As I have noticed over the last 38 years of working with the WIAA, the organization isn’t always the fastest in terms of innovation and staying ahead of the curve on certain key topics, but it has always liked getting people involved.
Especially with the track program in the early 2000s. It added back into the mix the 4 x 200 relay to the boys meet in 2001 and that same year, it permitted girls to start flying in the pole vault. As events played out in the 19 years since, both ideas have been raging successes.
As has been the idea introduced in 2004 of expanding the number of qualifiers out of sectional meets in Division 1 from two to three and from three to four in D2 and D3.
Coaches and athletes had been complaining of too many near misses by quality athletes in deep sectionals for years and now they finally got what they wanted.
Further, the WIAA also kept the popular, and often necessary provision that if any performance that didn’t finish in the top three or top four in a given sectional but was good enough to be in the top eight of all sectionals statewide in its class, those athletes too advanced to La Crosse.
I had to admit, I was a skeptic at first, thinking that the additional qualifiers would dilute the quality of the state meet, but as I have often been over the years, I was wrong (I had early doubts about the girls going to 5,000 meters in cross country some years ago, though state distance champions Morgan Florsheim of Shorewood and Camille Davre of Whitefish Bay quickly disabused me of my archaic and patronizing attitudes)!
Coaches, always anxious for more opportunities to get to state, were enthusiastic about the expansion, including then Homestead boys coach Dan Benson.
“When the three qualifiers went into place I immediately thought of the MANY (his emphasis) close calls we had with tremendous athletes in a killer sectional,” he said recently. “… (and in the end) it seemed like everyone there, belonged there (at state).”
And, oh yes, that northwest Milwaukee suburban D1 boys sectional that Homestead came out of has always been, as Benson said, “a killer.”
More on that topic later.
THINGS TAKE TIME
But now for the downside of adding all those extra qualifiers. As everyone who has gone to even one WIAA state meet in La Crosse, that Friday first day with all those trials’ heats is a VERY (my emphasis) long day, going eight, nine, sometimes 10 hours depending upon the weather.
And it puts a strain on everyone, not least of which, all the support staff, including the starters, clerks, event judges, lane judges and most importantly, all those fine, young healthy track athletes from UW-La Crosse with their very cool t-shirts, who spend all day hustling the participants’ warm-up gear from the starting line to the cool-down pit, setting up and taking down hurdles over, over and over again.
It would take a few years, but at some point along the line, the WIAA and the coaches would decide that adding a break between the D1 and then the combined D2 and D3 portions of that first day would help everyone’s physical and emotional well-being immensely (including those of grumpy old reporters).
But in 2004, everyone just bore down and paced themselves on a beautiful early June Friday as the state meet ground through an imposing 133 trials and finals races without a stop.
Veteran South Milwaukee coach and former hurdler extraordinaire Stan Druckrey (a Menomonee Falls and UW-La Crosse Hall of Fame member) conducted a little experiment and kept a stopwatch going all day starting with the first race at 10:30 a.m.
By the time the final heat of the D1 boys 4 x 400 relay finished, Druckrey’s watch read eight hours, 38 minutes and 39 seconds.
And that was with good weather and no delays!
At the time, WIAA Associate Director and Meet Manager Marcy Thurwachter said that the starters were under strict orders to hurry things along as swiftly and safely as possible.
After that first day, she called the meet officials’ efforts “darn impressive” given the circumstances.
“As soon as the last person hits the finish line in one race, we’ll bring the next group up,” said one of three 2004 state meet starters Dennis Meyer of Brookfield before the event commenced.
“But the meet is 150 percent bigger,” he added. “We’re going to try and be as efficient as possible, put people in the blocks and go, but it will be a challenge.”
This day, the challenge was met and the athletes enjoyed it.
LEAVING LA CROSSE?
There were other challenges on the horizon too as La Crosse’s successful 14-year run at hosting the meet was being met with change of pace ideas as UW-Oshkosh was upgrading its facilities dramatically and was presenting itself as a potential future host.
UW-La Crosse, which at that point was contracted to hold the meet through 2006, responded a few years later with a substantial facelift of Memorial Stadium that helped keep state track within full view of the Grand Dad’s Bluff indefinitely (more on that later).
As it was, attendance at the La Crosse-run state track event had increased from 8,700 in its second year of 1991 to over 16,000 in 2004 and would continue on an incremental path upward for many years to follow.
OLD GUYS, BIG LEGACIES
As for the meet itself, 2004 was a transition year, no Chris Solinsky, Gavin Ball, Joe Thomas, Demi Omole, Brandon Houle, or Greg Bracey. Bracey had graduated in 2003 from Milwaukee Vincent with that rarest of all feats under his belt, four straight state titles as part of the Vikings powerful 4 x 100 relay.
In doing that, Bracey joined a unique fraternity as both Milwaukee South’s Kevin Bledsoe (1984-87) and DC Everest’s Josh Dickerson (1993-96) had done exactly the same thing in the 4 x 100.
Bracey and the others were multi-time champs and recordholders who had colored the meet over the last few years in the shade of legend and they were missed, but they had plenty of talented newcomers willing to step into their shoes.
Especially in the D1 boys competition, as that northwest Milwaukee sectional did prove to be a tough customer, as Benson noted. Long-time Waukesha County athletic powerhouse Arrowhead won its first title since 1965, as under coach Chris Herriot, the Warhawks defeated 2001 and 2003 champ and sectional rival Vincent, 44-38.
It would be far from the last time that either Arrowhead or Vincent would be heard from in the next few years as fellow sectional members like Germantown, Homestead and Menomonee Falls would also make themselves noticed (look to next blog for details).
The unsung hero for Arrowhead was Brad Peterson, who pulled out a surprising victory in the 300 intermediate hurdles and also ran a leg on Arrowhead’s team-title clinching runner-up 4 x 400 relay.
“He’s (Peterson) a special kid,” said then Falls coach Jeff Waggoner. “He was their key.”
Ironically, that boys 4 x 400 final on Saturday was run in a brief downpour, the only time it rained all weekend. It seemed fitting, I wrote in my essay for the Wisconsin Track and Field Yearbook that year, as many coaches noted that most of the season itself was in need of a good umbrella.
Also in D1 boys competition, Antonio Freeman of Wauwatosa West repeated as 100 and 200 dash champion and anchored the Trojans’ winning 4 x 100 relay. Those victories ran his career state title total up to six as he won Wisconsin’s male athlete of the year award.
“I marked my spot for awhile (in state history),” Freeman said at the meet.
Others who did the same were girls D3 sprinter Kristen Barr of Wausau Newman, who won the girls 100 and 200 dashes for the third year in a row and ended her career on a spectacular note, as she set a class mark in the 200 dash with a 25.14 time.
That 200 effort was good enough for Barr to knock off Kohler D3 legend Ann Kattreh‘s 22-year old record in the event. What made Barr’s effort even more impressive was the fact that at the time, Kattreh still held the then 25-year old D3 400 mark.
GIRLS CATCH BIG AIR
As mentioned, girls flying high proved to be a good idea in 2001 and it was even better in 2004 as Lancaster’s Laura Massey set a D2 class record in the event for the third year in a row with an impressive effort of 12-3.
Also in the vault, D1 pole vault champ Jenny Soceka of Madison Memorial cleared 12-0 at state for her gold medal and then soared to a then state all-time best 12-10 at a USATF Regional qualifier in July.
Another female high flyer was Chilton high jumper Liz Roehrig who won her third straight D2 crown. She concluded state competition still sharing a portion of the D2 class record.
She said mental toughness allowed her to succeed as well as she did.
“Defending is a lot of work,” she said. “It is a lot of pressure. You try to eliminate that.”
Which Tosa West’s Anne McLaughlin handled just fine as she successfully defended her D1 girls high jump title a month after clearing an amazing 5-10 at the Woodland Conference Relays in May.
NEW MUSCLE IN TOWN
As noted earlier, various superstars graduation a year earlier allowed for budding stars to take their first steps into glory.
The tall, well-put together Steve Marcelle of Green Bay Preble took the D1 shot title with a fine toss of 57-11 3/4, but as everyone knows, he would do much, much, much better in that event in 2005.
And in the D2 weights, Mike Newkirk of Ladysmith in the shot (all classes best 60- 1/2) and AJ Curtis of Brodhead in the discus (also all classes best 180-7) took advantage of Ball’s absence to stake title claims of their own.
FYI, the shot title put a capper on a ridiculously successful senior year for Newkirk as he was also the state football player of the year and was the state D3 heavyweight champ in wrestling.
Curtis, it turns out, is the younger brother of 2003 graduate and multi-time D2 girls shot and discus champ Amber Curtis proving the fact that he was paying attention to his big sis when he was growing up.
ONE, TWO, THREE
And in the distances, there was a bit of uniformity on the D1 boys side, as Bryan Culver of Waukesha South, 2003 state cross country champion Chris Rombough of New London and Scott Mueller of Brookfield Central swept the first three spots in that order in both the 1,600 and 3,200.
Culver proved he was a fine inheritor of Solinsky’s legacy with excellent winning times of 4:11.22 and 9:05.59, respectively, in his two races. Also in the distances, Green Bay Notre Dame’s Joe Pierre had a spectacular meet in D2 taking both the 800 and the 1,600 and then running a strong leg on the Tritons’ winning 4 x 400 relay.
Earlier in the season, Pierre had turned in a top 10 all time effort of 1:52.56 in the 800 at the Brown County Meet.
MARKERS ALONG THE WAY
In totally unsurprising fashion, sophomore Joanna Schultz of Holmen repeated as D1 girls 200 and 400 champion while relay records continued to be easy targets. The Pewaukee girls broke their own D2 4 x 800 mark with an all meet best of 9:21.67; while D2 girls team champ Columbus shattered the 4 x 400 mark with a 3:58.13 effort and on the D2 boys side, Iola-Scandinavia also took down the 4 x 400 record with a 3:25.34 clip around the track.
And in another case of good genes always help, Waukesha West’s Jenna Sitte won the 100 to help the Wolverines repeat at D1 girls team champions. Her father Larry Sitte had won the Class C 100 dash title while at Fish Creek in 1975.
One athlete on the boys’ side put himself into the record books for good was John Keyes of Belmont won his third straight D3 boys long jump.
And in what had to be a maddening case of consistency, Greendale’s Isaiah Adams took second in each of the D2 100, 200 and 400, losing to three different runners by a combined total of .20 of a second. He fell to Oconto’s Nick Feldman by a maddening .01 of a second in the 100 final.
REDEMPTION IS SWEET
But elsewhere there were redemption stories. After winning both the D2 1,600 and 3,200 as a freshman, Claire Maduza of Shorewood endured an injury riddled cross country season in the fall and she said she didn’t feel right until midway through her sophomore year track season.
But then she rallied to beat conference rival Jenny Stoll of Pewaukee to repeat as D2 3,200 champ.
“The first mile I kept thinking ‘Cross the finish line first,'” Maduza said. “That good a feeling will be well worth the 10 minutes of pain it took to get it.”
Also, Octavia Erkins of Brown Deer won a D2 state sprint title at Dominican her sophomore year in 2002, but after transferring to Brown Deer and advancing to state in 2003, she got hurt in the trials and could not defend her championship.
But she came back in 2004 healthy and motivated and capped off her career with another 100 dash title as well as leading off the Falcons’ victorious 4 x 100 relay that barely missed out on a D2 record.
“This feels great,” she said. “So much better than even sophomore year. I had even pulled a muscle again in the indoor but I got intense therapy and got it all back.”
And then there was the story of Sussex Hamilton senior Kellyn Johnson, who had earned numerous state medals in her storied cross country and track careers but none of them gold. That was, until the last race of her career, the D1 1,600 on Saturday, as she outran 800 champ Megan Duwell of West Bend West for the title with a clocking of 5:01.35.
“It means a lot,” Johnson said. “That four years of cross country and track were really worth it. I mean the second I got (in the 3,200 on Friday) is great, but not the same as this.”
No, such a feeling like that never is and never will be.
UP NEXT: Rombough takes on Solinsky’s legacy, Marcelle goes big, very big in fact, and the talent that came out of that northwest side of Milwaukee D1 boys sectional from 2000-10 was really something else!