Editor’s note: This is the latest installment of a series titled Lumberjack Flashback, highlighting some of the greatest spring sports teams, athletes and moments in Bemidji High School history. Stories on each of Bemidji’s seven spring sports programs will be released in line with this year’s originally scheduled state tournament dates.
One in 1980. Two in 1981. Two more in ‘82 and another in ‘83. And don’t forget one apiece in ‘87 and ‘88.
There’s a reason -- or eight, really -- why the 1980s were dubbed “the glory decade” of Bemidji High School boys track and field.
“In my mind, most of it gets pointed to (longtime coach) Dick Phelps,” said Nick Berg, a 1983 graduate and the last in a four-year string of state champions. “He demanded people buy in, work hard. He didn’t put up with any halfway. We all had to go all the way. And there were some talented athletes who bought in.”
The Lumberjacks produced eight individual state championships during the 1980s, easily the program’s most dominant and decorated era. And if you ask the man in charge, that bunch had the combination needed for success.
“Bemidji’s got a talented group of boys and girls every year,” Phelps said. “When, all of a sudden, preparation meets opportunity, they happen to come (to fruition).”
The first wave of champions
BHS had to wait 23 years after Jim Patten’s 1957 high jump title until it was draped in first-place blue once more.
Tom Campbell broke through first in 1980, setting a still-standing school record high jump of 6 feet, 9 inches before a 6-8 mark at state carried him to a championship. The team took sixth overall, a new program best.
“My goal my senior year was to go undefeated and win state, which I did both,” Campbell said. “It was what I wanted. It was a good time. I’m kind of surprised I still hold the record, however many years I’ve been out of school.”
Brian Kraft followed in 1981. One of the most famed runners in Bemidji history set school records in the 1600-meter and 3200-meter runs at state, the latter of which still stands at 9:13:30. He helped the Jacks to another sixth-place team finish.
Kraft was the team’s second champion in as many years, but BHS was only getting started.
“Coming behind somebody like Brian Kraft, that sets the bar pretty high,” said Mike Hoven, a 1982 state champion in the 110 high hurdles and 300 intermediate hurdles. “(He) and Tom Campbell, those guys were all there when I was younger. Seeing what they were accomplishing, they did set the bar high. It was great to be part of that.”
Hoven’s name is also still in the record book. No Bemidji runner has bested his high hurdles time of 14.12, nor his intermediate hurdles time of 37.90. The team finished in a tie for fifth that season.
Not to be outdone, Berg followed suit in 1983 with a school-record pole vault of 14-6. He and his competition flirted with the state record of 14-8, but a sly Berg added a bit of strategy to protect his hold on first.
“There were three of us that all went 14-6. I got first place because I made 14-6 on my first attempt, and the others made it on their third attempt,” Berg recalled. “We had been going up in four-inch increments. After we made 14-6, the officials called us over and said, ‘OK, guys, the state record is 14-8. We can go to 14-10 like we have been, four inches at a time, or we can go 14-8.5 and go for the state record.’ I said, ‘Well, let’s set the state record at 14-10,’ knowing I was ahead on misses.”
Nobody cleared 14-10, and the Lumberjacks had their sixth individual state crown within four years.
“It was good, especially knowing you’re a part of it,” Campbell said of the string of champions. “When I was still competing, there were several younger guys -- Brian Kraft, Mike Hoven, Nick Berg -- some of those guys who were definitely capable of it. … It’s always good to see that.”
Back for more
After a three-year absence from the top of the podium, Roy Spino got BHS back on track in 1987.
Spino’s discus throw of 166-7 was tops in Minnesota -- and teammate Kevin Falldorf was close behind with a second-place throw of 162-8 -- for the program’s latest title. Even on the girls side, the 4x200 medley relay team of Traci-Ann Fausher, Becky Wilson, Kari Kloeppner and Renee Crep also produced a championship time of 1:44.79.
The boys team tied for fourth in the state, which improved to a program-best third-place finish in 1988. Matt Swenson’s 110 high hurdles championship served as the swan song of the program’s “glory decade,” a title bestowed on the era by legendary Pioneer sports editor Jim Carrington.
Swenson was first to the finish line in 1988, crossing in 14.60 seconds and 0.19 seconds ahead of second place. With his first-place medal to prove it, Bemidji’s championship count hit eight in the ‘80s.
“The secret to winning is there is no secret. You just put in the work,” Phelps said. “All of these state champions were willing to put in the time. … The state champions I had were tremendous young people.”
‘So long ago’
In the 32 years since Swenson’s title, the boys track and field program has won two individual state championships via 4x800 relay teams, and most recently in 2017.
But the team hasn’t returned to its former glory, and many of those involved during the 1980s now joke how those days were “so long ago.”
Perhaps part of the equation is Phelps, who was an assistant at the start of the decade and had risen to the head post by the end of it. His former players lauded his mind and his influence.
“Coach Phelps, he worked us really hard all season long,” Berg said. “He was just outstanding at (a taper program). By the end of the season, we all felt the bounce in our legs and felt like we could outrun the wind and jump over the moon.”
“We were always competitive in everything,” Hoven added. “The one common denominator was Phelps. I wouldn’t have done it without (our coaches). They’re the ones that pushed me.”
Phelps, however, isn’t so convinced.
“The big thing was the pride for BHS,” Phelps said. “They did it for blue and white. They’re not doing it for Dick Phelps. … It was for Bemidji.”
LUMBERJACK FLASHBACK SERIES
Boys track and field: The 'glory decade' of BHS boys track
Girls track and field: TBA
Boys golf: TBA
Girls golf: TBA