High school sports: Highland Park becoming a distance dynasty – TwinCities.com-Pioneer Press

High school sports: Highland Park becoming a distance dynasty  TwinCities.com-Pioneer Press

Brad Moening played the waiting game at big meets early in his coaching career. At sections, the Highland Park cross country and Nordic skiing coach would send out seven racers.

And as all of the other competitors reached the finish line, the Scots were still nowhere to be found — at least not until everyone else was finished.

“I have very distinct memories of going to section races and having the seven Highland kids take the last seven spots,” Moening said this week.

Moening took over the Scots’ Nordic ski program in 2002. He became the cross country coach a year later. That first Nordic ski team “might” have had 12 kids, Moening said. Not 12 fast kids, mind you.

“We were the Bad News Bears,” Moening said. “I called them that for a long time. Great kids, but we didn’t have any ski talent, and we didn’t have any endurance talent. We were just out there having fun.”

It’s a stark contrast to where the Scots are now.

Highland Park’s girls cross country team just won the Class 2A, Section 4 meet this week, its first section title since 1975. The girls Nordic skiing team won the state team title in February, with Molly Moening — Brad’s daughter — winning the individual crown. Last fall, the Highland Park boys cross country team placed third in state. Then-Scots senior Oliver Paleen won the individual state title.

It’s no wonder a former athlete will text Moening occasionally with a message that’s something to the effect of, “What in the heck are you guys doing now?”

BECOMING COACH

Prior to becoming a teacher and coach at Highland Park, Moening was … an environmental engineer. He was working for Northwest Airlines in 1999 when his oldest daughter, Erin, was born. That changed things. Moening was working and traveling a lot, and wanted to be around more for his daughter. He also knew he wanted to coach.

“I had just gotten my masters degree in civil engineering and I said to my wife, ‘Hey, you mind if I keep going to school for a while?’ I want to get my teaching license,” Moening recalled. “She laughed at me. I got my license, and I got a job at Highland.”

He has since coached all three of his daughters, Erin, Maeve and Molly.

Highland Park sophomore Chloe Koch was part of the Scots’ Class 2A, Section 4 girls championship team Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020 at the Highland 9-hole golf course. (Jace Frederick / Pioneer Press)

HAVING FUN

The numbers quickly grew. Moening spent his first few years in the hallways, promoting his programs with T-shirts, announcements and posters. “Just trying to make sure the student-body knew that we existed,” he said.

Moening started this fall with 72 cross-country runners. Teams want to be a part of the team. Paleen noted that when you get kids to come out “just because,” you’re likely to find a few diamonds in the rough. That’s how you compete at a high level against bigger programs.

Paleen said Moening is known as “one of the best teachers,” which helps draw kids to athletics. Erin Moening said her dad has created a community between the two programs.

“Everyone is known for being a big group of friends. If you’re part of the ski team and the running team, it’s expected that you know everyone on the team and expected that you’re friends with everyone,” she said. “You just become a family, and I just think the way my dad has developed the team community over the last 20 or so years, it just has created a program that people really want to be a part of.”

Because while it’s challenging and difficult, Moening also makes it fun. In non-COVID years, Highland Park athletics director Patrick Auran has to preserve the pool from time to time for the cross country team … not for running purposes, but for water polo.

Moening has three goals for the program: Have fun, be competitive and make lifelong runners.

“Have fun” will always top the list. It’s why the team does “silly things” from time to time for practice. In cross country, it might be water polo or the team’s annual bike race. In Nordic, it can range from soccer to ultimate frisbee … on skis. Moening can be intense but also makes sure to slip in many of his patented dad jokes.

Now a student at Northern Michigan, Erin Moening watched the stream of Highland Park’s section race this week. Twenty minutes before go-time for the biggest event of the season, she noted the girls were laughing and joking around.

“This is sport. Sports are supposed to be something that it’s not the end of the world if you have a bad practice or a bad day,” she said. “It’s just something you’re supposed to enjoy. He recognizes that as a coach.”

Moening and his coaches have recently discussed how much larger the Nordic team can get and decided they don’t want to put a cap on it, not this year, anyway.

“We’ve got to work really hard this winter to get as many new kids out there as we can, because otherwise, they’re going to be sitting around doing nothing,” he said. “The goal is to get all these kids outside having fun.”

LOVE THE WORK

Moening works more now than he did when he was an engineer. Erin said her dad gets up around 5 a.m. to get in his own workout, then heads to school early to be available for kids who need assistance. After school, it’s off to practice. Moening often doesn’t get home until 6:30 p.m.

“He doesn’t have a life outside of school, (running) and skiing until the spring time,” Erin said.

That’s fine with him; the classes he teaches, running and skiing are his passions, anyway.

“I won’t lie, it keeps me really, really busy,” he said, “but I wouldn’t give it up for anything. It’s just a great way to live.”

Balancing it all would seem to be a challenge — Moening credits his assistant coaches for helping with that — but no one is as on top of everything as Moening. Auran has never had a parent ask him for information related to cross country. The coach has it covered. Moening said that’s the engineer in him. Erin Moening said her dad is the person who thinks five minutes early is 10 minutes late.

“If you were to describe me, I’m like super over-the-top,” Moening said. “I always have a plan.”

SUCCESS

Paleen doesn’t know if he wins a state title if not for Moening. The coach’s imprint is all over the program. Everything he did was well thought out, from training to race strategy.

“As a coach, and even a leader and role model, I would say, a lot of what happened for me individually and us as a team … are due to him,” he said.

What Erin Moening finds funny is that her dad took over the Highland Park programs with no coaching acumen. He was an athlete who picked up the sports during his high school career at Blaine but had never taught them.

But he had curiosity on his side. Moening utilizes every resource at his disposal and admits when he doesn’t know something. Erin said the training the team does now is different than what it did when she was in high school.

“I’ve said it, the coaches in the conference have said it, anyone that you’ll talk to will say he is someone that just won’t settle for second best, and that’s why he is producing great athletes year after year after year,” Erin said. “He holds himself accountable and he holds his athletes accountable. When you have that kind of standard, this bar keeps getting higher and higher and higher.”

Titles mean something to Moening, but not everything. His favorite part of coaching isn’t the victories, but the looks on kids faces when they do something they never thought they could. He savors the relationships not just with his athletes, but their families. He can’t go to Highland Village without seeing someone he knows.

Moening even still keeps in touch with his athletes from the Bad News Bears era. Some of them still compete in the same ski races he does. They, too, became lifelong athletes.

“I’m so proud of him,” Erin said, “and I’m so proud of the program.”