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Les Knutson: Minnesota cross country history has taken many turns

Les Knutson

Daily Globe 

HERON LAKE — Looking through this year’s state cross country meet program was interesting. As always, I was intrigued with a look at the past.

The first state meet — for boys’ only — was run in 1943 at the University of Minnesota’s Northrop Field and was a 1.5 mile race. Two runners from Duluth Central, Laird Goodman and Dick Frazee, finished first and second with respective times of 7:35 and 7:37, leading the Trojans to the team title with 27 points.

Conditions for that inaugural meet were 35 degrees, muddy with melting snow.

From 1944-1963, the meet was run at Lake Nokomis Park in southwest Minneapolis and covered a distance of 1.8 miles.

Interestingly, the first two state champions at Lake Nokomis were both from Worthington.

Willis Rohwedder was the 1944 winner, clocking a time of 9:37.1, while Bill Schimmel of Minneapolis Roosevelt was a close second (9:39).

The next year, two months after V-J day, Worthington’s Jim Halma (10:02.1) nipped Duluth Central’s Dave Newman (10:04) for the 1945 state individual title.

Halma paced WHS to a second-place team finish, as the Trojans — coached by John Curran — tallied 65 points. Duluth Central (also the Trojans) won the championship with a low score of 46.

I need to do my research and find out more about those early Worthington teams and the accomplishments of Rohwedder and Halma. I am open to information and contacts at either or 507-822-2053.

Dennis Hanson of St. James won the 1949 state title with a time of 9:10.7.

Windom ran as a team at Lake Nokomis in 1960 (10th), 1962 (10th) and 1963 (12th), representing District 7 and Region 2 in the one-class meet.

I know a bit about those early Eagles, coached by Doug Rudolph, the program’s founder, as my good friend and running partner Doug Purrington was a key runner on both the ‘60 and ‘62 squads.

The meet moved to the University of Minnesota Golf Course in 1964 and became a two-mile race for the next five years.

I ran with the Windom Eagles in that meet as a senior in 1968, placing 84th (10:44) as our team’s fourth finisher. We had a good team, winning many meets — including the Southwest Conference — and finished a strong second (56 points) to Mankato (52) in the Region 2 meet on the steep hills of Jackson’s course. But we were 15th in the standings at the state meet, which was at Alexander Ramsey High School in St. Paul.

Proctor’s Garry Bjorklund ran the course in a sizzling time of 9:23.9 — 80 seconds before I came across. Tom Steiner of AR was second (9:38). Sophomore Ed Deutschman was Windom’s first runner, placing 54th with a time of 10:32, if my memory is correct.

So, it was pretty “tight” back where we were — 12 seconds separated 30 places.

Fellow seniors Dave Morfitt, Brian Purrington, Mike Bottin and Steve Harrington, along with junior Kevin Dick were the rest of our seven varsity runners that season — 45 years ago.

Two-class system began in 1975 as girls’ meet is added

The boys’ distance was increased to three miles in 1969 and Windom made three more straight trips to the U of M course in ‘69, ‘70 and ‘71, capping a run of eight trips in 12 years (the Eagles also qualified in 1965).

New Richland’s Dan Lyndgaard and White Bear Lake’s Dennis Fee finished first and second, individually, in both 1970 and 1971. Steve Plasencia of Robbinsdale Cooper was second in 1972. I remember those names from the early ‘70s. Plasencia, like Bjorklund, had a stellar career with the Gophers.

Then came 1975 and a one-class girls’ meet was added and the boys’ meet was finally divided into two classes.

Slayton, coached by Hall-of-Famer Dick Davidson, finished second in the first Class A meet with 80 points (Glenwood won the title with 67).

The next two years, Slayton’s Mark Zinnel won back-to-back individual Class A titles, clocking three-mile times of 15:31 (in ‘76) and an exceptional 15:11.6 in 1977.

Blue Earth won the team titles each of those years, with Rochester Lourdes — coached by future girls’ basketball coaching legend Myron Glass — taking second.

In 1978, the girls’ meet was split into two classes and Joan Hopfenspirger of Redwood Falls finished second in the Class A race with a two-mile time of 11:30.

Lamberton, coached by Gene Asp, placed a close second in the team standings to Hinckley (101-106).

The next two years, Kristin Asp (Gene’s daughter) brought home back-to-back Class A girl’s individual titles to Lamberton. Kristin won a close race in ‘79 (11:23.4), but finished first by 14 seconds in 1980 with a time of 11:29.5.

In 1979, the boys’ meet was expanded to its current 5,000-meter (3.1 miles) distance and Rochester Lourdes repeated its state team championship. The purple-and-gold clad Eagles won four straight state titles (‘78-81) with Redwood Falls finishing second each time.

Worthington’s Bob Jirele ran for Lourdes during that time and capped his stellar career with back-to-back second-place individual finishes. As a junior in 1982, Jirele clocked a time of 16:10 and finished second to Redwood’s Jeff Schmidt (15:57.5). As a senior in ‘83, Jirele came very close to winning. Randy Reichel of Staples (15:47.8) just edged Jirele’s exceptional time of 15:48.3.

Redwood Falls won the Class A girls’ team title in 1982 and repeated as Redwood Fall/Morton in ‘83.

Mountain Lake, coached by Hall-of-Famer Paul Metcalf, claimed second in the girls’ team standings in ‘83 with a score of 108. The Lakers qualified seven straight times (‘79-85) and placed third in 1981.

The combination of Windom and Storden-Jeffers, coached by Mitch Peterson, had a pair of dominant girls’ squads in both 1987 and 1988, winning back-to-back Class A state titles. The Eagles’ winning score of 45 in ‘87 is still tied (with Staples-Motley 2003 score) for the all-time best among Class A girls’ champions.

Prior to 1991, most area teams competed in Region 2. Schools more to the north, like Lamberton and Redwood Falls were in Region 3.

In 1991, the state was divided differently into sections and the majority of area teams became part of Section 3.

Section 3A champion Canby/Minneota won the ‘93 Class A girls’ state title with 102 points.

The section did not win another state team championship until Adrian’s remarkable four-year reign from 2005-2008. The Dragons added a fifth state title in 2010.

Adrian’s winning scores during that incredible span were 63, 60, 97, 98 and 89.

Girls’ teams that finished second in the Class A meet included, Murray County Central (1995, 100 points) and Canby/Minneota/Lincoln HI (1996, 106 points).

Fairmont finished second in Class AA in both 1986 and 1987, before the Cardinals — who frequently switched classes — won the 1988 AA title with a score of 68.

Individual girls’ state champions from (Region 2, Region 3, Section 3 or Section 2) after Asp included five-time winner Carrie Tollefson of Dawson-Boyd (with Lac qui Parle Valley). Tollefson won Class A in ‘90, ‘92 and ‘93. She finished first in AA in both 1991 and 1994.

In ‘94, the girls’ race was expanded from 3,200 meters to 4,000 meters.

BOLD’s Nicole Kuznia (‘94 and ‘95) and LQPV/D-B’s Nikki Swenson (2003, 2006) each claimed a pair of Class A state titles, while Tracy-Milroy’s Julie Gifford won the 1999 race.

Girls’ individual runners-up included Jill Slettedahl of Granite Falls (1984), Kara Parker of Olivia (1985), Andy DeVries of Fairmont (Class AA, 1988), Gifford (‘97), Swenson (‘04, ‘05) and Fairmont’s Lauren Friese (2010).

Section 3A boys had five straight second-place team finishes in 1990s

Nineteen-ninety ended up being the last year of the state meet at the U of M golf course. The Halloween blizzard of 1991 moved the meet (a week later) to Alexandria’s Arrowwood Golf Course. Then another snow storm hit the next year and, since 1992, the meet has been held at St. Olaf College in Northfield.

Section 3A has won only one Class A boys’ team championship, but the section has claimed six second-place finishes, including five in a row from 1992-1996.

Prior the switch to sections, Region 3’s Montevideo/Maynard won the Class A title in 1987 (72 points) and Fairmont, representing Region 2, did the same in 1989 (99 points).

Hall-of-Fame coach Bob Bonk has guided the Cardinal girls and boys for the past four decades. Fairmont was second in Class A in 1990 (114 points).

Heron Lake-Okabena-Lakefield, in just its second year of cross country, finished a surprising second in 1992 with 168 points, as eight teams were closely-bunched between second and ninth. The Silver Bullets scored 93 in ‘93 and repeated as state runners-up.

In 1994, Montevideo (100 points) was second and — then in ‘95 — the section had the state’ top two Class A teams, as Canby/Minneota/Lincoln HI (87) and Montevideo (101) finished 1-2.

Marshall boys’ coach Brian Liebfried, running for C/M/LH, was the 1995 state individual champion his senior year, clocking a time of 16:01.9.

Luverne cross country coach Pete Janiszeski was a junior and helped the Lancers claim the team title, finishing 29th overall (11th team scoring) as C/M/LH’s third runner (17:16.9).

Jackson, coached by Gary Hildebrandt, completed Section 3A’s five-year run of second-place finishes with an excellent score of 81 (Staples-Motley won with 69 points).

Interestingly, the Bluejays — paced up front by senior Dan Draine (fifth overall, third team scoring, 16:35.3) — also finished second in the section meet (behind C/M/LH), which placed third at the state meet with 100 points.

Adrian, coached by Doug Petersen who guided the girls to their first four state titles, captured second in the 2007 Class A boys’ meet with 150 points, after finishing third in 2006. The Dragons placed fifth in 2008 and capped five consecutive years of top eight state-meet finishes by getting eighth again (the first time was in 2005) in 2009.

Individually, after the state titles by Rohwedder, Halma, Hanson, Zinnel (two), Schmidt and Liebfried, Fairmont’s Neil Hanson won the 1998 Class AA title (15:33), Montevideo’s Greg Liebl finished first in the 2000 Class A race (16:04.0), Marshall’s Yahya Iman was the 2004 AA champion (15:39.9) and Worthington sophomore Mubarik Musa claimed the 2009 Class A title (16:01.8).

Marshall won back-to-back boys’ team titles in 2003 (78 points) and 2004 (34), after finishing second in 2002 (92).

Individual runners-up have included Iman in Class AA (2003, 15:16.5) and the following Class A runners — Mountain Lake/Butterfield-Odin junior Josh Metcalf (1992, 16:56.4), United South Central (Wells) senior Andrew Johanson (1996, 16:20.9), Liebl (2001, 16:16.6), C/M/LH senior Chad Janiszeski (2003, 15:55.1) and Blue Earth Area senior Daniel Murray (2005, 16:07.1).

Metcalf finished fourth in 1993 (16:38.5) and Musa was third in 2010 (16:00.9) to mention a pair of repeat high-placing performances.

As, I mentioned, it’s interesting to look back through the past and the 2013 state cross country program contained lots of information.