Ninja Turtles: State-bound Grain Valley relay runners have fun with nickname

Bill Althaus
The Examiner

Before the start of the spring track season, Grain Valley's Carter Vrlenich, Logan Pratt, Cole Keller, Tristin Pouncil, Keagan Hart and Jacob McAhan got together and decided they were going to have some fun. 

Keller, who also stars on the Eagles baseball team that will be playing in the state quarterfinals Saturday, and Vrlenich had never run track. But it was their senior year and they wanted to go out with a bang. 

Hart, a sophomore who missed out on last season because of the pandemic, also plays baseball with Keller and they all have teamed with Pratt, Pouncil and McAhan for three of the most successful relay teams in school history.

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, also known as the Grain Valley track and field team relay teams of, from left, Keagan "Donatello" Hart, Jacob McAhan, who shares "Donatello's moniker with Hart; Logan "Leonardo" Pratt, Carter "Michelangelo" Vrlenich and Cole "Raphael" Keller. They dreamed up the turtle nicknames before the start of a season in which they broke three school relay records in the the 400-, 800- and 1,600-meter races. They will compete in each of those events in Thursday's Class 5 Missouri State High School Track and Field Championships in Jefferson City.

"We all kind of got together before the start of the season and said let's do something fun, something no other relay team had ever done," Keller said, "and we started talking about famous groups of four. 

"There were the Three Musketeers, but we needed something with four members." 

So they talked and did some research and came up with an answer.

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"The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," said Vrlenich, referring to the quartet of turtles who became superheroes in the late 1980s and early 1990s on television and in films. "None of us really came up with the idea on our own, it was kind of a group thing and we all agreed on it. It was kind of cool – and fun." 

Vrlenich is Michaelangelo, the jokester; Pratt is Leonardo, the leader; Keller is Raphael, the biggest and strongest; Hart and McAhan share Donatello, who is either the smartest or goofiest, depending on who you talk to, and the newest member, Pouncil, shares Raphael with Keller. 

Grain Valley senior Cole Keller finishes off a win in the 1,600-meter (4x400) relay in the Grain Valley Invitational Thursday.

"I'm not sure about being the goofiest," quipped Hart, when told about Vrlenich's comment, "but if all I have to do is be smarter than Carter, that's a no-brainer."

Nice comeback for the sophomore – very Donatello-ish.

When first-year head coach Erik Stone heard about the Ninja Turtle concept, which features turtle shell backpacks – compliments of an Amazon purchase by Vrlenich's mom – and socks and headbands that correspond to their respective characters, he was not a fan. 

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"I heard what they were going to wear and I was not on board at first," said Stone, who was named head track coach before the start of last year's canceled season, "so I told them, 'If you're going to do something like this, you better go out and back it up.' 

"And, boy, did they ever back it up."

They broke school record times in the 400 (42.60 seconds), 800 (1 minute, 28.57 seconds) and 1,600 (3:21.33) relays.

McAhan, Pouncil, Vrlenich and Pratt make up the 400; McAhan, Pratt, Vrlenich and Keller run in the 800; and Vrlenich, Hart, Pratt and Keller team up on the 1,600 that broke an 18-year school record. 

"It's really pretty cool that they're having fun being kids, and they're going out and winning and breaking school records," Stone said. "Two of the records were two or three years old, but breaking an 18-year-old record is pretty impressive."

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And there may be a new twist to this tale Thursday at state, as Keller revealed a little secret. 

"We have a Master Splinter burgundy robe and headband for Coach (Brian) Winckler," Keller said, referring to the father figure of the Ninja Turtles and the Eagles sprint coach. "He promised us he'd wear it at state if the relays made it, and we made it – so, we'll have to see." 

He broke up laughing at the image of the veteran coach in his Master Splinter gear. 

"This is more fun than we ever thought," Keller added, "more successful and a lot more fun."