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Steve Dudley was high school teammate of Cowboys’ Jay Novacek

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Les Knutson

WORTHINGTON — One of the best all-around area athletes of the past school year was Worthington’s Will Dudley.

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A junior in 2012-13, Dudley was a dedicated, hard-working varsity contributor for the Trojans in both football and basketball before really excelling as a pole vaulter for Worthington in track and field this past spring.

A two-way starter in football (quarterback on offense, inside linebacker on defense), Dudley also earned a starting forward position in basketball and displayed his versatility as a scorer, passer, ball-handler and defender.

While also competing as a long jumper and running key legs on several Trojan relay teams, Dudley shined as a vaulter in April and May, extending his season into June by qualifying for the state track and field meet.

Clearing 14 feet in a couple of meets, Dudley set a new school record in the pole vault when he won the Southwest Conference gold medal with a height of 14-1 at Redwood Falls May 16.

As Trojans’ coach Ken Henkels pointed out:

“What’s really great about Will is that he concentrates solely on the sport he’s competing in at the time. He gives each sport his full effort during that particular season.”

That’s a refreshing idea —a multiple-sport “throwback” to the “old days” before things like J.O. volleyball and AAU basketball complicated things for today’s student-athletes.

I have my ideas about those activities, which I will save for a future column.

Steve Dudley cleared

14-3 in 1979, but was Gothenburg’s No. 2

Back to the Dudleys.

Will’s father, Steve Dudley was an outstanding high school vaulter in central Nebraska back in the late 1970s.

Steve still holds the family record, clearing 14-3 as a senior at Gothenburg High School in 1979.

That’s pretty dang good. But Steve was the No. 2 guy on his team.

Gothenburg has a 2010 population of 3,574 and had 82 graduates in Steve’s class.

GHS’s top pole vaulter that spring was Lennie Ambler, a two-time state champion, who cleared 15 feet in ’79.

Ambler, Dudley and Steve Collins –– after taking the top three places in the state meet in 1978 – finished 1-2-4 at Nebraska’s state finals the next year.

Yes, Dudley was a two-time state runner-up.

The fourth best vaulter for the Swedes (there is also a Gothenburg in Sweden) that spring was a sophomore named Jay Novacek, who –– while also excelling in other events –– two years later, soared over the bar at 15-1 and claimed the 1981 state title, setting a new meet record.

Novacek also won a hurdles state championship and earned Nebraska all-state honors in both football (quarterback) and basketball.

In 1996, the multi-talented Novacek was inducted into the Nebraska High School Sports Hall of Fame.

“Jay was a tremendous all-around athlete in a school which had a great tradition of pole vaulters,” recalled Steve. “A few years later, his younger brother –– Jason “Bump” Novacek –– cleared 16 feet and won the 1985 state title. Bump still holds the school record, but we had lots of 14-foot plus vaulters over the years.”

Including Worthington’s Steve Dudley, who has served the community as a veterinarian for the past 26 years and has also coached daughters Anneli and Ellen –– prior to son Will –– the skills needed to score points for the Trojans in the complex event known as the pole vault.

Anneli holds the WHS girls’ school record, clearing 10-3 in 2009.

Dudley’s oldest son Quentin, who was Minnesota’s Triple A award winner in 2007 after completing a stellar all-around high school career in academics, athletics and music, played tennis rather than pole vaulting.

“Quentin liked tennis,” Steve said. “That’s what neat about Worthington, a kid has lots of options.”

Novacek was decathlete at Wyoming before his NFL career

As for Jay Novacek?

After serving as Dudley’s backup quarterback in the fall of 1978, Novacek took the reins behind center for the Swedes the next two seasons as his sparkling football career gained momentum.

He moved west from Gothenburg –– located along Interstate 80, parallel to the Platte River, between Lexington and North Platte –– and became a two-sport star at the University of Wyoming.

Novacek started his collegiate football career as a split end. But he soon became Wyoming’s tight end and enjoyed a marvelous career, which included 83 receptions, 1,536 yards and 10 touchdowns while playing in a run-oriented wishbone offense.

Novacek set an NCAA tight-end season record of 22.6 yards per reception as a senior in 1984 and was named a Kodak All-American after earning first-team Western Athletic Conference (WAC) honors.

He also earned All-American honors in track and field after winning the WAC decathlon championship with 7,615 points, which included a stellar height of 16-4 in the pole vault, his best event.

According to Wikipedia, Novacek is “arguably the greatest athlete in the history of the University of Wyoming.”

He was inducted into Wyoming’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 1993 and entered the NCAA Hall of Fame of 2008.

Novacek, however, is best known for his long and storied National Football League career with the Dallas Cowboys.

After five seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals, Novacek was picked up by the Cowboys as a Plan B free agent and for six years during the 1990s was one of Troy Aikman’s favorite targets, helping Dallas win a trio of Super Bowl titles.

Starting in 1991, Novacek earned the honor of playing tight end in five consecutive post-season Pro Bowls and finished his 11-year NFL career after the 1996 campaign with 422 receptions for 4,630 yards and 30 touchdowns.

A couple of decades earlier, Novacek was “waiting in the wings” in the fall as Steve Dudley called the football signals for GHS and, in the spring, Jay was working at joining Steve –– and others –– as an elite pole vaulter in the state of Nebraska.

Several locals were on Gophers’ basketball roster in early 1950s

Comfrey area farmer and basketball fanatic Wendell Fredin stopped to see me this spring and showed me a handful of Minnesota Gopher basketball programs from the early 1950s.

Several guys from the area were on the Gophers’ roster in those days, including Wendell’s neighbor Ivan Mielke.

As a 6-3 sophomore forward, Mielke wore No. 13 for the Gophers and is pictured in the front row of a 19-member squad, which also included No. 24 David Fagerness, a 6-3 junior forward from Rushmore.

Ed Kalafat, a 6-6 sophomore center from Anaconda, Montana, was the Gophers’ big star that season, while freshman Charles Mencel, a 6-0 guard from Eau Claire, Wis., was an upcoming Gopher great.

Ozzie Cowles was the Gophers’ coach in ‘51-52 and legendary Pete Newell was coaching Michigan State, who the U of M was playing in that Saturday evening game on January 12, 1952.

Fredin also showed me programs from each of the next three seasons.

In the program from March 7, 1953, the Gophers were tangling with Indiana.

Fagerness was a senior, while both Windom’s Rodney Snyder and Slayton’s Jed Dommeyer — who later coached at Windom — were sophomores.

Mac Nettleton, who later coached at Mountain Lake, was a 6-5 freshman from St. Paul Harding.

In the next program — February 13, 1954 — the Gophers were playing Iowa and the only two players from southwest Minnesota on the roster were Ronald Craven, a sophomore from Huntley, who played high school basketball for Fairmont, and Ronald Smith, a junior from Canby.

In the fourth program — from February 12, 1955 — the Gophers were up against Illinois, which had future U of M coach Jim Dutcher on its roster.

Worthington’s James Gruye wore No. 52 and was listed as a 6-3 sophomore center-forward for the Gophers.

While I will be doing a future “Blast-From-the-Past” about Mielke’s career at Comfrey and his time with the Gophers, I will also be researching the U of M stints of Fagerness and Gruye, who must have played for the Trojans in the early 50s.

Dommeyer, who after two seasons at the U and two years in the U.S. Army, returned to star for the Gophers in ‘55-56 and ‘56-57, earning All Big-Ten honors and being drafted by the NBA’s Cincinnati Royals.

One more thing:

In each of the four programs that Wendell shared with me, there was a full page for Murray’s Restaurant in Minneapolis — the place where Sid Hartman sends Jerry Kill every week after he speaks with Sid and Dave Mona on WCCO’s Sunday’s Sports Huddle radio talk show.

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Jordan Willi
Jordan Willi is a sports reporter for the Worthington Daily Globe. Previously, he interned at the Hudson Star Obeserver and contributed to the Bison Illustrated sports magazine at North Dakota State University.
(507) 376-7335
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