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Conversation With Scott: Slayton's Mark Zinnel earned four individual state championships in the '70s

MarkZinnel
Slayton High School graduate Mark Zinnel cross the finish line. Now 60, he discussed his running career recently with The Globe sports reporter Scott Mansch. (submitted photo)

WORTHINGTON — (Note: Mark Zinnel graduated from Slayton High in 1978 after a brilliant running career that included four individual state championships, two each in cross country and track. He grew up on a farm north of Hadley in a family steeped in baseball tradition, a legacy he extends these days as home announcer for Buttermakers amateur baseball team. Mark, who retired last year as executive director of Pipestone County Farm Service Agency, is a former South Dakota State University athlete and this week celebrated his 60th birthday. We caught up with him in Pipestone for our latest Conversation With Scott.)

Question: Howdy Mark. With all the recent success of Fulda cross country star Morgan Gehl (a junior who competes for Fulda/Murray County Central and is among the state’s top runners), I’ve been thinking of you and those state titles you won back in the 1970s. Have you seen Morgan run? What do you think of her?

A: Yes I have. She’s very confident in her abilities and she’s a very smooth and relaxed runner. People used to say when I ran there didn’t seem to be any effort. Everything goes real smooth for her. It’s fun to watch her.

Q: You talk about lack of effort, but I know for a fact you grew up on a farm and had to work hard all the time. You were probably running down country roads when you were little, right?

A: (laughs) I’m going to have to say that’s a negative. I really didn’t do much running, to tell you the truth, even when I was competing. Everybody that I competed against, they’d run five or six hundred miles during the summer and I’d be lucky if I’d get close to 100. Because for me summer was not running time. It was golf and baseball and softball. That’s where I spent my time, and it didn’t seem to hurt me.

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Q: Well, I’m sure you had duties on the farm that kept you busy.

A: Yes, but I wasn’t running. My family always kidded me, because if I had to go do chores I’d get on my bike and ride 50 yards down to the barn (laughs).

Q: I know how much your family loves baseball. Has that always been your favorite sport?

A: Yes, it really has been.

Q: Your father (Delbert Zinnel) and grandfather (Herb Johnson) were fine ballplayers, weren’t they?

A: Everybody talks about my dad. Yes, he was probably one of the top-notch ballplayers in southwest Minnesota. My grandfather Herb Johnson was a fine player, and all my uncles were good players, too. We grew up with baseball and that’s why I like to continue on. (Laughs) Unfortunately I wasn’t the best of players, so whatever I can now to assist I’m glad to do that.

Q: You were on the track team in high school and maybe at that time you couldn’t play both baseball and track at the same time?

A: I tried my freshman year, but by the time I got done running basically I was just hitting in the cage by myself. So I decided to forego baseball too keep my mind on track and field. (Pauses) But I wish I could have or would have played both sports. It would have been fun.

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Q: I know you played basketball in high school. Did you ever try football, or was that not a possibility?

A: I went out for football in seventh grade. (Laughs) And I was a skinny kid, 98 pounds, and I think the first scrimmage we had was against Pipestone and they had me playing middle linebacker. Then when Dick Davidson (former highly successful Slayton High track and cross country coach) saw that I was a runner he sort of drafted me and that was the end of the story.

Q: Did you lose at all those two seasons where you were winning state cross country titles?

A: In my senior year, no. But my junior year I got beat a couple of times. I had to always run against Rick Brandl of Worthington and he beat me a few times. If Rick won and I was second that didn’t bother me. He was an excellent runner. We were good competitors and we’re still good friends.

Q: What’s your top running memory from high school?

A: I guess my first cross country championship (in 1976) would be my fondest memory.

Q: Was it unexpected?

A: Well, it probably was expected by me but unexpected by everybody else. I don’t think I was ever ranked No. 1. I can’t really say I was out for blood when I went to the state meet, but I didn’t let any of the hype about the other runners faze me. I just went out and did my business and if they could stick with me they would. (Pauses) I guess my fondest memory from the state meets (at the University of Minnesota golf course) was there’d be three or four of us in a pack going into the last half-mile, and there’s a little rise where you’d run uphill for about 10 yards. And by the time I reached the top of that hill there was no way they were catching me.

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Q: You won a pair of state track titles in the two-mile run. Slayton won a team state championship in track during those years, correct?

A: Yes, we did (in 1978).

Q: That has to be a tremendous memory.

A: Oh, I tell you, that is. We were sitting in third place before the last event and the other ones didn’t have a team entered. We needed a fourth-place finish (in the 1600 relay) to seal the deal, and it was probably the most exciting three-and-a-half minutes that I remember. When we got the baton (anchor leg) we were in like sixth place and were maybe 25 yards from the pack. Bob Veenhuis was anchoring and it was a 98-degree day. He had just gotten done running the 800 less than a half-hour prior to the relay. We didn’t know how much he had left, but we got into that last leg in sixth place and the last 100 meters Bob passed up two teams. It was very exciting. You couldn’t have found more happier people than we were.

Q: Who were the other boys on that team besides you and Bob?

A: Terry Shepherd, Brad Hanson, Brad Reinsma, Mark Burnham and Lindsay Krick.

Q: How many years now have you been the announcing voice of Buttermaker baseball in Hadley?

A: It’s been probably 15 years. I’ve had to miss only two or three games. My summer is booked with that. My family kind of realizes it, too (laughs), and they’re pretty good about it.

Q: Your seventh-inning trivia is famous at those games.

A: (laughs) Thanks, Scott.

Q: Give me one of your favorite questions.

A: A few years ago I asked ‘What is the most recent generational family to play for the Buttermakers?’

Q: Well, everybody would say the Johnsons because there’s been a million of them.

A: (laughs) Yep. The correct answer then was the Mesner family.

Q: I know from experience that your major-league trivia questions aren’t easy.

A: It’s kind of tough to find something that people aren’t going to be googling right away, but I try to go back as ‘old-school’ as I can.

Q: It’s a great job you do. And what a great thing Hadley baseball is. Your father and grandfather would be proud of you, Mark.

A: Thank you, Scott.

Q: What do you think you had that other runners didn’t have back in high school?

A: (long pause) The only thing I can think of is maybe that my goal in high school was a state championship, more of a team state championship than a solo one. I wanted a team state championship for our school. Basically that was the only thing that drove me. I wanted a championship for Slayton High School.

Q: Do you go out and run a little bit these days?

A: I wish I could. I had some leg surgery about five years ago. I can do a fast walk. (Laughs) In this last year I can maybe do a slow jog, but I prefer not to do that if I don’t have to (laughs).

Q: I’ll bet it seems like yesterday that you were winning races for your school, is that right?

A: Oh yes. Those are memories I’m never going to forget.

Q: You are one of the greatest Slayton Wildcats of all-time, Mark.

A: (pauses) Thank you, Scott. (Pauses) I get a little flustered to hear that. That means a lot to me and I appreciate you saying that.

Conversations With Scott, produced by Scott Mansch, appears frequently in online editions of The Globe. Mansch can be reached at smansch5rockets@gmail.com and is on Twitter @ScottMansch

Scott Mansch
Scott Mansch

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