Like a giant jigsaw puzzle that had been worked on for more than 12 weeks, the pieces all came together 30 years ago on Nov. 17, 1984 when the UW-Eau Claire women’s cross country team won the NAIA national championship.
Second-year interim head coach Mary Allen and first-year assistant Tom York had no idea what the puzzle would look like when they started the season but saw the picture come into focus as the season progressed. In fact, York is quoted in the Nov. 15 edition of the student newspaper the Spectator in a comment to sports editor Steve Brunner, “Don’t say it too loud, but we could just be national champs.”
Two weeks earlier, using the same crystal ball, York had been quoted by Brunner with positive confidence heading into the conference meet. “We will win!” said York, who in 1985 became the Blugold women’s head coach for two seasons.
In his season preview story about the women’s cross country team, Brunner’s lead was this question: “How do you build a temple without cornerstones?” The banner headline for that story in that Sept. 6, 1984 Spectator screamed: “Cornerstones missing; team under reconstruction.”
His reference was to the fact that the Blugolds had lost All-Americans Deanna Marchello and Carolyn Sheild from the 1983 squad that had finished third in both the conference and district meets and fifth at the nationals. Marchello had finished fifth individually and Sheild 13th to pace the Blugolds in the national race. Both were later enshrined into the Blugold Hall of Fame to provide a sense of the team’s losses for the 1984 campaign.
Allen did not know what additional pieces she needed to remake a puzzle similar to the previous year, but knew some new pieces would give her a chance to develop a picture for a possible conference championship. Her 33-person roster included five runners that had competed in the 1983 nationals, but by season’s end only one of those five would be on the 1984 national squad.
So, where and how did Allen assemble the special pieces that provided clarity for the eventual 1984 national championship picture?
Senior Katie Somers (Germantown) had started the 1983 season on the cross country team but left the team after three meets to involve herself in other campus activities. She admitted to Bill Kurtz of the Milwaukee Journal to feeling “runner’s burnout.” She said, “When you’ve been running competitively for six years (four at Germantown High School and the 1981 and 1982 seasons with the Blugolds), you get to be drained.” In an interview after the national championship, she reflected that the year off probably allowed her to re-establish a positive attitude.
Coming back with a vengeance, she outdistanced 1982 NAIA champion Katie Webb of Marquette and 1983 champion Cindy Grant of Simon Fraser with a career best time of 17:36 on the 5,000-meter national course. She won by seven seconds over Ann Manning of the University of Portland. Grant finished third and Webb was back in 11th place.
Junior Brenda Bergum (Hayward) decided at the last minute to come out for cross country. She did not run in 1983 and was up in the air for 1984 after spending her summer doing a lot of road racing and high mileage. She told Brunner in a Spectator feature story that ran prior to the national meet that she “felt really strong at the beginning and middle of the season” but was feeling fatigued in workouts after the conference meet and was trying to dismiss a case of “burnout.” To combat this, she did not race in the district meet and subsequently came back strong for the nationals, placing 22nd to earn All-American status.
Junior Terri Ferlic (White Bear Lake, MN) was a middle distance runner on the Blugold track team and Allen convinced her to try cross country. She spent the summer prior to the 1984 season playing tennis without any distance training. She had never run more than a half-mile prior to the third cross country meet of the ’84 season when she laced up her spikes for the first time. Then she tried another meet and another. Ferlic told a reporter just prior to nationals that she wished she had started running earlier because “it’s been fun.”
Senior Laura Wodyn (New Berlin Eisenhower) joined the cross country team after spending two previous seasons on the Blugold tennis team, which is also a fall sport and had conflicting practices.
Chris Goepel joined the team in 1984 as a freshman out of Sussex Hamilton High School. A testament to her talent was the fact that after two highly-successful seasons as a Blugold, she transferred to UW-Madison where she competed for the Badgers’ nationally-recognized program her final two seasons.
Sophomore Julie Johnson (Hinckley, MN) refined her running skills in 1984 after not making the conference, district or national teams in 1983.
The only returner who maintained a position among the top seven in 1984 was junior Cherrie Smith (Sun Prairie) who was the team’s No. 3 runner behind Marchello and Sheild in 1983.
While the coaches had some new pieces in 1984, getting them to fit together was a season-long project. With so many new pieces, winning the conference championship, not a national championship, was the initial goal. To do so, perennial power UW-La Crosse was the chief obstacle. Marquette, which had won the previous three conference titles, and UW-Milwaukee had both withdrawn from the conference because they offered athletic scholarships and the conference no longer permitted that.
In the first three meets of the season, the Blugolds finished behind La Crosse each time. Goepel won a JV meet the second weekend to establish herself as a varsity runner and strengthen the Blugolds’ position.
The third meet was an important one as the Midwest Collegiate was held on UW-Parkside’s National Course. Besides getting familiar with the course on which they would run nationals, the Blugolds got a chance to face some stiff competition to elevate their performances. Division I national champ UW-Madison won the meet which also saw Iowa State, Iowa, Western Illinois and Northwestern finish ahead of the Blugolds who placed seventh in the 24-team field.
By mid-season, the Blugolds started to turn some heads. They won their own invite, finally placing ahead of La Crosse, and Katie Somers was the individual winner.
The next weekend, the Blugolds finished third out of 13 teams behind La Crosse and Marquette in the La Crosse Invite but Somers did not run. That set the stage for the conference meet on a warm, rainy day at the Stevens Point Country Club. Somers set a course record in winning the individual title to lead the Blugolds to their first ever conference cross country championship. The Blugolds had five runners in the top 12 as Goepel was second, Ferlic fifth, Bergum seventh and Wodyn 12th.
Brunner wrote this in his Spectator article about the conference meet:
“Members of the La Crosse team seemed stunned as they staggered through the finish chute. La Crosse coach Gary Wilson had even conceded defeat before the final results were tabulated, congratulating Allen and York after he had witnessed the wave of blue and gold finish.” Wilson would go on to coach the University of Minnesota women’s cross country team in the Big Ten.
Now, with their goal achieved, the team set a new goal. “The mindset that I tried to instill in the women was to always do your best,” said Allen. “We could see that as a team, our best was getting better and better all the time.”
To reach the nationals, the Blugolds would have to run in the district meet, but District 14’s previous demonstrations of strength made it almost certain that five teams from the state would qualify, so the district meet in Milwaukee was going to be “a workout for nationals.” Allen said “It would be nice to win, but our main concern is the nationals at this point of the season.”
Once the Blugolds advanced to the NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics) level in post-season, they would be competing against many teams that offered scholarships.
Marquette won the District 14 crown by two points over the Blugolds but Allen pointed out in the UWEC sports information release prior to nationals that “I think Marquette was shooting to win the District while our main objective is to win the nationals. I’d be very surprised if we don’t’ defeat Marquette and finish at least fourth (in nationals).” And of course, Bergum had sat out the district meet to get refreshed for the nationals.
As the Blugolds prepared for nationals, the Spectator quoted York as saying “We are the team from nowhere. The no-name bunch.”
But the Milwaukee Journal made a names connection when writer Bill Kurtz pointed out that Parkside’s national course is located in the Town of Somers so it was only fitting that Katie Somers would win the national title. She outdistanced 256 runners from around the nation to claim gold.
The Spectator’s sports editor Steve Brunner who witnessed the national race wrote this: “It wasn’t a sleeper for Somers. Chasing early leader Kate Webb of Marquette (whom Somers had never beaten previously) at the 1½ mile mark before going into the hilliest portion of the course, which was hidden from spectators view, she was 20 meters behind. As the fluorescent finish clock ticked, the spectators eyed the hill descending to the flat home stretch. Through the backhills Somers had pulled away from Webb and the field and was striding the final 200 meters by herself through some 600 spectators.”
Laura Wodyn has a vivid memory of the backhills where there were no spectators. “Sean Hartnett (men’s assistant coach) came running out of the brush and shouted the details of the race at me. He had appeared a couple of times during the race, but this one is the one I can still see in my mind. Katie was winning, Chris, Brenda and Terri were running well, and I was the first 5th runner which meant we had a very real chance of being champions. He made sure that I knew how important it was to hold my position or move ahead. It was inspiring information that he gave me at a critical time.”
The Journal photo of Somers finishing the race shows an exhausted face with mouth agape, eyes closed, wearing a turtleneck underneath her uniform top and mittens covering both hands in the 40-degree weather.
The nature of cross country team scoring leaves spectators and fans alike in the dark until well after all runners have completed the course and the results have been tabulated. The team did not find out it had captured the national title until the banquet although Allen had been briefed ahead of time.
“The whole banquet I knew we had won,” Allen is quoted as saying to the Spectator’s Brunner in his post-race summary. “I was sworn to secrecy. So I had to sit on it. I made sure Tom (York) was between the team and (me) so I wouldn’t be tempted. I was on pins and needles. I wanted to jump up and yell at the 600 people and say, ‘We’re national champs.’”
So out of 31 teams, the Blugolds were No. 1, scoring 91 points to the 99 of runner-up University of Portland. The University of Puget Sound (WA) was third with 149.
The Blugolds had three All-Americans (top 25 finishers) as Goepel was eighth and Bergum 22nd. Rounding out the Blugold scoring (top five finishers) were Ferlic in 31st and Wodyn in 43rd. The other Blugold finishers were Julie Johnson 87th and Cherrie Smith 108th. Going into the national meet, Allen believed that if five Blugolds could finish in under 19 minutes, they would have a chance to win and the Blugolds’ fifth runner was clocked in 18:59.
The state of Wisconsin flexed its muscle with five teams in the top 12 as Marquette was 4th, Milwaukee 8th, Parkside 11th and La Crosse 12th.
Allen was named the NAIA Coach of the year while team members Wodyn, Smith and Suzann Tinney were named Academic All-Americans. Wodyn was also the conference Scholar-Athlete for the year.
Cross country runners, as a rule, don’t get a lot of glory for their accomplishments, but a national championship is a rare commodity. The Nov. 18 Milwaukee Journal displayed a page-wide picture and story with the headline “Somers, Eau Claire win titles.” The Monday, Nov. 19 Eau Claire Leader-Telegram (The L-T did not publish a Sunday edition) featured a page-wide headline just below the Packer story that said “Blugold women win NAIA cross country crown.” The weekly UWEC campus newspaper, the Spectator, started its story on the front page with the headline “Blugolds win cross country title” with the superscription “Somers captures national championship.”
What had led to this national championship? Allen summed it up when she said to this writer, “On the day of the national competition, their collective best was better than any other team’s collective best. They achieved a great feat and it can never be taken away from them.”
Both Somers and York spoke of team chemistry. “This has been the closest team I’ve been on,” Somers told a reporter after the nationals. “There’s something about this team. We all get along so good together. We all have fun.” York recently told this writer “I have never coached a team that had better chemistry than this one. It was magical.” The irony of this is that very few of the 33 squad members lived together. A check of addresses from the team roster showed that 13 lived on campus and 20 lived off campus but only 10 of the 33 had a cross country roommate.
Somers, in response to this writer’s inquiries, cited two things that went a long way toward winning the national championship. She said “the biggest key to our success was believing in ourselves and one another. That just didn’t happen by itself. It came from our coaches. Coach York ran alongside each of us as runners and constantly told each of us how good we could be. He was always encouraging and brought the best out of each runner. He truly brought the full potential out of each runner. I think the key to our chemistry was Tom’s wisdom and ability to motivate all runners on our team no matter what their abilities.”
The second key she noted was “the strong support from our men’s cross country team. All season long they inspired us and believed in us too. At nationals, the men’s team was spread out all over the course cheering us on in the cold. I remember one of the coaches yelling out to me to ‘take her now’ meaning pass Katie Web on the hill and go strong. Again, someone believing in me…that I could do it…made all the difference.” The men’s team demonstrated its own mettle that season by placing third in the conference, second in the district and ninth in the NAIA nationals.
Allen and York also talked about their training technique. “It’s a long season,” said Allen. “We work hard, when it’s time to work hard.” York said the goal was to bring the team along slowly and peak at the right time. Somers echoed those sentiments when she was quoted as saying, “They didn’t wear us out. A lot of runners run their best races in August, not at the end of the season.”
Reflecting back 30 years, Somers had very positive comments about her Blugold coaches. “It is rare to find a coach that assesses each individual’s talent, meets the athlete where they are at and then moves them to be more than what they ever thought they could be. That in my mind is true coaching. It’s not about having the top athletes. It’s about taking the athletes that are placed on a team together and taking them to the top of their abilities/potential. Coach Allen and Coach York did just that. None of us were top athletes but together we each believed in one another and pushed one another to become our best.”
York, who continued coaching until 2000 when he finished his career teaching in exercise science, said of the 1984 team, “For me personally, they were the most memorable team I coached during my career. They were simply the best—highly motivated, extremely dedicated and believed in themselves.”
York assumed the head coaching responsibilities in 1985 after Allen had finished her interim role. Led by Goepel, Bergum and Wodyn, the Blugolds would go on to repeat as conference champions and finish runner-up to the University of Portland in the NAIA nationals.
The Blugolds did not win another conference championship until 2007 when Dan Schwamberger took over as head coach and directed the women to six consecutive conference titles and a national championship in 2009.
Since winning their national title, Somers, Bergum and Wodyn have all been inducted into the Blugold Hall of Fame.
This story was written by Sports Information Director emeritus Tim Petermann based on documents from the 1984 women’s cross country files, Eau Claire Leader-Telegram stories from the fall of 1984, Spectator articles from the fall of 1984 written by Sports Editor Steve Brunner (a member of the men’s cross country team), an article from the November 18, 1984 Milwaukee Journal written by Bill Kurtz and sports information articles from the fall of 1984 written by student Wayne Pirman. In addition, Coach Allen and Coach York and runners Kate Somers Steinkopf and Laura Wodyn Ecker responded this fall to questions from this writer. A special thanks to Laura Wodyn Ecker for loaning her scrapbook which included many articles and pictures from 1984.