Featured Story

Reaching the upper 'Esch'-elon

By Jacob Knabel on May. 17, 2024 in Track & Field

Behind the ongoing historic run for Concordia Women’s Track & Field are special student-athletes like Jenna Esch. She’s the kind of Bulldog who exemplifies what it looks like when athletic talent is combined with determined effort over the course of a collegiate career. The fruits of her labor became obvious on March 1, 2024, when Esch and her 4x800-meter relay teammates came together in a group hug in celebration of an NAIA national championship and school record.

The national title was a mountaintop moment for Esch as part of a truly remarkable 2024 indoor/outdoor campaign for the native of Hastings, Nebraska. A few short years ago, it hit home just how much Esch lived for these moments.

“I didn’t think about doing a sport in college at all,” Esch said when recalling her high school days. “I didn’t have much interest in it until my senior year. We didn’t really have a track season my junior year (due to COVID-19). I think that’s when I decided I wanted to do it in college. I realized how much I missed it.”

In her third year as a Bulldog, Esch has run like someone making up for lost time. She shook off surgery that wiped out her freshman indoor season and found herself feeling physically better than ever as the calendar flipped to 2024. It showed. During indoor season, Esch qualified for nationals in the 400, the 600 and the 800 while also qualifying as part of three relays: the 4x4, 4x8 and distance medley relay. She then won GPAC titles in every race she ran at the conference indoor meet: 600, 800 and 4x4. From the 200 through the 800 meters, there’s no one in the GPAC better than Esch.

The Saint Cecilia High School product will tell you she didn’t necessarily foresee this kind of success for herself. As a freshman and sophomore prep athlete, Esch ran mostly the 100 and 200 meters. She also gave basketball and volleyball a try. The first college coach Esch ever heard from during her recruitment was Concordia’s Matt Beisel. It left an impression upon Esch, who still wasn’t sure she wanted to compete as a college athlete. When the time arrived to make a decision, Concordia was top of mind.

“I didn’t know much about it, other than they were pretty good,” Esch said. “I knew a little bit about Coach (Mark) Samuels and Coach Beisel. I could see how great they could develop athletes. I felt like if I wanted to be the best I could be, this was the place to go – just with their experience and history of what they can do with athletes.”

Esch found herself in a competitive, encouraging environment that allowed her to thrive and grow in all aspects of life. The presence of fellow GPAC champions and All-Americans such as Kylahn Freiberg, Rylee Haecker and Jordan Koepke have helped push her into a stratosphere she didn’t realize was attainable. Running at nationals in open event? Not likely, or so Esch once thought. Not only did Esch win a national title as part of the 4x8 at the 2024 indoor national meet, she placed fourth in the 800 meters in a time that ranked third best in school history.

“She had one of the best indoor seasons of anyone that we’ve had at Concordia,” Samuels said of her exploits. “We’ve had a few that have had versatility like that, but she’s someone who covers two different groups. In my time we haven’t had someone who’s been quite like her. What she did at the indoor national championships and the amount of 800s she ran – the results were unbelievable. It was a special weekend for her.”

Esch trusted the process and committed to it. The yields have been piles and piles of medals and plaques. Said Esch of the keys to her success in 2024, “I didn’t have any broken bones or surgeries I had to take care of. I trained a lot in the summer and trusted what Coach Samuels had for me when I got back in the fall. I trusted the process. I think it helps that some of my biggest competitors are from Concordia. Being able to work out with them every day and pushing myself definitely showed up in the long run. I just did whatever Samuels gave me honestly.”

The ‘dream team’ 4x8 for the Bulldogs featured Esch, Haecker, Julie McIntyre and Freiberg. On that unforgettable national championship day in Brookings, S.D., everything came together. The splits were 2:16.32 for Esch, 2:17.10 for Haecker, 2:18.12 for McIntyre and 2:14.61 for Freiberg. It added up to a school record time of 9:06.48, sufficient to hold off the hard charging final leg for The Master’s of California (the runner up). As Haecker said at the time, “I’m just overcome with emotion. Senior year – that’s the way to go out for all of us as a relay.”

In reflection, Esch offered, “I definitely wasn’t expecting that at the beginning of the year. As it got closer, we thought we were capable of it. You’re capable of more than you think, I guess. If you put in the work, it will show eventually. I got to do it with a great group of girls, which was super exciting. We all wanted it really bad. I definitely won’t forget it.”

On a Thursday in the middle of May, Esch provides these reflections while nearing the end of her stellar career. Though she loves what she has as a college athlete and Business Administration major at Concordia, Esch has made this her final season. Life will take her in a new direction as she gets married and moves back to her hometown of Hastings. Wherever she goes, she’ll be thankful for the three-year journey as a Bulldog.

“I visited one other college, but this one really stuck out to me with the campus, the coaching staff and the athletes here,” Esch said. “It left an impression on me that they were the first college to reach out to me as a freshman in high school. I felt like I could really grow here. I liked the campus and the coaching staff.”

In turn, Esch will be remembered for her versatility as an athlete and for the way she carried on the program’s tradition of excellence on and off the track. There aren’t many who can say they ran personal bests of 25.26 in the 200, 55.80 in the 400, 1:33.52 in the 600 and 2:12.11 in the 800. There will be one final hurrah as Esch heads to Marion, Ind., for the 2024 NAIA Outdoor Track & Field National Championships. She may need to make room for more medals. More importantly, it’s one final opportunity to create memories with the coaches and teammates that have made her realize just how much she’s capable of achieving.

“There were a lot of challenges for her that first year because of the injuries,” Samuels said. “I think she showed the type of person she is – she’s always been motivated and driven. She loves competing and loves challenging herself. She’s never shy about letting me know how she feels or what events she wants to do. She always wants to do more. That’s a fun dynamic having someone who really pushes themselves. I’m excited to see how she finishes up. I’m truly blessed to be able to coach her.”

Added Esch, “I’ve been counting down the meets I’ve got left since outdoor season started, not in a good way. It’s kind of sad to see it all come to an end. I’ll miss competing for sure, but it’s been really special what I’ve been able to do, especially with this group of people.”