Michael Johnson and Jeremy Wariner are 400-meter track legends and both were coached by retired Baylor men’s coach Clyde Hart, a USA Legend Coach Award honoree.
Hart used and promoted a high volume training program that got known as the “Baylor Method.” Johnson set 200 and 400 world records with it in the late 1990s and Wariner won both Olympic and World Championship titles in the early 2000s.
The training method soon became popular in programs both small and large across the country. Mark Guthrie at UW-La Crosse used a variation of it to create an NCAA DIII empire from 1988-2006 leading the Eagles to 22 national titles in that time.
And high school coaches in Wisconsin noticed.
It wasn’t in full bore usage around 2003 and 2004 in the state, but it was ramping up, and would revolutionize the prep version of track in this state, as every record in 200, 400 and 800-meter based races, both boys and girls, have been under constant assault since about 2005 or so.
Heck, it got to be from around 2010 on, a new record would be set in the 4 x 200 relay and the ink would barely dry in the record book and then it would be broken again (more on that later).
A prime early advocate of the process in Wisconsin was the great Waukesha North coach Chuck Bova (who won a state team title with the North Stars in 1993) and soon he created a legion of followers, first in southeastern Wisconsin, and then across the state.
A big time success story with it was Germantown boys under-coach Todd Brawner. Brawner coached 20 years with the Warhawks and later with Homestead and won a state title in 2006 (more on that in a later blog), winning a total of seven North Shore Conference triple crowns from 1999-2008.
“I got all my original programs from Chuck Bova at Waukesha North and adapted them to fit my teams,” said Brawner. “All percentage based pace training off a spreadsheet individualized for each athlete, etc.”
“He (Bova) was the first Wisconsin high school coach. The training is Clyde Hart at Baylor and Jim Bush at UCLA, and then Guthrie adapted it. But Bova was my mentor although I met and studied the other guys every chance I got. I used the program from 1997-2017. Very high volume.”
And high success rate. Other successful programs that used at least some elements of it were Mike Steiner at Brookfield East (four state boys titles in the 2010s), the highly successful West Bend West programs under Brian Heimark (the Spartan girls have churned out a number of great relay teams ever since) and the powerhouse Arrowhead boys program under Chris Herriot.
“We were to start,” said Herriot of Hart’s theories. “I came out of the Kettle Moraine system and was reinforced by Guthrie at UW-La Crosse. I didn’t really start changing up to a hybrid system until around 2013-14.”
But by the time the trend had given way to a more speed oriented training method a few years ago, the depth of excellence in such events as the open 400, 800, and 1,600, as well as the 300 hurdles and the 4 x 200, 4 x 400 and 4 x 800 relays would almost completely rewrite all-time top 50 performance lists for both the boys and girls in those events.
RELAYS START TO RULE
And relays took off for other reasons too after the WIAA brought back the 4 x 200 relay into the boys’ program in 2001. The change gave the guys four relays, same as the girls, and made coaches realize two things. That one, you could get a lot more people involved if you convinced them that running relays was fun and a great way to build team camaraderie; and two, that if you successfully stack your relays, you could score a lot of points at state.
A lot of people have grasped that idea since and made it work in a huge way. An early proponent of it was the McFarland girls which won a state D2 title in 2001 on the strength of wins in the 4 x 100, 4 x 200 and 4 x 800 relays.
But the time 2003 rolled around, the Arcadia girls took that concept to absurd heights, claiming the second of what would be five WIAA state track titles under coach Lynn Sonnentag on the back of victories in all four relays.
Another relay backed success was D3 boys team champion Amherst, as behind a strong anchor from 100 and 200 champ Phillip Koback, it obliterated the class record in the 4 x 200 by over 2-1/2 seconds with a 1:29.52 time that won the race by an astounding three-plus seconds.
That time would stay written in the books for a remarkable 16 years.
The boys D2 4 x 200 record would also fall to Brodhead and also in D2, both eventual champion Grafton and Amery would take down the 4 x 800 mark.
Two other relay records fell in the D2 girls competition when Pewaukee broke the 4 x 800 mark and both winner Kiel and runner-up Columbus broke the record in the 4 x 400.
And Pewaukee was no flash in the pan as the Pirates would come back and break their own record in 2004.
And in the D1 boys competition, Brookfield Central, which got wins from eventual NFL star Joe Thomas in the shot put and discus as well as from Jon Doble in the 400, came up a point short of a state crown when its 4 x 400 relay was nipped by .08 of a second for second by Verona.
Doble started his anchor leg in sixth, passed all but Verona and eventual winner Catholic Memorial competitors by the 250 mark, but could get no closer.
“Shoot,” said Lancer coach coach Mark Pulkownik. “But it was the way it had to be. We wanted it to be in our hands. Those guys in the relay knew what they had to do and they left it all on the line.”
That razor thin margin allowed Milwaukee Vincent to win its second state title in three years by a narrow 40-39 margin over the Lancers.
SOLINSKY, BALL, OMOLE GO OUT AS CHAMPS
But in 2003 on the boys side, the primary emphasis was the going away party held for some of the state’s greatest track athletes ever.
The state’s greatest male distance runner Chris Solinsky of Stevens Point got an appropriate send-off. The previous fall, he won his third straight WIAA state cross country title and then won the Foot Locker National Cross Country championships by a record 21 seconds.
In the spring track season of his senior year he went for the distance trifecta of 800, 1,600 and the 3,200. After winning the 3,200 on a soggy Friday afternoon, he took a mighty hack at Gabe Jennings’ stout 4:04.97 1,600 mark on a sunny Saturday, but came up just a smidgen short with an excellent 4:05.25 time.
Solinsky, who in April had won the 3,200 prestigious Arcadia Invitational in California with a still almost untouchable all-time state best of 8:43.24, came up just short of his trifecta, finishing third in a fast 800, not long after that hard 1,600 effort.
The wise and appreciative crowd at UW-La Crosse gave him a well-earned long and thunderous ovation after his last race.
He would go on to have a sensational career at Wisconsin and did some amazing things in an all-too brief international career (he became the first non-African runner to go under 27 minutes in the 10,000 meters, breaking the American record at the time).
But after a sensational 2010 season injuries caught up with him and he retired in 2016.
“I’ve cherished every title I’ve won, every single one is memorable,” he said at the time of the 2003 state meet. “I’ll remember these moments for the rest of my life.”
So will many track junkies like myself.
Another multi-time champ getting his swan song was weightman Gavin Ball of Monona Grove, as he won his third straight D2 discus crown and his second straight shot put championship. His 192-1 fling in the discus remains untouched 17 years later.
Thomas and Ball, who took part in an epic Big Man meet in Homestead in 2002 (see earlier post) were a mutual admiration society this weekend even talking Friday night on the phone after Thomas had won his shot title and Ball the discus.
“I got really lucky being able to throw against guys like him (Thomas) who are such tough kids,” Ball said. “It’s been just so much fun.”
Also on the boys side, Whitefish Bay Dominican sprinter Demi Omole won his second straight 200 dash title in D2, and also broke his own mark in the 100 in claiming his third straight championship in that event. Also in D2 Ben Porter of East Troy won his third straight D2 boys 3,200 on a drippy Friday afternoon
Also on the boys side, junior Antonio Freeman of Wauwatosa West gave everyone a preview of his state athlete of the year coming ahead in 2004, as he won the D1 100 and 200 dashes and anchored the Trojans’ 4 x 200 relay to a state title.
And in D3, the triple jump was an impressive event as both Antoine Roberts of Weyerhauser (46-6 1/2) and runner-up Darren Cole of Wayland Academy (46-3) would take down the class record. A year later, Cole would overtake Roberts class record with an effort of 47- 3 1/4, a mark which still holds to this day.
MONSEN GOES OUT A CHAMP, SCHULTZ AND MADUZA START FAST
On the girls’ side of the equation, it was a more of an introduction of great things to come, as freshman Joanna Schultz of Holmen would win the first of her four straight D1 400 crowns, taking down 2002 champion Patrice McMillan of Brookfield Central with a state record effort of 55.81. She also started on a run of four straight 200 dash crowns too.
Central coach Lorie Lewis was immensely impressed by the tall, long-striding Schultz.
“She’s like a racehorse,” Lewis told me. “She has such a long stride and such great turnover. The way she drove it home was something to see.”
Another freshman making a good first impression was a diminutive distance powerhouse with a shock of snow-white hair from Shorewood named Claire Maduza who won both the D2 1,600 and 3,200.
Her brother Alec, who was fourth in the 3,200, was a big inspiration said Maduza.
“I never expected the 1,600,” she said, “because it’s not my best event, but he (Alec) was over by the curve yelling ‘Go for it!’ so I had to do it for him.”
Much more would be heard from Maduza in the future.
Anna Monsen of Stoughton’s quest to become that rare athlete to win an event four times was in jeopardy going into D1 100 dash final because of a tender hamstring. The hamstring gave way just meters before the finish line but Monsen still achieved her goal, joining just 13 other female athletes (at the time) in that select group of champions.
And though just in its third year of competition at the time, competitors in the girls pole vault were making huge strides as Ashwaubenon’s Liza Lewis won her third straight title in the event and destroyed the D1 record by 1-1/2 feet with an effort of 12-6 while Lancaster’s Laura Massey took down the D2 mark and Edgar’s Pamela Knetter eclipsed the D3 record.
Lewis’s record would stand for an impressive 13 years.
Other three-time girls champion included Two Rivers Nicole Pelischek, who won D2 200 dash titles in 2000 and 2001, came up short in 2002, but battled back to win again in 2003 helping the Raiders claim the D2 team title; as well as Kami Sweet of Riverdale, who closed out a three-peat in the D3 discus with a record-setting 148-9 throw that took down the 22-year old class record of Cindy Lensmire of Marathon (145-10).
Sweet’s feat was even more impressive considering the fact that for years after she set that record, Lensmire’s effort was not only the D3 record but the overall state discus standard too.
In the near future after that, due in part to the aforementioned changes in training, records would not have such long shelf lives as more and more athletes got stronger and faster and more of them would make it to La Crosse to test their mettle.
UP NEXT: More state meet qualifiers result in a schedule change as new eras start. As La Crosse becomes more successful in hosting the state track meet, others seek to take that honor away from it.