I know I promised stuff on Melissa Talbot and Chris Solinsky and a whole slew of big men this time out and I will get to them soon, but I was doing a little research concerning UW-La Crosse (which is my alma mater) and I came upon a story that was too good to pass up.
The basics behind this piece, is that truth be told, there are a lot more athletes like Derek Toshner out there than you might think.
Athletes like him and Kevin Steiner from Grafton (eighth in the D2 300 hurdles in 2003), Ben Zill of Green Bay Preble (sixth in 4 x 400, ninth in the 300 hurdles in 2006) and Dan Hytinen of South Milwaukee (fourth in the shot put and sixth in the discus in 2004) all had senior year state meets they would have liked to have improved on.
So they took their skills and their hopes and dreams of better things and dramatically did just that in college. In fact, so much so that Toshner, Steiner, Zill and Hytinen were all named to the WIAC (Wisconsin’s NCAA DIII state affiliated universities) all-time men’s track team in 2012.
No small feat considering that the conference has been around since 1913.
There are two lessons to be taken here.
One is that only a relatively small percentage of high school state champions in any sport leave a substantial mark in their post-prep days and two, you never know who will have the fire in the belly to make it work both athletically and academically once they leave the relatively safe confines of their hometown high school.
Because as we all know, simply having talent isn’t the only key to success in sports and life. It takes hard work, will, and a bit of luck, all of which Toshner, Steiner, Zill and Hytinen and many, many other young men and women I’m not citing here obviously had in abundance.
Also, they probably had a lot of good guidance, coaches who believed in them and pushed them down the path to success.
And along those lines, if you asked him, Toshner would likely say that he wouldn’t be nearly as celebrated an athlete if he hadn’t chosen to come to UW-La Crosse and work with the Eagles’ coach Mark Guthrie.
Looking for another person on the list, I was searching the La Crosse Wall of Fame when I came upon Toshner’s name. He was part of a fine six-member induction class in 2019. He was a track man who hailed from Campbellsport and came to UW-L in the fall of 2000.
He had the good fortune of arriving at La Crosse about the same time as the legendary Andrew Rock, though he was not nearly as celebrated. Rock was coming off his historic four-event-wins-in-as-many-tries WIAA state meet in 2000 for Stratford, a feat not since replicated and I’m sure the Eagles’ coaching staff was hoping for some really good things from him.
Meanwhile, Toshner was coming off a sixth place finish in the state D2 300 intermediate hurdles that same year for Campbellsport after having taken second in the same event the year before. Solid credentials, though not exactly earth-shattering.
Well, we all know what happened next for Rock. Literally dozens of conference and national titles, Olympic and World Championship 4 x 400 gold medals, the fastest time in the 400 in NCAA DIII history, etc., etc., etc. (See an earlier post for details).
Rock, who was inducted into the UW-La Crosse Wall of Fame in 2014, also led dominating Eagles’ teams under the enormously successful Guthrie to NCAA DIII national team titles from 2001-2004.
But he couldn’t have done that alone.
And that is where Toshner comes in. Toshner, with his solid though not eye-popping credentials, blossomed like a field of tulips in the warm spring sun under Guthrie and the staff at UW-La Crosse.
In short, he soared nearly as high as the mighty Bluffs he ran under.
He finished up the same time as Rock in 2004 and with as almost heavy a chest full of medals. He would win three NCAA DIII outdoor titles in the 400 hurdles while finishing second in the 110 high hurdles twice. He also twice ran on national championship 4 x 400s with Rock and was named an NCAA DIII All-American 10 times.
Furthermore, Toshner would earn 11 career WIAC league titles and would eventually be named to the all-time WIAC men’s track team alongside Rock. His 400 hurdle time at the 2004 WIAC meet is still the league record, as is the 4 x 400 relay he and Rock ran on, also in 2004.
Oh, to have been at that WIAC meet as that relay turned in a stunning (for NCAA DIII) clocking of 3:07.78. Also at the 2004 NCAA DIII national meet, Hans Schmidt, formerly a WIAA D2 state pole vault recordholder from Park Falls, soared a sky-breaking 17-1 for another win for UW-L.
Toshner was a second-team Academic All-American in 2003, eventually graduating with a degree in exercise sports science/fitness. And for good measure, and to make sure the circle comes complete, he is now coaching track at his alma mater Campbellsport.
And all that is a testament to Toshner’s will, talent and work ethic and his belief in the coaching of Guthrie, who in his 18 years coaching at UW-La Crosse (1988-2006), led the Eagles to 12 indoor and 10 outdoor NCAA DIII championships, sweeping both crowns in 10 of those seasons.
When Guthrie was named the university’s External Relations Coordinator in 2017, one of the photos included with the piece is of him posed on the track on a sunny day standing behind all the NCAA championship trophies earned on his watch.
Guthrie, a robust, larger than life figure with a big smile, is almost completely obscured by all the hardware.
All of it very well earned. To no one’s surprise he was named the coach on that all-time WIAC men’s track team.
His accomplishments were both impressive and historic in a larger sense too, because Guthrie and his staff took a lot of celebrated guys like Rock and not-so-celebrated guys like Toshner and made them all champions.
He instilled in them a sense of pride and belief that if they had some talent, worked hard enough, bought into the system and were lucky enough, that they too could achieve great things.
Which, come to think of it, is not a bad lesson for any athlete of any ability level to remember.
UP NEXT: OK, now Talbot, Solinsky, etc., and the Homestead Big Man meet, with the mighty weight firm of Ball, Bethay, Houle and Thomas at its head. And oh yes, the story of “Who said this was the slow heat anyway?”