SPASH boys cross country wins 40th WVC Title under Behnke
By John Kemmeter
The Stevens Point Area Senior High School (SPASH) boys cross country team won its 40th Conference Title in 41 years at the Wisconsin Valley Conference (WVC) Meet at Standing Rocks County Park Saturday, Oct. 14.
Senior Johnny Hyland won the Individual Title and senior Liam Belson was right behind in second, as the Panthers finished with 27 points to beat D.C. Everest (63) and Marshfield (72) to claim their 30th consecutive WVC Title.
The Conference Championship was also the 40th in a row for the Panthers under Donn Behnke, who took a one-year absence as the team’s coach in 1987, to add to the list of milestones for the storied program.
“Donn really is one of the best coaches, not just in the state, but in the country,” said John Ceplina, the 1986 WVC Individual Champion for Behnke at SPASH and currently an assistant coach with the team. “He just gets a sense of team and sense of community, and he cares about everyone equally.
“There were so many alumni from past years here (for conference),” he said. “It’s just one of those special things, and it’s amazing to be a part of it.”
“I never imagined I’d coach for 40 years, and then what are the chances that you’re going to win 40 Conference Titles?” said Behnke. “We’re a pretty decent conference and have been over the years, and one of the things I’m most proud of is that level of consistency, year after year.
“Whether we have talented kids or we don’t have talented kids, we get them to come to practice every day, we ask them to work hard, we ask them to be dedicated, we teach them a certain racing philosophy, and we’ve just always performed well at this race,” he said. “It’s a special thing, because it connects these guys with all of the great teams we’ve had from the past, and they’re carrying on a tradition.”
Following his days as a runner at Milwaukee Marshall High School and the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (UWSP), Behnke was named the coach of the SPASH boys cross country team in 1977, as he took over a program that had won only one WVC Title (1957) before he arrived.
The Panthers went on to win the WVC Title in Behnke’s first year in 1977 to start a string of 10 consecutive Conference Titles through 1986.
During that run was a six-year span from 1980 through 1985, when SPASH won four State Titles, and lost by one point in each of the other two years to finish as the State Runner-up.
However, with student enrollment down in the Stevens Point School District, Behnke was laid off from his teaching job before the 1987-88 school year.
He was hired as a teacher in Wisconsin Rapids and took over as the coach of the Wisconsin Rapids Lincoln High School boys cross country team for the 1987 season, when SPASH went on to score 60 points at the WVC Meet to finish in second place behind Rhinelander (51 points).
“I was at Rapids that year, coached the team that got sixth, and I stood on the sideline and watched SPASH get beat by nine points,” said Behnke. “And then the Rhinelander kids were so excited after that, two weeks later they won the State Meet.
“So it was all unexpected, but Rhinelander was a good team, it wasn’t that the SPASH guys didn’t run well, they did,” he said. “They just got nicked by a team that ran really well on a day. That’s the one slight blemish on this long, long list of wins.”
Behnke returned as the boys cross country coach at SPASH the next season in 1988 and guided the team to the Conference Title, which started a run of 29 consecutive WVC Titles through the 2016 season.
During that span, the Panthers also won State Titles in 1994, 1997, 1998, 2003, 2008 and 2013 and finished as the State Runner-up five times, as SPASH has won a total of 10 State Titles in four different decades under Behnke.
“The kids buy into what we’re trying to get them to do, and they put in the hard work,” said Kevin Hopp, a member of the 1994 State Championship team who has coached the SPASH boys cross country team with Behnke the last 18 years. “We just guide them, and they go and they put in the hard work.
“And it’s the fact that they treat each other like brothers, they really do,” he said. “They take care of each other, they push each other, and they expect a lot out of each other.
“And by doing that, they accomplish a lot together,” he said.
Outside of running, Behnke stresses the importance of inclusion; anyone who signs up for the sport is allowed on the team, and anyone on the team, whether junior high or junior varsity, has a hand in the varsity team’s success.
The junior high school runners begin practicing with the high school team when they’re in seventh grade, and bring the total number of runners in the program from seventh through 12th grade to more than 100, while a number of junior varsity runners each year are good enough to run varsity for most high school teams in the state.
“We work hard, and that’s what the message is from day one,” said Hyland. “We show up in the summers, get our long runs in, get our base down, and once the season comes, the motto is always, ‘just keep working.’”
“We get kids to come to practice for the first time, and we start out with running two or three miles, and it’s pretty dramatic, some of the improvement,” said Behnke. “And some of these kids that were not very good runners when they started with us, are now First Team All-Conference, and they’re varsity runners for us.
“We’re not just sitting here waiting for these guys with great physical talent, we are taking whoever walks through the door on the first day of practice, and that’s our program,” he said. “And it’s just fun to see kids who keep showing up and are really passionate about this at a young age, and watch them improve over five or six years with us.”
Perhaps the best example of the program is the 2015 book that Behnke wrote, “The Animal Keepers- The Story of an Unlikely Hero and an Unforgettable Season,” about the 1985 SPASH boys cross country team and first-year runner Scott “The Animal” Longley- a developmentally disabled student who lived in a group home and went on to play a key role when the team tried to make an unexpected run for a State Title.
“It’s a true community, top to bottom,” said Ceplina, a member of the 1985 team. “We all care about each other, and Donn enforces that.
“You notice that, all of the guys got in on the picture at the end (of conference), and that’s what we are,” he said. “Everything we do, we do together.”
At the WVC Meet last Saturday, the sixth-ranked Panthers looked to extend their string of Conference Titles with a varsity lineup that included Hyland, sophomore Tristan Sernau and senior Monty Flatoff, whose fathers each ran for Behnke at SPASH.
Hyland, whose father John was also on the 1985 team from “The Animal Keepers,” was alone at the front of the race down the stretch, as he won the WVC Individual Title with a time of 16:24.2, with Belson in second place at 16:37.
“This has always been my goal since I was a freshman,” said Hyland. “First it was wearing the black jersey, being on varsity, but then once I got to that next level, I was always concentrating on winning.
“And it’s nice to win, especially at our home course,” he said.
“Johnny was our No. 5 seventh-grader when he started, and just worked his way up,” said Behnke. “Liam has always been good, so it’s been interesting to watch those guys develop and stick with the program.
“They’ve been excellent leaders on our team, they lead workouts for us and set a great example, and they are great competitors,” he said. “And today they really responded; they both ran an outstanding last mile of that race.”
Sernau came in seventh place as the third runner for SPASH, followed by junior Chad Franz (eighth), junior Alex Strojny (ninth), junior Ben Brogan (10th), senior Mason Meixner (11th) and Flatoff (15th), as SPASH had each of its eight runners in the Top 15.
That left the Panthers with 27 points to win the Conference Title over D.C. Everest (63), Marshfield (72), Wausau West (105), Wisconsin Rapids (138), Wausau East (147) and Merrill (220), as the Panthers had each of their eight runners finish ahead of second-place Everest’s third runner, as well as the second runners from both Wausau East and Wausau West, and the top runner from both Wisconsin Rapids and Merrill.
“This is the kind of race that we thought we could run, but we hadn’t yet,” said Behnke. “We’re awfully deep into this season, and we kept telling them after workouts, ‘you guys are fit, and you’re ready to run well.’
“We just hadn’t put it together until today,” he said.
“(My dad) was part of a great team, and it’s awesome that now I can be a part of a great team,” said Hyland. “We’re 30 years apart, and it’s still the same feeling, we’re still out here winning.”
Up next, SPASH will run at the WIAA Division 1 Neenah Sectional at Lake Breeze Golf Course in Winneconne Friday, Oct. 20, where the top two teams will advance to the State Meet at the Ridges Golf Course in Wisconsin Rapids Saturday, Oct. 28, as SPASH looks to advance to state for the 12th year in a row and the 39th time in the last 41 years.
Behind SPASH’s run of success has been Behnke, who has been named the Wisconsin Cross Country Coaches Association Coach of the Year nine times and was inducted into the Wisconsin Cross Country Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2001, while he was honored as the 2001 National Coach of the Year by the National High School Coaches Association.
“Donn tells us every day, ‘give your best effort, and in life, if you give your best effort in anything for long enough, you’re going to get results,’” said Belson. “Donn’s more than a coach for me; he’s one of my best friends.
“SPASH cross country is a family, and I’m never going to forget these times with my best friends,” he said.
“He truly cares about each one of those kids, and he’s not here to get anything from it,” said Hopp. “Except to try to teach us that we can find a little more in ourselves.”
Unable to run at practice, Behnke rides his bike alongside runners toward the back of the pack, with Hopp and Ceplina running up front, and he thanked both of them for their help, as well as his wife Cheryl and daughter Elizabeth for giving up time to allow him to coach at SPASH for the last 40 years.
“Despite the fact that I’ve gotten old and slow and I can’t run anymore, I feel like I still come to practice determined to give my best effort,” said Behnke. “I’m proud of my assistant coaches Kevin and John, I couldn’t be here without them, and I’m very thankful that I have this supportive family and so many good friends that I’ve met over the years.
“I had no idea that I was going to coach this long, and I had no idea that I was going to have this kind of success,” he said. “But it’s been a fun ride, and hopefully I can hang in here for another year or two.”
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