgeton. The Bulldogs tied the Chiefs last year.

“They are always someone to take seriously,” Winkler said. “They have a lot of great athletes and the kids are actually looking forward to the competition early on.”

The team feels confident that this season will continue to produce the success many of the girls are used to.

“They’re ready and they definitely feel as though they have something to prove,” Winkler said. “These kids on my team have never lost, but they know it’s fragile and it’s something that can be taken away at any moment. You never underestimate any single race and that’s how you come out with a victory.”

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