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Les Knutson: Fulda prep track records have real staying power

BY LES KNUTSON

The Globe sports columnist

FULDA -- Over the years, there have been lots of individual and relay state track and field champions from southwestern Minnesota. Less than four weeks ago, Luverne’s girls won the Class A 4x800-meter relay in impressive fashion, clocking a 9:29.56 -- nearly 16 seconds faster than their winning time at the Section 3A meet nine days earlier.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been seven years since the Worthington Trojans claimed gold medals in the boys’ 4x400-meter relay while competing in Class A, at the same track on the campus of Hamline University in St. Paul. The all-senior foursome of Will Collin, Brandon Berger, OJ Ojullu and Jeremy Clark blazed a winning time of 3:24.93, putting the capper on a fabulous 2011 season for WHS.

Going back a bit further in time, two athletes from Fulda High School impressively won individual state championships -- with record-setting performances, one of which still stands.

Lanky Ken Larson, who grew up in Dundee, was a six-foot-three inch, 160-pound leaping wizard when he won the Raiders’ first Class A state title in early June of 1981.

Larson had been having tremendous success in the high jump as a junior during the spring of 1980.  He made statewide news, perhaps even gaining a bit of national attention, when he amazingly cleared seven feet while winning the Tri-County Conference Meet at Fulda in early May.

“That was the first time my dad ever saw me compete,” remembered Larson, who now lives near Lake Mills, Iowa, and is the general manager of the Diamond Joe’s Casino golf course, country club, hunt club and sporting clays course across the border in Emmons. “I was a bit nervous, but had some extra adrenaline and even more spring in my legs than usual that day.”

Unfortunately, a hyperextended knee limited Larson as the 1980 season unfolded and he was able to clear 6-7, but not 6-9 at the state meet, settling for second place.

Larson had been a wide receiver in football for the Raiders and enjoyed playing basketball in the winter and Legion baseball in the summer.

“After my knee injury in the spring of my junior year, I opted not to go out for football my senior year and ran cross country instead,” he recalled. “Looking back, that was a mistake. I wasn’t a long-distance runner and I might have been the top receiver that season, but Coach (John) Bunkers didn’t believe in passing all that much and I didn’t want to risk getting injured and putting any kind of a damper on my high jump chances.”

Coaching Larson in both basketball and the high jump was the even-tempered Hank Lenards, who had a pamphlet published on high jumping technique.

“Coach Lenards and I had a very special bond,” declared Larson. “He kept me focused and even-keeled, keeping things grounded, not allowing me to get big-headed. We had a lot of great coaches at Fulda, but Lenards really had a terrific way of working with me.”

While he may have been grounded mentally, he continued to be airborne physically, winning every meet during his senior year.

Ken Larson was an outstanding high jumper,” remembers Matt Prunty, who was a stellar four-sport athlete for Jasper. “Track meets would come to a stop when he would be making his final attempts in the event, striving for meet records, personal records, or even state records -- he was very impressive.”

While Larson never soared over 7-0 again in high school, he did win the state title by making it over 6-10, which -- 37 years later -- is still the Class A state-meet record.

“I had a good day (at the state meet) as a senior,” he recalled.  “I made 6-6 on my first jump to win it, cleared both 6-8 and 6-10 on my first attempts, setting the state-meet record by making 6-10. My first two tries at 7-0 weren’t that close, but I had it made on my third jump, just ticking the bar off with one heel.”

Also a sub-15-second high hurdler, along with being the usual anchor runner on both the FHS 4x100-meter and 4x400-meter relay teams, Larson loved track and field and ranks it as his favorite high school sport, but he also really liked baseball (summer), basketball and football.

 “Ken had amazing spring, he could really jump,” summed up current Fulda track and field coach Brad Holinka, who was completing his collegiate athletic career (football and track) at Mankato State when Larson was competing in high school. “Combining that kind of leaping ability with the high jump technique taught by Hank was what it took to become the best in the state at that event.”

After his silver-medalist and gold-medalist performances at back-to-back state track and field meets, Larson received a scholarship to high jump for Mankato State. He competed all four years for the Mavericks, twice finishing second in North Central Conference Meets and qualifying for the 1985 NCAA Division II National Meet in California.

“I made seven feet several times in practice during college,” he said. “I never did clear seven again in a meet, but I was consistent in the 6-8 to 6-11 range and had a lot of fun traveling to lot of places to compete as a collegiate high jumper.”

Overman a star in college

Larson’s state-meet record has stood for nearly four decades, but 1994 graduate Nancy Overman had her Class A state-meet record in the discus bettered two years ago, after holding the best mark over a 22-year span.

“Records are set and made to be broken,” Overman said of her long-standing accomplishment. “I know that I had a real good throw when it left my hand, but I didn’t know that it would be a state-meet record and I was surprised that it lasted so long.”

Overman, like Larson, finished second the preceding year as a junior. She, in fact, earned a pair of state-meet silver medals in 1993, placing second in both the discus (139-4) and shot put (40-7).

After winning nearly every meet as a senior, the three-sport FHS athlete unleashed a mighty throw at the Blaine Sports Complex, which measured right at 154 feet (even).

“I remember the blue track at Blaine,” recalled Overman, who was a four-year starter for Coach Loren Carlson on some powerhouse Raider basketball teams during the early 1990s. “I don’t remember which throw it was, but the 154-footer sure felt good.”

After holding the record through 21 consecutive state meets (1995-2015), the mark was finally bettered in 2016 -- by 13 inches -- when Jaimi Salone, a senior at the Blake School in Minneapolis, whirled the platter 155-1 on her sixth and final throw of the competition, winning the event by more than 24 feet. By contrast, the winning tosses the next two years have been far from Overman’s 1994 distance, as a throw of 129-9 won in 2017 and this year’s winning whirl was 130-8.

Recruited by the University of South Dakota (USD) in Vermillion, Overman continued her success the following spring, winning the NCAA Division II National Championship with a throw of over 150 feet on a rain-soaked day in Emporia, Kansas.

She transferred to South Dakota State (SDSU) in Brookings the following year. After redshirting a season, she competed favorably for the Jackrabbits and advanced to national meets in both indoor (shot put, weight throw, similar to the hammer) and outdoor (shot put, discus and javelin). Overman placed second in the shot put at the 1999 National Meet, also in Emporia.

“I kind of hit a plateau in the discus during college,” she recalled. “But I really liked the javelin and got better over the years in the shot put, often reaching distances in the 48 or 49 (foot) range.”

During her illustrious collegiate career, Overman earned an amazing total of 13 NCAA Division II All-American honors between her five events, indoor and outdoor.

“All of that would not have possible, if it weren’t for God, the Great One, up above, along with so many fine coaches, including my high school throwing coach Verne Olson,” she summed up. “Of course my family helped inspire me so much and even people like sports reporters, who helped promote the sport and keep us athletes motivated. I was fortunate to have a fun-filled career without injuries.”

After graduating from SDSU with degrees in dairy science and animal science, Overman married in 1998 and returned to the Fulda area and has been involved in agriculture, while working part time at the post office and as an assistant track and field coach for the newly-formed Heron Lake-Okabena/Fulda Coyotes as the team’s throwing coach.

“I enjoy working with the throwers,” she said. “I tell them that it takes a lot of work and a lot of technique. You can’t learn it all in one year. Don’t give up on yourself, keep plugging away and you will improve.”

As Coach Fischer, she worked with Fulda’s Jenna Wendorff, helping her exceed Nancy’s school record in the shot put, while claiming a state title in 2002 with a distance of 43-0.

“That was a thrill for me,” she said. “Having Jenna win a state championship was certainly rewarding and a great honor.”

Three other Fulda girls -- Julie Kramer (1,600-meter run, 1988), Amy Paulzine (discus, 2009) and Sylvia Zanini (discus, 2012) -- have won state individual titles, giving the Raider girls a total of five, three of them in the discus.

Morgan Gehl following in aunt Julie Kramer’s footsteps

In between the state championships claimed by Larson and Overman, Fulda’s Julie Kramer -- after finishing third in both the 1,600 and 800 at the 1986 state meet as a freshman -- ran a sizzling final lap and won the 1,600-meter run as a junior in 1988, clocked at 5:05.65.

Running in fourth place among a close-knit group of leaders as the bell sounded, Kramer took off and passed all three girls ahead of her early in that memorable fourth lap.

“I remember getting the lead with about 300 meters left and just running as fast as I could, hoping no one was going to catch me,” she recalled. “It was a thrill when I crossed the line in first place.”

 Sidelined by a foot stress fracture, Kramer did not return to the state meet as a senior in 1989.

She was, however, recruited by USD and enjoyed a stellar freshman track season for the Coyotes (second in the 1,500-meter run at the 1990 NCAA Division II National Indoor Meet and third in the same event, clocking a time of 4:38, at the North Central Conference’s Outdoor meet).

Recurring foot injuries hampered the remainder of Kramer’s collegiate career at USD. After completing her education degree, she has worked for the Worthington School District since the mid-1990s and has also coached basketball and track at the middle-school level. She was a starting guard as a freshman on Fulda’s 1986 girls’ basketball team, coached by Carlson, which won the District 8 championship and finished as the Region 2 runner-up.

Married since 1996, Julie Buchholz has been thrilled by the success of her niece, Morgan Gehl, a Fulda freshman who finished fourth last month at the state meet in both the 3,200 (10:59.91) and 1,600 (5:04.23), having bettered Julie’s long-time school records in each event.

“Morgan is so determined, she competes with a lot of grit,” summed up Buchholz about Gehl’s performances. “I am just very pleased and happy for the success that she has had. It’s been a lot of fun watching her run.”

Raiders chase Patriots to the wire three times in 1975 mile relay races

An amazing story involving two area mile relay teams occurred at the state meet in 1975, when Hills-Beaver Creek, anchored by Kelly Demuth, edged Fulda three straight times, winning District 8, Region 2 and State Class B championships. The Raiders -- with senior Brad Holinka, junior Phil Holinka, sophomore Brian Bunkers and senior Steve Verdugt each running strong quarter-mile legs -- finished a close second in each race.

“Those were three great races,” remembers Brad, who also placed second in the state in the discus that spring (153-11) after finishing fourth in 1974 and sixth in 1973.  “Each one of them was close, but H-BC won every time -- but not by much. Something that I still visualize today is hearing Hugo (Patriot multi-sport coach Hugo Goehle) hollering from across the track, ‘Bring er home, Kelly’ -- which he sure did.

Dan Deragisch ran the leadoff leg for the Patriots, who clocked a winning time of 3:28.2 to win the state, while Fulda earned the silver medals with Verdugt right on Demuth’s heels, crossing in 3:28.3.

The next four teams were also very much in the chase, as Wabasso (3:29.1), Kenyon (3:29.2), St. John’s Prep (3:29.7) and Esko (3:30.0) all finished inside of two seconds of the two leaders from the Tri-County Conference.

That must have some mile relay race to cap off the three-year mid-70s experiment of the three-class system in Minnesota High School track and field. Perhaps that is something that the MSHSL should look into again.