The Secret to the 40 Year Dominance of the SPASH Cross Country Team


SPASH Cross Country competing at the Rosholt Invitational. Photo Taken by Donovan Menningen.

Franklin Hagen, Hour 1

With 11 first place finishes and 9 runner up finishes at state, the SPASH cross country team has taken 20 trophies home in the last 42 years. That’s just under one top 2 finish at state every other year, and it makes SPASH one of the best modern-era highschool cross country programs ever to exist in the state of Wisconsin. So how are they able to maintain such success and consistency for such a long time? Many people assume that this success comes from a secret workout or coaching strategy, but a lot of the team’s success actually comes from the closeness of the teammates and the strong bonds that everyone on the team has. 

Everyone Finds Friends on the Team

One of the main things that the cross country coaches are thinking about during the season is building bonds between the runners. Donn Behnke, head coach of the team since 1977, explained this when he said in an interview, “The longer I coach, the more I realise that for me, the goal is always to build the best relationships, to provide the best experience…I hope to see seniors hate the fact that it’s over. I hope the younger guys are anxious to come back the next year, and try again, and do better.” By building close friendships between the athletes, it makes the team feel sort of like a big family, and people start to see practice as something they want to do so they can see their friends. Behnke went on to say, “Somehow it sort of works out that everybody’s found a friend or a group they can be in.” Every season new kids join the team, and everybody finds their niche soon enough. I personally have been on the team for 5 seasons now, and I have never seen someone stretching by themselves in warm ups. 

Runners Work Hard for Their Friends

Once athletes start to feel a sense of belonging and purpose on the team, they don’t want to let their teammates down. When asked about what makes SPASH cross country so special, Kevin Hopp, Co-Head Coach and former athlete on the team, explained, “As someone who came through [the program] as the only seventh grader, the guys treated me like I was their little brother.” He later continued, “Guys truly feel like they belong, whether they’re the first guy, the last guy, or somewhere in between. And with that, because they belong, they want to work hard for those guys.” Having a sense of comradery on the team leads to people trying harder in practice, which translates to faster times on the course, which has lead to great success for the SPASH Cross Country Program. A current member of the team, Donovan Menningen, stated his favorite memory from this season being, “Running the Big Ladder with Big John, and keeping each other sharp and motivated the whole way, and pushing each other.” Having your friends constantly around you, pushing you while you are running contributes greatly to your performance in workouts and races. Just a simple “keep pushing!” from a teammate can give you what you need during practice to finish a good rep. 

Close Friendships on the Team Foster a Love of Running

Having your teammates be your best friends helps to make running a fun thing for cross country athletes. Menningen stated in an interview that, “When you are running next to someone, they will always be encouraging you and keeping it positive.” It makes JV runners keep coming to practice to hang out, even after their season is over, and it carries into the off-season. When asked about how the team has changed over the years Kevin Hopp explained, “Twenty years ago I don’t think as many guys thought of themselves as runners. They just maybe thought of themselves as a runner during the season, but now they think of themselves as a runner all the time.” This will lead to the continuation of the success of the SPASH cross country team, as people continue to get more serious about the sport, and they bring their friends with them on their winter and summer runs. 

A lot of the time the main goal of coaches is to win and to be successful. For the cross country team, that drive to be better than the competition is there, but it is not all about winning. The coaches’ number one goal is to make everyone who joins the team feel welcome, and to provide people with a friend group. This, in the end, has brought home a top-two finish at state every other year over the last 40 years. What drives the team to work as hard as it does, and achieve such dominance, is friendship. We would not be where we are today if friends weren’t going on weekend runs together, or going back to someone’s house to do core. By caring about their athletes first, the coaches found a system that works well for the team, and will continue to work well and prove itself in the future.