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Bemidji State athletics: Preble and Buerkle named BSU's top student-athletes

From left: Lance Rongstad, Zac Preble, Kristi Buerkle and Erika Wheelhouse. Pioneer Photo/Eric Stromgren

Zac Preble and Kristi Buerkle were recognized as Bemidji State's best athletes at Thursday's BSU Athletic Appreciation Night at John Glas Fieldhouse.

The track and field stars were recognized as the Male Student-Athlete of the Year and the Female Student-Athlete of the Year to cap off the ceremonies attended by nearly all members of BSU's 17 athletic programs.

The two standouts posed for pictures with family, friends and fellow students following the program.

Preble, who most recently won his fourth-straight Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference Championship decathlon title and took second in the heptathlon at the NCAA Indoor Championships, was humbled by the award.

"I think we're both blessed beyond what we deserve," Preble said.

Preble is a senior out of Grand Rapids, an all-American and a member of the Dean's List.

Buerkle, a junior, has emerged as one of the best sprinters in Division II and took second place in the 400 meter dash at the recent NCAA Indoor Championships.

The Dean's List member from Stacy attributed her award to all-around consistency.

"I really think this year has been the same as my other years, but maybe it has just come together at the meets with better performances because of better practices," she said. "I really don't know that I've done anything different this year."

The track and field program's sweep of the top two awards had extra meaning for Preble, who was a sophomore when the BSU administration planned to cut the men's track program due to budget concerns. Had that plan succeeded, BSU men's track would not have fielded a team this season.

"I think these awards really say a lot about a program the university was thinking about cutting and I think it really says a lot about our coach (Craig Hougen)," Preble said.

The program was saved with alumni financial contributions and will compete next academic year, though its long-term future is still uncertain with Minnesota's biennium budget deficit looming in 2012-13. The men's track program's sustainability is also connected to the athletic department's mandate for roster management across all programs and continued expansion of athletic opportunities for female students.

The track and field program was able to bask in the glow of a successful year - one that will not end until Preble and Buerkle compete at the NCAA Division II Outdoor Championships next month.

"It's really a nice day for the track and field program," Hougen said. "Zac and Kristi are very deserving because they've done a lot for track and field at Bemidji State and the Bemidji community."

Preble and Buerkle are active in the Bemidji community and will continue their volunteering at the Special Olympics Friday at BSU.

"There's a lot of people in the nation who know about these two," Hougen said. "They are successful, dynamic and photogenic. They set a great example for Bemidji State University."

The other two individual athlete honors presented at the banquet went to the Male and Female Newcomer of the Year.

Freshman football and basketball standout Lance Rongstad was named the Male Newcomer of the Year.

Freshman women's hockey player Erika Wheelhouse was named the Female Newcomer of the Year.

Rongstad, a native of Eleva, Wis., came to BSU on a football scholarship and as a quarterback ranked second on the team in rushing with 574 yards and three touchdowns. He made the decision to play basketball last spring and his 14.9 points per game average during the basketball season was the best among freshmen in the NSIC.

"This really means a lot to me and is a big honor," Rongstad said. "It really shows how good the teams were that I played on. The teams really helped make this possible for me."

Wheelhouse led BSU freshmen in scoring with 14 assists and 14 points and was vital in helping the Beavers reach the WCHA Final Face-Off tournament for the first time in program history.

"I'm really kind of speechless," Wheelhouse said. "This is possible because of the hard work of my team. I think we were determined this season and a lot of that attitude is because of the leadership from our upperclassmen."

There were also recognitions during the program to outgoing Bemidji State University President Jon Quistgaard and Equipment Manger Vance Balstad.

BSU Athletic Director Rick Goeb noted Quistgaard's support of the program throughout his tenure, his efforts in securing state funding for the Bemidji Regional Event Center and the program's admittance to the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.

Balstad, who is known to hockey fans as the John Glas Fieldhouse's Zamboni driver, is retiring after 35 years at BSU. Goeb presented Balstad with a plaque recognizing his years of service.

Balstad is active in Fishing Has No Boundaries with his wife Susie.

"He is truly admired because he gives back to Beaver athletics and the community," Goeb said. "We wanted to say thank you because he makes a difference."

Balstad was then given a standing ovation by all of the student-athletes in attendance.