By the early 1990s, I had established myself among the track coaches I worked with at Community Newspapers as a full-on fan and geek, willing to sit through four-hour meets in cold, damp April weather just for the chance to see a few great races and grab a terrific quote or two.
Needless to say, my co-workers considered me nuts to think that was a good use of my time. Some of them still do.
Their loss (lol)!
Back in those days, among the schools I was covering were Brookfield East and Central. For the East boys I got to work with coaches Dennis Meyer (still a take-no-prisoners track official) and Mike Gain, whose hale sign-off of “adios” was always an indication that I had conducted a good interview.
They were also big fans of the 400-meters, long before Clyde Hart’s Baylor Method of training spread like wildfire and helped athletes at all levels churn out tons of great times in the 200, 400 and 800-meter based races. Meyer and Gain also at this time attracted a pair of charismatic athletes who loved the 400 as much as they did: Chris Hufschmidt and Daved Matz.
Hufschmidt, with hair in his eyes and a “run until you die” ethos, and Matz took on any and all customers for the Spartans. They were the heart of killer 4 x 400 relays and competed like mad every time out.
They didn’t always win, but they gave great quotes and established themselves as solid state contenders. In 1992, as a sophomore, Hufschmidt won a WIAA state 400 title in La Crosse with a furious closing rush out of lane six.
Injuries prevented a repeat of that moment of glory during his final two years, but he did have a signature send-off in his senior year of 1994. More on him later.
And 1994 also happened to be the year the WIAA introduced the 4 x 800 relay to both the boys and girls program and it also happened to be the senior seasons of Marinette twins Jenni and Janet Westphal who helped the Marines dominate girls WIAA state track in La Crosse from 1991-94 with the cold efficiency of a seasoned drill sergeant.
There were another set of sisters who came up at the same time and achieved similar overwhelming results in D2: The Hylands of Nekoosa.
Marinette would finish second in the team standings in 1991 when the Westphals were freshmen and then the Marines cruised to three consecutive WIAA state team championships from 1992-94 under coach John Sitek.
So dominant were the Marines (they also had a state championship thrower in Missy Oleson in their ranks), that their D1 winning 86-point total in 1993 would stand as a state meet girls record until D3 juggernaut Edgar ran off three straight scores of over 100 points from 2010-12.
Jenni Westphal would also become one of just seven female athletes in history to claim four straight state track titles in a single event, owning the 800 from her freshman year on.
But she would soon have company in hitting that milestone as she would be one of three such young women to accomplish the feat in the early 1990s.
Her twin Janet Westphal was no slouch herself, claiming the 1,600 and 3,200 titles in the Marines’ last state team title year of 1994. Also to no one’s surprise, the Marines, in that first year of the 4 x 800, laid down a marker that people would be chasing for close to 20 years with a national level 9:03.38 time that no one in the state got within five seconds of until Neenah finally broke the mark in 2012.
Meanwhile, you had to wonder what was in the water in Nekoosa back then, as the Hylands were a trio of highly talented sisters (plus one brother) that led the Papermakers to a remarkable five state team D2 crowns between 1990-98. Heather Hyland, the oldest, led the Papermakers to their first state team in 1990 as a freshman by winning the long jump.
Turns out she was just getting warmed up.
She, like Jenni Westphal, would become a rare four-time event state champion, winning four straight D2 long jump championships (1990-93). All told, she would win nine individual state titles including two crowns in the 100 high hurdles (1992-93). She also won the 100 dash in 1990 and 1992 (the latter feat pretty tricky considering the 100 dash and 100 hurdles are back-to-back on the meet schedule) and the triple jump in 1993.
Not coincidentally, Nekoosa claimed two more state team titles in 1992-93 as Heather started getting help from little sister Holly, who would win the first of her three straight discus championships in 1993.
The Papermakers, behind Holly Hyland’s third state discus title and her first shot put victory, would win another team title in 1995. Their fifth and final trip to the top of the podium came in 1998 when little sister Hillary Hyland tied a state mark by claiming four individual state championships in a single meet (the most possible) in the long, high and triple jumps and the 100 hurdles.
Just so the male side of the Hyland clan didn’t develop an inferiority complex, brother Herc Hyland won both the D2 long and triple jumps in 2001.
The Westphals and the Hylands were hardly the only young women making a large impression in the early 1990s.
Jessie Bushman of Rosholt was another four-time event champion, claiming D3 400 laurels from 1989-92, including a then record of 56.92 her senior year of 1992.
At the same time, Lisa Townsend of Elk Mound made the D3 jumps’ competition her own private playground, winning three straight high jump titles from 1991-93, including still owning a share of the class record of 5-9 she set in 1992. She also won the triple jump three times in 1990, 1992 and 1993 and for good measure she took a long jump championship in 1991.
Also, Whitewater’s Jenny Paynter claimed three straight D2 100 hurdles crowns from 1989-91 while Avrie Walters of La Crosse Logan would run away with three consecutive D1 1,600 victories from 1991-93.
Which brings us back to Mr. Hufschmidt and the inaugural boys 4 x 800 of 1994.
Because of his injuries and because he was getting bigger and stronger, he had evolved into more of a 400-800 type of runner by 1994. Gain and Meyer then rolled the dice and decided to go for the 4 x 800 relay when the state series of meets rolled around.
Hufschmidt was to be the key link to their plan.
Hufschmidt did not lose any of of his confidence or ego over the years. In fact, he relished the opportunity to help his teammates earn a state medal. Just to make it a little more fun I gave him a friendly challenge.
I happened to know that he was a big fan of double-stuffed Oreos (so was I) and I told him after sectionals that if he were to break two minutes for his 800 split on the relay at state (something he had never done), I would present him with a large bag of those Oreos at his graduation party the Sunday after state.
And on a sunny Saturday morning in La Crosse, there was Hufschmidt going all out, leading the Spartans to state medals with a surprising third place finish in the 4 x 800 behind winner Madison Memorial. He looked really good on his rarely run 800 leg.
Really, really good.
Eventually I found Meyer and he confirmed what I already knew, that Hufschmidt had earned those cookies with a 1:58.6 split.
It was a grand event indeed as he, his family and myself had a huge laugh about it all the next day when I pulled the bag of cookies from my jacket to a host of cheers. “Huffers,” as he was commonly known, for his talent, bravado and his affection for Oreos, remains an all-time favorite of mine.
BIG MARKS BUILT TO LAST
They knew how to build weightmen in the early 1990s. I was fixated on the shot and discus in the early 90s (covered several state champs in both) and so in 1993 I went to the discus ring on Friday for the D1 boys competition to catch a couple of guys I was covering as well as Luke Sullivan of Verona, who was looking to defend his state title of 1992.
Turns out he would do that and quite a bit more. Normally great discus throws are high, sailing things that never seem to want to touch the ground, but midway through his series, Sullivan let loose a toss that didn’t get very far off the ground and didn’t seem destined for greatness.
Only it was, because though it wobbled a little at times, it just kept going and going and going until it landed a record 193-3 feet away, still good for the official state standard. Everyone in the area was astonished at the feat.
Interestingly enough, fellow state champions Sean Pruitt of Valders and Dave Niemuth of Oshkosh North both have non-state throws of over 200 feet each and in his third state crown season of 1994, Sullivan let loose a throw of 198-11 in an earlier meet, but that wobbly, lovely toss of 1993 in La Crosse is still the mark D1 throwers aim at.
Also built to last was Jim Flanigan of Southern Door in 1990, as he seized with authority his third and final D2 shot put championship with a still class-record mighty heave of 64-8 3/4.
HOW MANY GUYS DO YOU NEED TO WIN A STATE TEAM TITLE?
Not many at times, as it turns out. Take D1 1992 boys champion Milwaukee North. That “team” consisted of the talented Cedric McMillian winning the 100 dash and the 300 intermediate hurdles as well as his anchoring the Blue Devils 4 x 100 relay team to another victory.
The 30 points that quartet of athletes earned was all that was needed for North to edge City Conference rival Riverside, 30-25, for the gold trophy. The Blue Devils just had the right group at the right time.
MAKING IT COUNT
Also of note was the fact that it doesn’t always take winning a huge number of state titles to make a name for yourself. Take Beloit’s Chris Pearson of 1991 state D1 boys team champ Beloit Memorial. He won the 300 intermediate hurdles that year and worked with fellow hurdle ace and teammate Terry Davis (110 high hurdle champ in 1990 and 1991) to help the Purple Knights gather in their team crown.
The curious thing about his achievement is, that Pearson’s 300 hurdles crown was the only individual state championship of his track career (both he and Davis were on Beloit’s winning 4 x 400 in 1991), but he made it a really good one as his time of 37.49, 29 years in, is still good for a share of the official WIAA state record in the 300s.
That’s called making the most of the opportunities you get. In fact, when all times are included, not just state efforts, Davis and Pearson still own the top two 300 hurdle showings in state history at 37.24 and 37.34, respectively.
OTHER NOTABLES OF THE EARLY 90s
Includes Madison West’s Jermaine Butler achieving that rare feat in 1991 of seizing all three D1 sprint titles in a single meet (100, 200 and 400) and Ryan Truschinski of Marshall capturing three consecutive D3 400 victories from 1991-93 with a then class record of 49.0 in his senior year of 1993.
And in 1993 and 1994, a very young Josh Dickerson would lead the D. C. Everest 4 x 100 relay to back-to-back D1 state championships. Turns out, as we headed into the mid-1990s, he too was just getting warmed up.
As were a lot of other people.
Next time: The mid-late 90s and a collective gasp of disbelief.