The college track career of 2017 Stephenville HIgh School standout Kylee Ponder is suddenly over, but not before she and her dad, Tarleton coach Pat Ponder, got to spend three seasons working together.
Three years ago, Kylee Ponder’s decision to attend Tarleton State University and compete on the track team was easy enough.
Her experience of being coached at the collegiate level by her father, TSU head track coach Pat Ponder, also was stress-free.
But about a month ago, the 2017 Stephenville High School graduate and former state track meet qualifier learned that her athletics career was coming to an abrupt halt.
Kylee was one of Tarleton’s 15 senior track and field athletes whose sports careers effectively ended when the NCAA canceled the remainder of the spring schedules due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Because she will complete her studies to earn a degree in kinesiology in December and won’t have any other classes to pursue at TSU, Ponder decided that she won’t return for a fourth track season in 2021. She will be able to graduate one semester early, thanks in part to 15 hours of college credits that she had earned in high school.
Even though Tarleton’s 17 track and field seniors are among those who have been granted another year of NCAA sports eligibility, the only two returning will be Anterius Brown and Jamel Anderson.
“It’s very sad and disappointing,” Kylee said of the season’s cancellation by the NCAA, which came just before the outdoor track season was to begin.
TSU’s track team was about to have its first outdoor meet of the 2020 season, to be followed by the Texans’ annual home meet, the Joe Gillespie Invitational.
In addition to Ponder, TSU’s other senior track athletes are: Emily Castleberry (heptathlon), Haley Dennard (distance), Jasmine McQuirter (sprints/jumps), Taylor Richards (distance), Kamrynn Schiller (hurdles), Emily Smith (sprints), Bailey O’Connor (heptathlon), Timothy Gowans (sprints), Ikechi Iromuanya (hurdles), Quenten Lasseter (distance), Tylor Randell (mud-distance), Malik Robinson (sprints), Michael Simcho (mid-distance), and Colton Troutman (sprints).
This spring, Kylee was one of nine Tarleton track athletes named as all-region performers by the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association in the 400-meter run.
“She missed the opportunity to run at nationals by two places,” Pat said.
That NCAA Division II Indoor Track and Field Championship meet ended up being canceled, because of the COVID-19 shutdown.
When Kylee first heard that the NCAA was cancelling the rest of the 2020 season before the outdoor season could even get rolling, she had to confirm it with her dad in order to fully grasp the reality.
“She texted me, ‘So this is it? It’s over?’ As a coach, that’s devastating,” Pat said.
Pat said that Kylee was showing signs that she was headed on a path toward being a highly competitive athlete even at “a very young age. Her mother, Michelle, said she saw signs of that as early as age 3.
“She’s always been that kid,” Pat said.
At first she was involved in gymnastics and select soccer, before turning her attention to volleyball and track as she grew older.
Pat described her as “driven” to compete in sports, and she was self-motivated.
As a senior at SHS, Ponder qualified for the Class 4A state track meet in the 100-meter dash and placed ninth. She was a National Honor Society member at SHS, and has been on the Dean’s List every semester at TSU.
“Academically, she is solid,” Pat said. “As a coach, I never had to worry about her grades.”
Pat and his wife, Michelle, have another daughter, Kenna Fuentes, two years older than Kaylee. Michelle is a teacher at Hook Elementary School. Kenna is currently a teacher’s aide in the Huckabay school district, and attending Ranger College while working toward earning her teaching certificate.
At SHS, Kylee was a four-year letterman in track, played two varsity seasons on the Honeybee volleyball squad, and was a varsity cheerleader her junior and senior years.
DAD, THE COACH
Pat Ponder, who has been coaching track and field for 32 years, was clearly thrilled with the chance to coach his own daughter.
“It was “the opportunity of a lifetime,” he said. “Obviously it was a pleasure, to say the least. She is so coachable. She was just a hard worker. She always had a goal in mind, and she was self-motivated. She made coaching fun. Our relationship is pretty strong.”
Kylee said, “I thought it would be fun to run for my dad,” — and that proved to be true.
She said that they were able to keep their family relationship separate from their track talk, and her dad managed to avoid showing favoritism — while also not being too tough on her.
“He was very fair. He never treated me any different than the others, and I didn’t want to be,” Kylee said. “He’s pretty laid back.”
Pat said that they didn’t discuss track when the track practices were over at the end of the day.
“Even when she was in high school, we never talked track,” Pat said, including the summer months. “We wanted her to be a kid, and enjoy the summertime. I never pushed her.”
Although Angelo State University contacted her about coming there to run track, her decision to go to Tarleton was strictly hers, with no pressure from the coach.
“When she did make the decision to run (at TSU), I was excited,” Pat said.
Ideally, he does wish she was coming back for her final year of eligibility.
“I’m just appreciative of life and to be able to coach my daughter. But I hate that she’s not going to run her senior year.”
Pat’s accomplishments over his 32-year coaching career include being a six-time Lone Star Conference Coach of the Year at Tarleton in either track or cross country (once as the men’s coach, in 2008) since moving to Stephenville to take the head coaching job in 2007. In 2005, as head of the track program at Texas A&M-Commerce, he was the LSC Men’s Track and Field Coach of the Year.
Kylee had been mostly involved in the shorter sprint events as a member of the Honeybee track team in high school. She continued that as a freshman, and was also used in the 4x100 relay.
Her dad eventually decided her skills made her better suited for longer races, such as the 400-meter run starting as a sophomore at TSU. That paid off when she won first place in that event at three different meets.
“She just took to it like a duck in water,” Pat said.
“They needed me to run a leg on the mile relay, and they put me in the quarter-miler group,” Kylee said of the college transition. “The workouts were way different.”
She said that the the area she improved on the most while being coached by her dad was her endurance for those longer events.
“Being in that 400 training group, that helped me a whole lot,” she said. “It’s not easy to take a sprinter and turn them into a quarter-miler. He had to do some work.”
But, she added, “I was up for the challenge. I loved it. You’ve got to have a strong mentality.”
Kylee, now 21, hopes to enroll in Weatherford College in the fall of 2021 and study stenography.
“I’d really like to work in a hospital and do stenography.”
When asked if she may be spotted some day soon running just for fun, Kylee said, “You might. I’ll continue working out.”