The Rhinelander High School cross country team graced the front cover of the Rhinelander Daily News Nov. 1, 1987 following the teamís state championship effort the day before in Madison. (Submitted photo)
11/20/2012 1:30:00 PM Miracle on grass: 25 years later Members of 1987 RHS cross country team recount state championship season
There are not many WIAA state championship trophies sitting in the trophy cases at Rhinelander High School. Several Rhinelander teams have gone to state, but only four have returned home No. 1.
The last WIAA state championship for Rhinelander came Oct. 31, 1987 when the Hodag boys' cross country team capped off a nearly perfect season with a nearly perfect race.
That season, Rhinelander's magnificent seven - Jeff Craig, Brian Cutler, Charlie Schmock, Kyle Schroeder, Dave Meisinger, Derrick Larson and Dean Grisar - and coach George Baksic, went 103-1 as a team and knocked off some powerhouses en route to the title.
Flying under the radar
The Hodags were not considered state championship material to start the 1987 season. They had finished fourth in the Wisconsin Valley Conference the year before. It was a decent finish, but nothing that suggested the team was on the verge of greatness.
The Hodags returned the nucleus of the 1986 team and trained hard in the summer of '87, planting the seeds for a special fall.
"In the summer we would always run together and stay in touch," Cutler said. "Our junior year, we knew the next season could be special, we just didn't know how good. Coach (Baksic) reminded us that we had a chance to do something that Rhinelander hadn't done before. We didn't know that we could take it to the level of what he was thinking, but after the first couple of meets, we started to realize that we had a shot at making a name for Rhinelander."
Baksic said he gave his team notebooks that summer and told them to log the exercises they did. He recalled Meisinger essentially did a triathlon one day - swimming for two hours, biking to Eagle River and back and running for eight miles.
"I started saying to myself, 'We're going to be good.' They were all cross-training during the summer," he said.
Early season results
Baksic's high hopes were tempered in the season-opening Hodag Invite, where the team finished second to Marshfield - who placed fifth at state that year. Meisinger won the race, defeating Ed Holzem of Wausau East, who would become the individual Division 1 state champion two months later. Craig finished fourth, Cutler was 10th and Schmock was 13th. But Kyle Schroeder struggled that day to a 61st place finish.
"The first meet, our fifth guy got heat stroke and finished way back in the pack," Baksic recalled. "Although, we had everyone else finish up toward the front some place, we lost by two points to Marshfield. That was an aberration."
An aberration indeed. Rhinelander did not lose a race the rest of the season. The Hodags edged out Green Bay Preble for the title at the Shawano Invite, won the "Small A" division at the Bill Smiley Invite in Wausau and edged Marshfield by two points at the Merrill Invite.
"We weren't a perennial power, so the teams that were got more of the attention. We had beaten Point and we came back and beat Marshfield. Even though we did, we will still only ranked sixth, seventh, eighth in the state. Green Bay Preble was always good. About the (second) meet we went down there and we beat them. I kept saying to myself, 'These kids are good.'"
The wins continued to pile up for the Hodags. They dominated the Northland Pines Invite, placing six runners in the top nine overall. They followed that up with wins at Antigo, Tomahawk and Lakeland and entered the Wisconsin Valley Conference meet with confidence.
Winning conference and sectionals
Since 1977 only two schools have won the WVC boys' cross country title - Stevens Point and the 1987 Hodags.
SPASH had won 10 consecutive WVC titles heading into 1987. The Panthers have won 24 straight titles since, but the Hodags had their number in '87.
"They knew they were good because they had always been good. They always had a chip on their shoulder and we definitely set that as a goal," Cutler said of the team's attitude entering the conference meet. "We can compete with these guys. They're no longer better than us. We can be better than them."
The Hodags were better that day in Marshfield, placing five runners in the top 14 . It was enough to edge Stevens Point by nine points and Marshfield by 13. Craig, Meisinger and Schmock placed sixth, ninth and 10th, respectively to earn all-conference honors.
"After we won the conference title, we knew we had a definite shot of making some noise," Cutler said. "Coach made sure that it didn't go to our heads and that we stayed focused and stayed on our training routine. Going into the sectional race, we weren't sure if we were going to win or not. We thought we could. We knew Preble was going to give us a heck of a fight. When we walked away from that with the win, we knew we were one of the big boys and we could compete with anybody."
The Hodags went to Marinette for sectionals and dominated. Rhinelander outpaced Preble at all five scoring positions, won the meet by 24 points and headed to Madison for the state meet.
"We were sent to the Green Bay area and had Preble again. We beat them five weeks earlier and now we pounded them," Baksic said.
Hodags run their race at state
The 1987 WIAA Division 1 (called Class A at the time) state meet at Yahara Hills Country Club in Madison proved to be one of the toughest races in state history. Rhinelander's total of 126 points was the highest score for a winner in state history, a distinction that remained until Madison LaFollette won the 2006 Division 1 title with 127 points. As in golf, the team with the lowest score wins.
Setting the stage was an individual battle between Holzem and Cudahy's Sean McCusker. They staged one of the closest races in state history and one that sent the field out on a breakneck pace.
Baksic predicted the race would be fast and his kids would not last trying to race the leaders.
"I knew that this Sean McCusker from down in the Milwaukee area, couldn't kick with Ed Holzem from Wausau East," he said. "So I knew he was going to take him on a ride. He was going to take the starch out of him. I knew they were going to go through the two-mile mark in under 10 minutes. We were good, but we couldn't run with those two."
Rhinelander's strategy was to play possum at the start of the race, let Holzem and McCusker set an unsustainable pace and reel in the field as fatigue set in.
Baksic said he was nervous about his team's nerves. He said he had some very cerebral kids on the '87 team. During the week of practice leading up to the meet, Baksic detailed his strategy for the race.
"Coach kept telling us it was going to be a fast start, with all the excitement the state meet brings with it," Cutler said. "He told us not to get caught up in the excitement."
Baksic's worries about his team being too tense at the start of the race were erased thanks to Schroeder and Schmock, who he said were the team's "jokesters".
"I think I had explained it to them maybe six times," Baksic said. "So it's time for the race and ... the coaches have to clear out five minutes before. I get out and look back toward the starting line and here are my two kids yelling, 'Coach! Coach!' I'm thinking, we did everything, what could they want? So I go running back and I said, 'What do you want?' They said, 'Coach I've got a question?' I said, 'What?' They said, 'How did you want us to run the first half mile?' And they fell down laughing.
"Although I was getting so nervous, they were just so (relaxed). I knew they were going to have a good race then."
The race played out as Baksic expected. The field raced quickly through the first half mile. Rhinelander's seven runners were unfazed and stuck together.
"I remember when the gun went off, everybody went screaming up the hill ahead of us," Cutler said. "We just all kept saying, 'It's all right guys. Keep on our pace.' We let the pack go out and eventually started reeling them back in. About halfway through the race, we were starting to pick off a bunch of people."
The Hodags finished strong. Craig finished 15th, Cutler was 22nd, Schmock was 27th, Schroeder was 29th and Meisinger was 34th. Prior to the meet, Baksic felt if his top-five runners could finish in under 17 minutes, his team would have a shot at the title. Meisinger finished in 16:35.7.
"The first thing I remember is coach saying, 'We've got a chance, guys. People are talking we have a chance,'" Cutler said.
In his own mind, Baksic was not as certain.
"After the race, I have to collect the tabs, stick them in an envelope and turn them in. I looked at all the times and I'm congratulating them. They ran a fantastic race. I started looking at the numbers - we had 126. I thought, 'Shoot, we didn't do it.'"
That attitude changed after Baksic bumped into the coaches of two of the pre-race favorites - Wauwatosa East and La Crosse Central.
"I bumped into Joe Virtano from Tosa East. They were ranked No. 1. He looked at me and said, 'Coach?' I said, '126.' I'm sure he thought he won. He said, '134.' Then we bumped into La Crosse Central, which was ranked third. They had 138. Now I'm feeling better," he said.
But no one knew for sure until the official results were posted.
"I remember watching them write down (results) on the board," Cutler said. "It got to the last two and we hadn't been written down yet. I will never forget when I saw the guy put on the board Wauwatosa East, second. I remember people coming around the corner cheering and yelling that we had won. It was a great feeling."
The team received a hero's welcome when it returned to Rhinelander.
"That's when it hit for a lot of us," Cutler recalled. "We got back into town. They had fire trucks and police cars with lights and sirens welcome us into town. They kind of paraded us through town and had a small gathering at the high school to welcome us back. It made it sink in that we had won it and people recognized it."
Major Joe Bloom was among the dignitaries waiting at RHS when the team returned. A pep assembly followed, along with several other accolades. Baksic was named the 1987 Wisconsin boys' cross country coach of the year. He recalled one ceremony held by the Rhinelander Kiwanis to recognize the win.
"Kiwanis asked us to come for lunch," he said. "So I go there, we have a nice dinner. We're ready to go back to school and the head of Kiwanis gets up and says, 'And our guests today are the state championship Hodag cross country team, and our speaker is no stranger to anybody...' I'm sitting there thinking, 'You didn't tell me I had to give a talk! I just came for lunch.'"
Looking back after 25 years
It is easy to get caught up in individual performances in a sport such as cross country, but Cutler said the 1987 Hodags were "the definition of a team."
"If one guy didn't have a good race, somebody else stepped up," he said. "We didn't have the best runner in the state, but we had the best group of runners. Our top five were always very close when you look at times. We were always within seconds of each other.
"Just the camaraderie of the group as a whole. We were all friends outside of cross country. It wasn't just that we were on the same cross country team. We all did a lot outside of cross country as well."
"After we won the state meet, it was easy to think of it as destiny," he said. "But I've come to think of it more as a great example of a team being greater than the sum of its parts, because none of us were fast enough to stand out individually at the state level. None of us would have trained and raced as hard as we did without each other and Coach Baksic, and yet all of us found a way to be our best at exactly the right time, and all of those performances were required before everyone else could see what we already knew - we were champions."
Culter and Baksic said the team still stays in touch. Their last big reunion was five years ago. For the occasion, Meisinger put together a scrapbook of pictures and press clippings, some of which are featured in this article.
"We all went out and rehashed the memories of that season," Cutler said. "It was like we hadn't missed a beat."
Cutler said he hopes the team will have a chance to get together soon, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their unforgettable championship season.
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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