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Leaving behind a legacy

Alexandria cross country coach Mark Nelsen, center, poses for a picture with Bethany and Megan Hasz along with Jamie (Gay) Schlafke and Roberta (VanAmber) Prigge at the 2013 state meet. Schlafke and Prigge are two of the original members of the girls’ cross country program in Alexandria from 1980 and went on to become a part of the first state championship team in 1985. (Contributed)

The Alexandria running programs have produced some of the top track and cross country teams in Minnesota over the last three decades; in part, because of two guys who have led the way.

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Jerry Amundson and Mark Nelsen became the faces of many of the high school running teams in town while serving as head coaches and assistants for each other over the course of more than 30 years. Now a year after Amundson stepped away from the boys’ track position, Nelsen will do the same as he retires from his head coaching duties for both the boys and girls cross country teams after leading them both since 1980.

“I’m an emotional person,” Nelsen said. “So I’ve had to work really hard at keeping those emotions in check with it being the last time we did this or the last time we did that. I never wanted [this season] to be about me. I always thought it would be about the kids and the season, so that’s been my goal.”

Nelsen informed his runners last spring that the fall of 2013 would be his last go around. A lot of factors went into the decision – the solid state of the boys and girls teams, moving to a new school in 2014, the time it takes to run a quality program. At 61 years old and having been retired from teaching for five years now, Nelsen just felt it was time to let someone else take over.

“It’s not just one thing,” he said. “Actually, last year I was ready to be done. I’m really glad that I chose to go this year because it was a blast. The kids have been phenomenal. Our numbers are up. So many cool things happened this year.”

MR. DISTANCE Nelsen knew that to run a great program, it had to take a year-around commitment. He ran with the kids and wrote training programs for athletes to improve in the off-season. He went the extra mile by practicing six days a week during the season. He also found the balance between pushing runners to be their best and also knowing when to slow down to avoid injury. By the end, some of his best runners say he had training regimens down to a science.

“He knows how to train high school runners,” his former all-state and current University of Minnesota runner Jamie Piepenburg said. “He did a ton for me. I probably wouldn’t be where I am without him. He set me up really, really well for this position and to run at the U of M. What I can do now is because I had such a good foundation. I learned how to train and how to perform at such a high level in high school and that still carries over into my college races.”

Nelsen was a standout runner himself in high school at Alexander Ramsey, winning a team state tournament his junior season. He went on to run for St. Cloud State University, where he continued to build knowledge of what it took to succeed as a distance runner.

“Pretty much everybody knew he was Mr. Distance in Alexandria,” Amundson said. “It wasn’t just for our community members. It was coaches all over the state. They would contact him and he had such a base of knowledge from personal experience…He’s probably as knowledgeable as any coach in Minnesota when it comes to distance running.”

GOING OUT ON TOP Stepping away from something that has been his passion for so long was never going to be easy, but Nelsen leaves with the cross country programs in great shape. Alexandria had more than 100 runners in grades 7-12 this past season. That’s up from an average of 50-55 runners over the last 15 years.

He coached Bethany Hasz to the team’s first individual girls’ championship this fall and Megan Hasz to a runner-up finish as just sophomores. The Cardinal boys will also return 10 of their top 12 runners next year from a team that made the state meet this season.

“That’s hard not to want to be a part of that and watch that,” Nelsen said. “It would be cool just to be a part of the end of the season next year and make that jump in time, but I also know what expectations are for me if I was the coach and what I think would be necessary to assist them to be at that level. It is hard to walk away from. I’d be lying to say I’m not going to miss it immensely. You don’t do it for 30-plus years and not miss it.”

Amundson can relate and has had a lot of conversations with Nelsen on what to expect.

“It’s difficult,” Amundson said. “It’s probably the hardest thing I ever did. I felt a strong connection to the kids, and I felt I was quitting and walking away from them…I missed it a lot, and Mark will too.”

SECTION DOMINANCE Nelsen’s body of work with the Alexandria program speaks for itself. He is the only head coach the girls’ team has ever known. Nelsen started the girls program in 1980 and guided them to their first of 20 state meets that same season. There were just seven girls on that first team, with most of them being in middle school.

Some of those girls went on to become a part of the Cardinals first cross country state championship in 1985. Two years later, the girls won their second team title. They added runner-up finishes in 1984, 1988, 1996 and 1997, while sending the team to state for 12 straight years from 1980-1991.

The boys program saw similar success. They made the state meet 25 times under Nelsen and nine straight years from 1989-1997. Their best finish came in 1997 when they finished second.

“There are so many people involved in our program,” Nelsen said. “Jerry Amundson has been my assistant the entire time. I couldn’t do it without him. Our junior high coaches – awesome…we’ve had unbelievable volunteer coaches, so it is more than just me, but it’s been fun to be a part of that success.”

That success is just part of the memories he will remember most from leading this program. Nelsen got to coach two of his own kids and watch hundreds of athletes make running a life-long commitment through his help. That’s the impact he knew he wanted to make from the time he first put on running shoes.

“I always intended to be a coach,” he said. “When I came out of college, I intended to coach and coach like my high school coach. He coached 30-plus years and that was my intent. I’ve always had a passion for the sport, a passion for the kids, and I still do.”

Eric Morken

Eric Morken is the sports and outdoor editor at the Echo Press and Osakis Review newspapers in Douglas County, MN. Follow him on Twitter at echo_sports.

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