A long journey to the top

Pleasant Valley senior Luke Knepp overcomes all odds to finish his season on the podium


Drake Hanson

Senior Luke Knepp leads a pack of runners during the 2022 MAC Conference meet on Oct. 13 at Crow Creek Park.

Pranav Suresh, Arts and Entertainment Editor

On that podium, he was nothing but overjoyed. None of the people looking up at the deck saw that though. What they saw was a semi-conscious runner who was giving it his all just to stay standing. 

As they called his name, he faintly lifted his arm up to point down on his teammates and supporters, clearly winded. Failing to meet his own past success, Senior Luke Knepp had always run with a weight of pressure on his shoulders. Although simply standing up was close to impossible at this moment, Knepp rejoiced as four years of pressure was finally released on Oct. 29.

On Oct. 29, Knepp competed alongside Iowa’s top runners at the IHSAA cross country championship at Municipal Golf Course in Fort Dodge. Knepp was rarely on the radar of competitors around the state, never ranking in the top-30 this season and reaching the first mile in 59th place. 

It didn’t look like he would be close to winning the exclusive All-State honors that the first 15 finishers receive. “I hammered after the [first] mile and moved up a ton. At the two mile mark I looked around and just thought to myself, oh my god these kids are so much faster than me,” Knepp stated. 

And move up he did. 

In the second mile of this 3.1 mile race, Knepp passed an astounding 44 places, positioning himself at 15th.“Coming down the stretch I thought I was going to just collapse with every step, but at that point there was only a mile left, there was nothing I could do but give it my all,” Knepp continued.

Knepp finished the race, and it was apparent that he gave it his all.

Finishing with a season best of 16:00, Knepp crossed the line in 13th, naming himself among the short list of elite Spartans to win All-State honors. Vomiting four times and struggling to walk even an hour after crossing the finish line, Knepp took it in a positive light, stating, “At least I knew I gave it [the race] everything I had.”

Success has not come easy for Knepp, though. In between COVID-19, injuries and the loss of a close friend, the pure grit Knepp exhibited to persevere through such adversity is nothing short of phenomenal.

Senior Luke Knepp has always been one of the most athletically gifted members of the class of 2023. From winning the Washburn Middle School State Championships to the State Free Throw Contest, this four sport athlete was someone who was unbeatable in just about every competitive activity. He could out-shoot you in a game of HORSE, smash you in a rally of ping-pong, outthrow you in baseball, pin you in wrestling, out-putt you on the greens and dust you on track. Whatever sport Knepp touched, he was more than likely to be the winner.

Winning the state cross country championship in 7th grade and placing sixth in 8th grade, Knepp was ready to translate his success into high school running.

Making that jump from 2 miles to 3.1, Knepp was the fastest freshman with a time of 17:33. But with his constant strive to get better, this was just the beginning for an already well-awarded Spartan.

With Knepp, there was always “next race.” If he won, he accepted congratulations humbly, and if he didn’t do as well as he hoped, there was always next race. Alongside the guidance of upperclassmen like Ian Kaffenberger and Tommy Ashby, Knepp trained through the winter for track season, finishing with a speedy 10:36 for 2 miles before the 2020 spring season came to an abrupt halt.

From there, the road was a difficult one that required strength and toughness. With lockdowns and not being able to race or practice together as a team, Knepp proactively kept running, training for whatever race was next, even if he didn’t know when that would be.

With Spartan all-time greats like Max Murphy and Kent Nichols graduating, Knepp was the shoe-in for the next star runner. Knepp trained upwards of 50 miles a week at this point.

Despite the turbulence of COVID-19 precautions, the fall of 2020 was Knepp’s best season yet. Placing 4th in the MAC conference meet as a sophomore, his name became known as he toed the lines of courses. A highlight of this season was the Steve Johnson Invite, where Knepp ran a blazing 15:57, cementing him as the second fastest sophomore in the school’s history. Despite such success, there was always the next race.

Training through the winter and the subsequent track season, it seemed like nothing but PR’s were awaiting Knepp. At the season’s first meet, the Dickinson Relays at the University of Northern Iowa, he ran a 10:05 for 3200 meters, placing seventh and looking as fast as ever. That first would be the first, and best race for Knepp that season.

…there was nothing I could do but give it my all.

— Luke Knepp

However, Knepp’s streak sadly ended at this meet. 

After the Dickinson Relays, Knepp felt a slight tightness in his hamstring. Unsure of what it was, he tried running through it, but it became clear later on  that he had to cut his season short. Thankfully for Knepp, there was always the next race.

Knepp started incorporating swims, bike rides, and physical training, adapting his workout regimen to find the balance between staying in shape and staying healthy. Doing this for the next 5 months, his junior season of cross country quickly approached him.

Knepp and injuries had a long-lasting relationship, and he never seemed to be able to completely get rid of them. As Knepp ran through lingering injuries and maintained his spot as a top-3 runner for the team, he never managed to beat his times from sophomore year. A season chocked full of injury and no improvement ended with a 62nd place finish at state in 2021. Although satisfactory for many, this was not nearly the improvement that Knepp was looking for. In response, Knepp trained for the next race.

Starting to really feel the injuries that he had far-too-long run through, Knepp had to revert back to his hybrid training program, hoping to not have a repeat of his shortened sophomore track season. Despite his caution, Knepp could not shake off injury.

Knepp ended up only running three of the 19 meets slated for that junior track season, and in those three, they were all through gritted teeth. Desperate to run as fast as he did in the past, Knepp did everything he could to stay healthy, but it just wasn’t enough. Knepp states that this was some of the most mentally challenging times of training. 

As the season ended and he still didn’t feel healthy enough to compete as fast as he once did, he could do nothing but surrender the track season. Knepp had to look forwards towards future races, hoping to get healthy by then.

His next real race was three and a half months later, where he would run the home meet Spartan Challenge for the last time. Knepp knew that coming into the year as a senior that this would be his last chance to match the times he cemented into the records 2 years prior.

Going through the regular early-season benchmark workouts, the now team captain Knepp was ready to run the annual 4,000 meter race on the course as a team, but then heartbreaking news struck the team. PV Class of 2020 runner, captain, All-Stater and friend Ian Kaffenberger had passed away. 

To Knepp and the class of 2023 Kaffenberger was an integral role model to welcoming them into high school as freshmen. Fellow senior captain Michael Chang was also a freshman when Kaffenberger was captain, “Ian was a mentor who showed me what hard work really meant and how it can pay off in the future.” Chang stated.

As the freshmen were running among other 14-year-olds, they looked up to Kaffenberger in countless ways as he raced with grit in an almost superhero-like spirit. As a true leader, his loss was greatly felt.

As Knepp stepped into the role Kaffenberger once held, Knepp reclaimed his purpose for running. Knepp knew the positive impact he could have on the team from experiencing Kaffenberger’s leadership first hand. To commemorate Kaffenberger, Knepp ran with pink shoe laces all season, a signature color Ian wore his senior season as a spartan.

Mounting the grief of Kaffenberger’s loss with the recovery of lingering ailments, Knepp often slipped from his role as a top-3 runner that he held the previous two seasons. With fellow seniors Jacob Mumey and Andrew Miller running great times, Knepp found himself in the 3rd-6th position in the Spartans lineup. Knepp never had a terrible race, but he felt like he also never had a “good” race. Yet, he always looked forward.

After years of failing to meet his own standards, it would be easy to feel hopeless, but whenever there was an ounce of doubt, Knepp fell back to Kaffenberger’s lessons: the hard work will pay off. This reassured his motivation to never give up despite the sheer magnitude of his setbacks.

Wrapping up the regular season, Knepp had a formidable senior season best of 16:24 at the Jim Boughton Invite in Dubuque, a notoriously fast course. His fourth and final MAC conference meet placement slipped a little bit, coming in at 7th, as opposed to 4th and 2nd during the previous two seasons. The next week, the same thing happened at Districts; Knepp placed 12th, four spots behind his 8th place finish in 2021 and 6 behind his 2020 finish.

By this point in the season, nobody in the state expected him in the top-30, much less top-15. To put into perspective, his 12th place finish at districts is equivalent to 60th at state. Knepp, though, simply kept going with his philosophy of looking at the next race. Except this time, his mindset was a little bit different.

Senior year state cross country meet: the race that Knepp knew would be his last as a Spartan. There was no next race to look forward to. Going into this race, there were no thoughts about after the race, only his plan to go out and give it his all in his last meet.

There was no next race. 

Knepp went out strong and shocked the thousands of viewers, finishing 13th, with a time of 16:00. Puking and barely able to walk, there were no thoughts about the next race for Knepp. This was the race. Pushing past the point where his mind and body was screaming at him to stop, Knepp passed some of the state’s biggest names to place himself on the podium.

After more than three seasons riddled with injury, Knepp stepping up on the deck to his name being called was all the more rewarding. Although always giving it his hardest, carrying the biggest of hearts, and leaving an impact on everybody on the team, he often missed the opportunity to hear his name called in front of all the spectators with a medal around his neck.

As a captain and leader, Knepp was always a podium finisher. As a mentor to younger runners, he was always a podium finisher. As a teammate to fellow spartan runners, he was always a podium finisher. As a disciple to coaches, he was and will always be a podium finisher. 

Now, finally, after all the adversity and hours put into the sport, Knepp is officially on the podium, where he has always been in the hearts of everyone he uplifted.