Freedom D2 sprint champion Collin Hofacker has a claim to fame that no one can take away from him:
He is likely the last person in the state of Wisconsin to ever beat now international track star Kenny Bednarek in an open race.
That happened in the WIAA state meet in La Crosse in 2015 when Bednarek was just introducing himself to the world as an already enormously swift and talented freshman from Rice Lake.
In a few years, Bednarek would become one of those rarest of entities, someone who would be able to make the many thousands in attendance at Memorial Stadium collectively gasp in amazement at how effortless he annihilated and rewrote the state recordbooks.
Think Gabe Jennings, Michael Bennett, Dezerea Bryant, Brooke Jaworski.
But his is a story for another day. Hofacker, in his own way, was and remains an astounding story.
Just for the simple fact of how far he came in a single year.
Because in 2014, this is how Hofacker’s state track meet went:
Failed to make the D2 finals in the 200 by .05 of a second, had the Irish’s top-seeded 4 x 200 relay, which he was anchoring, fail to get the stick around in Saturday’s finals, and then had the 4 x 400 relay that he was also anchoring run five seconds slower in the finals and finish a disappointing seventh.
Not exactly the stuff to make one think that he would dominate in 2015 like he did.
But let’s just say, such disappointments lit a fire under him, because his senior year was the thing of dreams.
He caught 47 passes for over 1,000 yards and 18 TDs and was a top-flight defensive back for a 10-2 Irish football team in the fall and was a good enough basketball player to earn a spot in the annual WBCA All-Star game, and oh yes, in the spring of 2015, before Bednarek came into full possession of his vast powers, Hofacker himself would rewrite the D2 track recordbooks.
In those few sweet, short months, he and the Irish checked every goal and made almost every decision a correct one.
Hofacker broke Matt Gerber of Tomahawk’s four-year old state record of 21.4 in the 200 with a 21.32 time in the trials and then edged Bednarek for the title, 22.05-22.08 in Saturday’s finals.
Prior to that great 200, he and Bednarek staged a dual for the ages, as Hofacker broke Erick Huertas of Grafton’s scarcely a year old standard in the 400 (47.86) with a 47.76 clocking that was just good enough to beat the fast closing Bednarek to the line (47.95).
And then Hofacker cemented the Irish’s state team title by bringing the 4 x 400 relay team of Isaac Gonnering, Eric Schommer and Sam Hinz home in first in 3:21.86.
He wasn’t the only one having a really good weekend in an Irish singlet, as though not as fast as his state record setting brother Joe from a few years earlier, Sam Hinz kept the family tradition alive in the 800 by also claiming that event crown with a 1:54.5 clocking
That was well more than enough to bring Freedom the D2 state title, 66-46, over runner-up Milwaukee Lutheran.
In the future, Bednarek would eventually take down Hofacker’s marks in the 200 and 400 and also lead his Warriors to a team title, but in 2015, he was just one of dozens of guys chasing Hofacker and failing to catch him.
Hofacker was a good enough athlete to have played football anywhere he wanted to, but his professional athlete role model was Olympic and world champion decathlete Ashton Eaton.
So in the end, he chose to go to Iowa and become a top flight relay runner.
It turned out to be a very good decision.
Hofacker headed off to Iowa with 2015 Wisconsin State Track Athlete of the Year honors under his belt along with six Freedom school records.
It would only get better in Iowa City, Iowa, which is the unofficial collegiate D1 4 x 400 capital of the midwest.
Starting with his sophomore season of 2017, Hofacker was a fixture on Hawkeye relay teams that would earn either NCAA first or second-team All-American a combined six times indoor and outdoor (including a leg on an All-American 4 x 100 in 2019 as well as on a then school record of 3:01.01 in the 4 x 400 in 2017).
He turned in personal bests of 20.71 in the 200 and 46.5 in the 400 at the 2017 Big 10 Outdoor meet and did all this while pursuing a challenging pre-physician major.
In talking to Robert Read of the Daily Iowan in 2019, the multi-talented Hofacker still expressed no regrets about choosing track as his primary sport.
“Coming out of high school, I sat down with my parents to make a decision,” Hofacker told Read. “We thought I should pick which sport I was most passionate about — football, basketball, or track — and it ended up being track.”
BROWN AND WISCO FINISH WELL
Eric Brown of Wisconsin Lutheran could never quite again catch that lightning in a bottle that he found in 2013 when he set his still standing 800 record of 1:51.48, but he knew how to run a race and so finished off his trifecta of 800 titles in 2015 with a fine 1:54.78 effort.
Those race running skills also proved handy in the 4 x 800 relay, as the Vikings didn’t reach the epic heights they did the year before with their yet still untouched record time of 7:39.39, but behind Brown’s strong anchor, they repeated as champions in a still excellent 7:43.18.
In that race, Brown held off hard-charging Arrowhead anchor Will Simons, as the Warhawks fell just short of upseting Lutheran with a 7:43.65 clocking.
In another strong field for the event, Middleton (7:44.82) and Stevens Point (7:45.7) were right on the leaders’ heels.
Brown also finished second in the 1,600 for the second straight year, losing in a thriller to returning champ Olin Hacker of Madison West (more on him below), 4:13.7-4:13.78.
Then he was off to Wisconsin, where Brown had a strong career including first team NCAA Indoor All-American track honors in 2018 and 2019 running the 800 leg for the Badgers’ distance medley relay. He was also a two-time NCAA preliminary round qualifier in the 800 (personal best 1:48.72), a two-time Big 10 All-Academic selection with his environmental studies and sociology degree and was still running while pursuing graduate studies in 2020.
Brown is still in the top 10 all-time in Wisconsin in the indoor 800 while the two All-American DMRs he was part of rank second and third, respectively, in Badger history.
VAN LANEN GOES LONG
Before he established himself as just the latest in the long, long list of great NFL caliber offensive linemen produced by the University of Wisconsin and like several of his brethern, Cole Van Lanen of Bay Port was a heck of a thrower in track.
He was second as a sophomore in both the D1 shot and discus in 2014 and then just took off in 2015, dominating the shot by more than six feet with a mighty heave of 62 feet even, while also turning a top level effort of 183-8 in overwhelming the discus field.
His efforts were the capstone of an impressive D1 state team championship effort by the Pirates, as it outdistanced Brown’s Wisco group, 66-48, to win the gold trophy.
Van Lanen could not quite repeat those feats his senior year, but he still won the shot put (this time by a whisker 1/4 inch) and claimed third in the discus.
Then it was off to Wisconsin for football where he has been a starter for three years on the Badgers’ offensive line. In 2018, he was rated as the nation’s highest-graded offensive tackle by Pro Football Focus (90.4) and in 2019 he was both second-team All Big 10 and second-team All-American.
Going into this COVID pandemic hampered 2020 season Van Lanen is a pre-season first-team All-America (Walter Camp, USA Today), second-team All-America (AP, Pro Football Focus), and is on the Outland Trophy watch list, as well as a Senior Bowl Top 250 pick.
Van Lanen, like many other Badger players were both relieved and concerned when the Big 10 rescinded its decision to cancel the 2020 football season and will attempt a modified season starting in October.
Will the potential outcomes, which for Van Lanen includes rising NFL stock value, outweigh the risks of compounding further an already tragic virus outbreak, which as of mid-September had already killed over 200,000 Americans?
No one really knows that answer to that as of now.
HACKER FAMILY MATTERS
Olin Hacker finished his smashing career at Madison West on a very high note, repeating as state cross country champion in November 2014 in a very quick time (his father Tim had done the same thing in 1979 and 1980) and then came into spring and won both the 1,600 and 3,200 in track in La Crosse.
As noted, he claimed that thriller in the 1,600 over Brown on Saturday after an impressive title run in the 3,200. In that 3,200, he overwhelmed the field in a personal best of 9:00.86 beating area rival Ryan Nameth of Verona by over six seconds. Fellow Big 8 Conference rival Finn Gessner of Madison La Follette was third.
“Right on the starting line, I looked around and the top four guys were all Big Eight guys,” said Hacker to Art Kabelowsky of the Wisconsin State Journal. “That was pretty cool.”
Hacker took control of the 3,200 after the sixth of eight laps. Gessner told Kabelowsky said everyone felt an eair of inevitability at what was going to happen.
“Everyone knows Olin’s the truth,” Gessner said. “We were all just waiting for it (his final kick).”
Like his father, national cross country champion Tim Hacker, and his uncle Jeff Hacker, he went to Wisconsin. His collegiate career on the track and on the grassy cross country layouts was not as successful as his Dad’s but in the classroom, he was every bit the scholar Tim was (he is a noted UW researcher these days).
Olin Hacker was named academic All-American in cross country and track in 2016 and 2017, earned five All Big 10 academic designations and topped it off by earning College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA) First-Team Academic All-America honors in June2020 after posting a 3.95 GPA while majoring in biology.
Who knows, he may even continue his Dad’s research someday?
As far as competition goes, Olin Hacker was a second-team All-Big 10 selection in cross country in 2016 and NCAA All-Region in CC in 2016 and 2018. He was also part of a first team NCAA Indoor Track All-American distance medley relay team that won the Big 10 championship.
Not bad at all for having to walk out from under Dad’s huge shadow.
THE ZACH LEE STORY
Finishing well back of Hacker and Brown in that excellent D1 1,600, but still posting a fine time was Zach Lee of Franklin, who was eighth in 4:18.76. He also ran on the Sabers’ 4 x 800 that earned the same spot with a strong 7:56.31 effort.
Lee then went onto UW-Platteville and made a bit of history himself aspiring too and achieving much greater things.
He steadily built up his first two years and then in his junior year of 2017 achieved a breakthrough when he earned NCAA DIII All-American in cross country for the Pioneers. In the spring of 2018, he was WIAC indoor champ in the 1,500, but did not qualify for indoor nationals.
He would make amends for that letdown.
After qualifying for DIII outdoor track nationals, but not placing, Lee set his sights on a big senior year in 2018-19 and likely well exceeded his expectations. He was WIAC and Midwest DIII regional runner-up in cross country and then earned another All-American honor at nationals, moving up 21 places at nationals to finish ninth.
It got even better in track season as he won the WIAC indoor mile and then went to NCAA DIII indoor nationals and turned in a smashing championship in the mile winning in a time of 4:06.22.
Lee couldn’t equal that finish in the outdoor nationals, but still medaled in the 1,500, earning sixth.
In short, it was a great finish for the software engineering graduate who went to Platteville in part for the great feel of the community and according to his Pioneer bio, for the “team vibes.”
WESNER FLIES HIGH AT THE FINISH
Princeton/Green Lake high jumper Jordan Wesner earned his trifecta of state D3 high jump crowns in 2015 by claiming his last title with an all-classes best of 6-8.
But that is just the least interesting part of life for this current graduate student at the University of Memphis, who is pursuing an MBA having successfully switched his major from kinesology to economics mid-stream because he found crunching numbers so interesting.
He earned his track scholarship to Memphis on the strength of a senior year in-season best of 6-11 and took to the warmer climate of Tennessee immediately.
Wesner is a two-time All-American, two-time All-American Conference (AAC) champion, has cleared seven feet numerous times including a school record of 7-3 3/4. He is also a three-time Academic All-American and All-Conference selection for the Tigers.
For fun, he has gone to the gym and casually dunked a basketball while taking off from the free throw line and has recently taken up boxing.
In a February 2020 article in the Daily Helmsman written by Lucas Finton, Memphis teammate Noah Agnew reported that there is no shortage of things that make Wesner interesting.
“I think what is a distinguishing quality about him however is how light-hearted and goofy he is,” Agnew said to Finton. “It is very interesting to see that duality in him. He is very fun to be around and he is easy going and loves to laugh and mess around. But when the cards are on the table he has an instinct that is as sharp as a knife, as sharp as I have ever seen. He is a killer when he turns that switch on.
“…[He is] bigger than sports,” Agnew continued. “He has a depth to him that I do not think you would find in most 22-year-olds, let alone 22-year-old student athletes. In long bus rides to meets, while everyone is sleeping or watching Netflix, Jordy is reading articles about existentialism or watching debates.”
Wesner hopes to qualify for the US Olympic Trials in the high jump in 2021. If not, who knows, as with his brains and imagination he might become a Fortune 500 CEO or a renown philosopher. He is someone to watch in many ways.
KRAVIK WINS FIRST OF TWO
Wesner was not alone in flying high in D3 as Kellen Kravik of Bangor won his first of two pole vault titles with a fine leap of 14-6. He repeated in 2016 outdueling future state record-holder and collegiate All-American Noah Zastrow of Spencer with a leap of 15-0.
In his 2015 efforts at state, he was helped by an enormous personal cheering section that made the 20 minute drive to Memorial Stadium their personal mission. My friend Todd Sommerfeldt of the La Crosse Tribune reported it made for quite an experience for anyone else watching the competition.
“The group was probably 75 or 80 strong, maybe more ,” wrote Sommerfeldt, “and wore mostly red as it took over a full section of bleachers and spilled over to standing room on the side near the south pole vaulting pit.
“It clapped in unison as Kravik readied the pole, sprinted toward the pit, planted the end of the pole and vaulted into the air. They started slow and sped up the pace with every stride.”
Kravik was astounded at the level of support.
“Half of them were here when I got here this morning,” Kravik told Sommerfeldt. “It was awesome to have them cheering me on. They were so loud.”
After he graduated in 2016, Kravik then took his talents to Illinois State where he thrived and became a remarkably consistent performer for the Redbirds. Maybe just a little too consistent for his own good probably, as he finished second five times in Missouri Valley Conference indoor and outdoor championships (he also had one fourth).
He started going over 16 feet his sophomore year and reached a best of 16-8 3/4. Kravik was also a sound performer in the 400 hurdles for Illinois State. His latest plans have him going into dentistry.
MARATHON BREAKS THROUGH
After suffering a disappointing two point loss to Chippewa Falls McDonnell in 2014, Marathon broke through in 2015 for a D3 team title, waiting until the very last minute to get it done.
The Red Raiders trailed Wausau Newman, 41-38, going into the final event, the 4 x 400. The crew of Ethan and Richard Seubert, Kellen Vetter and Xavier Lechleitner was seeded sixth headed int othe final.
A sixth would tie them for the title with Newman, and a fifth would give them the outright title.
The intrepid relay crew got the fifth as they edged Spring Valley by .31 of a second for the spot that earned them the right to hoist the top trophy by a 42-41 margin over Newman.
How close did Marathon cut it in winning this title? .02 of a second as it turned out, as earlier in the meet, Lechtleitner edged Reedsville’s Grant Wedepohl, 1:56.48-1:56.50, to win the 800.
Lechtleitner earned 10 points for the win as opposed to eight for second. It was just enough to make the difference between a big gold trophy and a smaller silver one for Marathon.
As we all know, sometimes its a couple of meters, a few feet, a handful of inches, or even mere millimeters that decide state track titles.
And that was the case entirely in 2016.
UP NEXT: King girls returns to the top of the heap in D1, Schaefer goes long for Baraboo in the discus, D2 distances get deeper as Cambridge’s Currie takes down an old, old record; Grant has a heck of a meet for Jefferson, Wittenberg-Birnamwood sophomores run a heck a 4 x 400; and oh yes, a freshman named Jaworski from Wausau West redefines the 400.