For the Superior Telegram
In 2016, the Solon Springs boys cross country team won the Indianhead Conference title — a feat that hadn’t been accomplished in a quarter of a century.
This year, the Eagles repeated as conference champions and then went one step further by advancing to the WIAA Division 3 State Cross Country Championships. They are the first group from Solon Springs to qualify for the state meet since 1991.
“We knew there was something special that was starting to develop,” SSHS head coach Dale Rajala said. “The mindset was stronger earlier this year. The standard was set after last year’s team, and I think that had a lot to do with it.”
The Solon Springs boys placed second in Friday’s sectional meet at the Telemark Golf Course in Cable with 63 points. Phillips won the sectional title with 44 points.
Rajala said the Eagles had been hovering below the radar, but he doesn’t expect them to be overlooked anymore.
“Now everybody knows that there’s a small school in northwest Wisconsin with a bunch of kids who want to be heard,” he said.
The Solon Springs community is pouring out in support of the team. Shannon Dickenson, assistant coach of the Eagles, said the support has been wide-reaching.
“We just had smoothies made for us by one of the parents, and we had a big tent bought for our team by an uncle,” she said.
Another community member volunteered to help with strength and conditioning work, and a teacher with ultra-marathon experience assisted at practices.
Fan support has also been strong, especially at Friday’s sectional meet in Cable.
“There was an unbelievable amount of Solon people at the sectional,” said sophomore Owen Dickenson, the Eagles’ top runner.
Dickenson did his part to make sure the crowd wasn’t disappointed. Of the 12 races he ran this season, the sophomore won 10.
He claimed the Indianhead Conference individual title and followed with a first-place showing at the WIAA Division 3 sectional meet to earn the sectional crown. Dickenson crossed the finish line in 17 minutes, 38.7 seconds. Connor Berg, of Ladysmith, took second in 17:40.6.
“It felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders,” Dickenson said.
In 2016, Berg edged out Dickenson to claim the final individual state-qualifying spot in the sectional.
Six-tenths of a second separated Dickenson from the state cross country meet.
He was disappointed but consoled himself with the knowledge that he had three more years to qualify.
Then he went to work preparing for his sophomore season.
“The offseason is just getting in the miles. I probably put on 100 miles on these shoes during the offseason,” Dickenson said. “Then during the season it’s bust your tail for two days, take it easy for two days and then the meet.”
The Eagles also planned Saturday runs on the North Country Trail during the season, sometimes going 10 miles or more.
“They went beyond the goals that Coach (Dickenson) and I set,” Rajala said. “They went beyond what our practice schedule was going to be.
“This group is not just a good team, they’re a great team, they’re a special team.”
The team’s core runners have helped lead Solon Springs’ rapid ascent in the past five years.
When Rajala was in his first year as an assistant coach, the Eagles had one runner. The year after, about 20 students signed up during the fall sports meeting. Many of the prospective runners were only in middle school, but Rajala realized he needed help coaching and approached Shannon Dickenson.
“She had never coached, and she had no idea what kind of a coach she could be,” Rajala said. “From that moment, we’ve been trying to build culture here ever since.”
Shannon Dickenson, who is a teacher at Solon Springs, had a background in running, but she wasn’t sure her knowledge would translate to coaching. So she and Rajala worked together to developed a balance.
“I can run, but he’s the motivator,” Dickenson said. “He has the words that motivate anybody.”
The Eagles had more than 35 runners this season, and with the boys team headed to state, both coaches expect numbers to continue growing.
“It’s just contagious,” Coach Dickenson said.
Renewed interested from Northwood High School could further bolster the Eagles’ ranks. Several students from the neighboring district ran for the boys and girls teams this season, and a handful of others have pledged to join next year.
“A state team, everyone wants to be a part of that,” Owen Dickenson said. “And I think we’ll have the same opportunity next year.”
“Every single runner on this team — middle school, high school, girls and boys — shared that state-qualifying event,” Rajala said.
“They all were a part of this team, and every one of them gets a piece of it because they all contributed to it. Our practices were special by having all of them.”
At this year’s sectional race in Cable, Owen Dickenson edged Berg by about two seconds to claim the sectional title.
When the sophomore crossed the finish line, a special guest was cheering him on.
“What was really cool is that his uncle, Scott Sperling, won that same meet, the sectional meet at Telemark, in 1979,” said Shannon Dickenson, Owen’s mother. “And he came to watch Owen.”
Sperling, who ran for Webster, went on to finish second at the state meet.
Todd Sperling, who was inducted into the University of Wisconsin-Superior Hall of Fame in 1996, also earned running accolades.
He starred in cross country and track for UWS and was named an All-American in 1981 and 1982.
“So he’s got it in the blood,” Coach Dickenson said. “My dad was also a state champion in hurdles in his day.
“There are a lot of people (in the family) who like to talk running.”
EAGLES EXTRAS: Solon Springs has enjoyed renewed success over the past three seasons. In 2015, Adam Vandenberghe became the first member of the boys cross country team to qualify for state since 1991. The following year the Eagle boys won their first conference title since 1991, and this year, the Eagles defended their conference title and earned a place in the state meet. … Dickenson and Nick Zosel were named Indianhead All-Conference. Zosel and Brody Pierce are the only seniors competing for Solon at state this season.