Olson extends 40th season with another trip to state
Portage County Gazette
By John Kemmeter
In his 40th season as the head coach of the Stevens Point Area Senior High School (SPASH) girls cross country team, Mike Olson will take the Panthers back to the State Meet this weekend.
It will be the 29th trip to state for SPASH under Olson, who has guided the Panthers to three State Titles and four State Runner-up finishes.
“He’s run such a great program, and he’s always so great with the kids,” said Donn Behnke, who is in his 43rd year as the SPASH boys cross country coach. “The highest level of compliment that you can give to any coach is that he cares about the last kid on the team the same way he cares about that first kid.
“And that’s Mike,” he said.
“I love it, or I wouldn’t be doing it after 40 years,” said Olson. “It’s just been a total joy, and I don’t count trophies or championships, I look at everybody feeling they belong, and that they’re making a good contribution to the team and that they’re important to the team.
“Even if they’re a JV kid, getting them to believe in themselves, and trying to live up to their potential,” he said. “That’s why I was a teacher too, to see kids learn things and get better and get tougher.”
A native of Neenah, Olson ran cross country and track in college at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, and began at SPASH as a volunteer track and field coach in 1978, before he took over as the Panthers’ girls cross country head coach in 1980.
The Panthers went on to finish as the WIAA Class A State Runner-up in 1981, 1982 and 1983, while SPASH’s Suzy Favor won Individual State Championships from 1982 through 1985, before she went on to become one of the top female athletes in Big Ten history at the University of Wisconsin and a three-time U.S. Olympic runner.
“Suzy was a rare talent, a once-in-a-lifetimer,” said Olson. “And now I’ve got Roisin (Willis), who’s another once-in-a-lifetimer.
“I’ve been around long enough, that I’ve got two once-in-a-lifetimers,” he said.
With a lineup that featured Kim Schneider, Jenny Johnson, Karen Kruel, Tess Kovach, Sara Wagner, Katy Holmes and Susanne Martineau, the SPASH girls cross country team broke through in 1987 and won the Class A State Title at Yahara Hills Golf Course in Madison, as the Panthers finished with 111 points to beat Eau Claire Memorial (145) and capture the program’s first State Championship.
“We were rated sixth at the highest all year,” said Olson. “I had some young kids, a couple of upperclassmen, but I felt we were underrated and underappreciated.
“La Crosse Central and Menomonee Falls were the favorites, and I said, ‘we’re going to go beat them, and just before the race, I want you to go shake their hands and look them in the eye while you’re shaking their hands, so they know that you’re coming for them,’” he said. “And they just did it.”
The Panthers extended their run of State Meet appearances to 19 in 22 years when they advanced to state in 2002, after they finished ninth a year earlier.
Led by sophomores Emma Tauchman, Zoe Browne and Kara Tauchman, freshman Jenny Groshek, seniors Emily Virant and Jackie Kropp, and freshman Katie Munck, SPASH finished with 98 points to knock off four-time defending State Champion Waukesha West (114) and win the 2002 State Title.
With the Tauchman twins joined by Browne, Groshek, sophomore Kelly Shaw and freshmen Liz Hunter and Janet Yockers the following year, SPASH went on to win its second consecutive State Championship in 2003, as the team totaled 84 points to beat Watertown (121).
“All those girls were amazing,” said Olson. “They were young and they were confident, and they were squirrelly as heck, it was really hard to keep them under control.
“They goofed around constantly, but they worked really hard, and when it came to race day, they were laser focused, nothing stood in their way,” he said. “Waukesha West had won it four years in a row before our first title with those girls, and they were supposed to repeat again, and I just told them, ‘go get it, take it,’ and we took it from them.
“They just were relentless and confident,” he said.
SPASH also had a State Runner-up finish in 2014, among its 28 appearances at the State Meet heading into this season.
This fall, SPASH won its 22nd Wisconsin Valley Conference (WVC) Title under Olson, and looked to secure its fourth consecutive trip to state at the WIAA Division 1 Sectional at Standing Rocks Country Park Saturday, Oct. 26.
Sophomore Roisin Willis won the Individual Title for the second year in a row, and was followed by senior Maddie Hyland (fifth), junior Sara Hopper (11th), freshman Brittany Beadles (17th) and sophomore Autumn Itzen (21st), as SPASH put its first five runners in the Top 21 to win the Sectional Title with 55 points and advance to state.
“He really knows how to motivate people during races,” said Willis, who finished fourth at state as a freshman last year. “Sometimes he is a bit hard on us during the races, but he really helps, and 5Ks are brutal, so it’s nice just to have someone there who’s always cheering.
“He’s just an extremely supportive coach,” she said.
“He’s definitely the type of person who’s always proud of you,” said Hyland after the Sectional. “I know today I didn’t have a very good race, but he’s still so proud of what you do, and what you did for the team.
“It’s always nice when you feel down, that he’ll always be there for you no matter what,” she said.
Olson, who has also served as the SPASH girls track and field head coach since 1983, was named the Wisconsin Cross Country Coaches Association (WCCCA) Division 1 Coach of the Year in 2002 and 2003, and was inducted into the WCCCA Hall of Fame in 2005.
He said he’s had a great group of parents over the years, and that it’s been nice to have Behnke coaching the SPASH boys team, to talk back and forth and discuss situations, and to have each other’s backs during the last four decades.
Olson also credited the work of his assistant coaches, including current assistants Pat Leahy and Zoe Browne, and thanked his wife of 42 years, Karen, and their four children and 12 grandchildren.
“It’s pretty unusual that you get two guys at one school that have been together for as long as we have,” said Behnke. “We get kids that come back, and they’re 50 or 60 years old, and they can come back to their high school, and the same two coaches are standing there in the same corner of the fieldhouse as when they left.”
“I originally was supposed to retire when my daughter Nikki graduated (in 2004), and I just wasn’t ready, and my wife let me keep going,” said Olson. “I’ve had a lot of great assistants over the years, and I wouldn’t be coaching if it weren’t for Pat and Zoe, and the support of my wife and family.
“I still love it, and I’ll keep doing it, as long as I feel connected to the kids,” he said. “But there are tons of memories, the first team had 14 girls, and two of them were junior high kids, and now we’re up to quite a few more participants. And it’s just been a blast.”