Following our second-place finish at Division III nationals, Coach Kent Finanger suggested we all travel to Madison to watch the Division 1 national meet in Wisconsin. Even with classes going on and the need to catch up, a bunch of us piled into cars for the two-hour drive to Yahara Hills, a golf course on the southeast side of Madtown.
It snowed during the weekend, so the course was covered with a modest layer of white stuff. It wasn’t deep, but it made footing a challenge. Those conditions reminded us of the national meet we ran in Cleveland in 1976, when inches of snow fell and the cold winds were fierce. That was not a fun day.
Still high from our accomplishment that Saturday, we came to Madison hoping to see a great race among the college elites. A runner from Oregon named Alberto Salazar was making his first impressions on the world stage by 1978. His teammate Rudy Chapa was also running well that season. Yet they faced a stiff challenge from a Washington State runner named Henry Rono and a tough UTEP team.
As it turned out, that head-to-head battle between Rono and Salazar did not take place at Yahara Hills. The cold weather and snow was not to Rono’s liking. He faded back in the pack after the first mile or so. The top ten finishers in the race still ran in the mid 29s for 10K.
Anyone that followed cross country and track-and-field from that era recognizes the names of the Top Ten runners (and their schools) in Madison that day. The University of Texas-El Paso (UTEP) was a dominant force, winning the title over Oregon and others. UTEP and Washington were both known for recruiting African runners to build their teams. That practice provided great competitive and educational opportunities for those men, while making American cross country and track fields stronger thanks to the competition levels created by world-class runners in the States.
For all the battles between the Big Boys of NCAA Division 1, there was one exceptional standout that no one predicted to show up in the Top Ten. That was Dan Henderson, the Division III runner that had won the race just two days before. The NCAA stipulated that any D3 runner in the Top 5 at their national meet would be allowed to compete in the Division 1 race.
That wasn’t an easy proposition for any D3 runner, but quite a few tried it out over the years. The fact that Henderson raced to a Top 10 finish is fascinating. We cheered and roared as he strode along in his Wheaton College jersey with bright orange matching cap. You can see his face and hat over the right shoulder of Alberto Salazar.
Henderson bested the likes of D1 elite such as James Munyala of UTEP, Thom Graves of Auburn, future Olympian Jim Spivey of Indiana, Rodolpho Gomez of UTEP, Bruce Bickford of Northeastern U, Randy Jackson of Wisconsin, and Mark Nenow of Kentucky.
A fascinating summary of D3 athletes competing at the D1 invitational resides on the Pomona-Pitzer website. I’m copying and pasting it here because it ends with the fascinating statement that D3 athletes no longer received invitations to compete at the D1 level after 1991.
Division III runners at the Division I meet
At the start of NCAA Divisions (I, II, and III) in 1973, the individual winners of the NCAA III and NCAA II (plus a few additional runners in the early years) were invited to compete in the NCAA I meet on Monday – just two days after winning their own division meet on Saturday.
The NCAA Cross Handbook carried this text:
“It has been established for the 1973 Cross Country Championships that the first five finishers in Divisions II and III will be allowed to compete in the Division I Championships.
In 1974 and in subsequent years, the numbers shall be six from Division II and four from Division III. The individual finishers will be able to earn medals, but their finishes won’t be counted in team point totals.”
This made for some very difficult racing challenges. For example, former SUNY Cortland coaching legend Jack Daniels relates: “We drove to nationals when Marybeth won (in 1989 at Rock Island, Illinois) and drove home all night after the race, arriving at 8AM on that Sunday morning. She got some new clothes and we drove to Annapolis for the Monday DI race. I doubt she was well rested for that one.”
Likewise, Haverford star Seamus McElligott won the D3 meet in 1990 in 24:46 (8k) in Grinnell, Iowa. Less than 48 hours later he earned All-American honors in the D1 meet in Knoxville, Tennessee. McElligott, the D3 runner-up in 1989, traveled with legendary Haverford coach Tom Donnelly through Chicago to Knoxville, where he clocked 30:13 (10k) to finish 35th and nabbed the final All-American spot –even defeating D2 Champ Doug Hanson (North Dakota State) by one second and two places. McElligott was the final D3 runner to accomplish the feat. His remaining career included making a U.S. team to World XC in 1996 and competing in the 1992 Olympic Trials in the 10,000m. He died in 1998 at the age of 29. (Thanks to Dave Devine for this story and details)
From 1982-1990, the invitation to run in the Division I meet was then limited to only the Division III champion, and then invitations stopped completely before the 1991 season. Division III coaches recall that the Division I coaches weren’t happy with lower-division runners taking All American spots from Division I runners.
Men NCAA Division III Runner Result at Division I Meet
1973 5. Fernando Suarez, SUNY Oswego 105th at Washington St. U. (6M), 30:22.8
2. Glenn Behnke, North Central 112th, 30:26.2
4. Francis Verdoliva, SUNY Oswego 114th, 30:27.4
1974 1. David Moller, Rochester 19th at Indiana Univ. (6M), 30:27
3. David Teague, Hamline 74th, 31:19
1975 2. Joel Jamison, Occidental 31st at Penn State Univ. (6M), 29:34
4. Bruce Fischer, North Central 171st, 30:52.9
3. Peter Kummant, Case Western 213th, 31:23.8
1976 2. Bob Hodge, Lowell 22nd at North Texas State (6M), 29:11
1. Dale Kramer, Carleton 70th, 29:49
4. Frank Richardson, MIT 140th, 30:20
1977 1. Dale Kramer, Carleton 46th at Washington State Univ. (10k), 30:08.7
2. Domenic Finelli, Brandeis 121st, 30:57.2
1978 1. Dan Henderson, Wheaton 10th at Univ. of Wisconsin (10k), 29:48.5
3. Jeff Milliman, North Central 144th, 31:34.6
1979 1. Steve Hunt, UMass-Boston 85th at Lehigh Univ. (10k), 30:49.4
3. Paul Mausling, Macalester 92nd, 30:53.2
4. Jeff Milliman, North Central 147th, 31:31.2
2. Michael Palmquist, St. Olaf 31:33.6
1980 3. Mark Whalley, Principia 62nd at Wichita, KS (10k), 30:31.8
1. Jeff Milliman, North Central 101st, 30:54.3
2. Paul Mausling, Macalester 130th, 31:18.1
4. Clark Cox, Occidental 148th, 31:27.8
1981 1. Mark Whalley, Principia 50th at Wichita, KS (10k), 30:20.9
2. Michael Axinn, Chicago 74th, 30:40.8
4. Steve Underwood, Hope 118th, 31:21.4
1982 1. Nicholas Manciu, St. Thomas did not run
1983 1. Tony Bluell, North Central did not run
1984 1. Mark Beeman, Brandeis 60th at Penn State Univ. (10k), 30:55.9
1985 1. James White, UMass-Dartmouth 61st at Marquette Univ. (10k), 31:07.93
1986 1. Arnie Schraeder, UWisc-Stevens Point 11th at Univ. of Arizona (10k), 31:14.49
1987 1. Jukka Tammisuo, St. Lawrence 73rd at Univ. of Virginia (10k), 30:42.55
1988 1. David Terronez, Augustana 66th at Iowa State Univ. (10k), 30:42
1989 1. David Terronez, Augustana 56th at US Naval Academy (10k), 31:01.65
1990 1. Seamus McElligott, Haverford 35th at Tennessee (10k), 30:13
Women NCAA Division III Runner Result at Division I Meet
1981 1. Cynthia Sturm, Westfield 52nd at Wichita, KS (5k), 17:35.2
1982 1. Tori Neubauer, UWisc-La Crosse 50th at Indiana Univ. (5k), 18:02.1
1983 1. Tori Neubauer, UWisc-La Crosse 11th at Lehigh Univ. (5k), 17:01.0
1984 1. Julia Kirtland, Macalester 25th at Penn State Univ. (5k), 16:59.6
1985 1. Dorcas Denhartog, Middlebury did not run
1986 1. Lisa Koelfgen, St. Thomas did not finish at Univ. of Arizona (5k)
1987 1. Shelley Scherer, Carleton 59th at Univ. of Virginia (5k), 17:23.33
1988 1. Anna Prineas, Carleton 21st at Iowa State Univ. (5k), 17:09
1989 1. Marybeth Crawley, SUNY Cortland 77th at US Naval Academy (5k), 18:00.06
1990 1. Victoria Mitchell, SUNY Cortland did not run
The list does show how difficult it is to run back-to-back elite-level races, especially after a long season. Plus male D3 athletes step up from racing five miles to running 10K. That’s harder than it sounds.
In any case, it was thrilling to be present the day that Dan Henderson represented D3 with such an elite performance. He later led the Olympic Trials 5K race for a few laps. I recall his long, smooth stride as something unique and inspiring.
Luther vs. D1 schools
I certainly have no pretense of doing better than any of these D3 athletes if I had ever raced at the D1 level. The elite D3 guys raced a minute faster than my best five-mile time in college, and D1 athletes on average are at least another 30 seconds to a minute faster than that. But little Luther College did do quite well against bigger schools on many occasions. We always enjoyed running against top-level competition.
A few examples from four years of racing bigger colleges and universities:
We placed third behind Iowa State (43) and the University of South Dakota (73) at the Iowa State Invite in 1976. That day, we beat Central Missouri, Drake University, Western Illinois, UNI, and the University of Nebraska-Omaha.
At Carthage that same season, we defeated the UW-Milwaukee Track Club led by ex-LaCrosse stud Jim Drews, and also beat UW-Stevens Point, and Northwestern. And while we got thumped by the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse a week later in a meet led by Jim and Joe Hanson, we improved to the level that we beat LaCrosse in the next two years. I loved that Luther-LaCrosse rivalry and had many of my best races against the men in maroon because I respected their program so much.
I also got to race against the LaCrosse boys many times post-collegiately, including a half-marathon in their home city. They threw one helluva party after.
The point here is that while elite runners are something of a unique breed, their talents are not entirely exclusive when it comes to rcing. That’s something I’ve always appreciated about running as a sport. Even if you’re among the sub-elite of the sport, it is still possible to line up with the best and give it your all. Plus, when you’re a spectator watching the elites slug it out, there is an appreciation of what it means to race that fast. Come success or something less, there is a commonality in that knowledge.