SOLON SPRINGS — Just after school released May 10, a group of students gathered on the field behind Solon Springs High School to warm up for track practice.
Across the field, Northwood/Solon Springs coach Shannon Dickenson was using a measuring wheel to give students accurate distances for their track practice. Assistant coaches Nikk Adams and Taylor Maroszek set up starting blocks, cones and other equipment for the NSS practice while junior Izzy Molina sets up makeshift hurdles.
It’s an everyday occurrence for the 2-year-old cooperative team from Northwood and Solon Springs schools because neither school has a track of any kind.
But here’s the thing: NSS is only 2 years old, but they already have a state champion.
In 2021, Calin Lisson won the Wisconsin Division 3 400-meter dash in his first — and only — track season.
While the NSS program is still relatively new, several programs in the area have been competing at a high level for years.
Cromwell-Wright and Silver Bay both don’t have competition tracks on their campuses. The Cardinals’ Noah Foster finished eighth in the 3,200-meter run at the Class A state meet last season and Mariners’ hurdler Alexxa DeQuevedo was the first person from her school to qualify for the state meet four consecutive years before she graduated in 2019.
Mesabi East competed without a track until 2021 and produced multiple state-qualifying athletes over the years, most recently with Ava Hill’s three consecutive Minnesota Class A titles from 2017-19.
Dickenson’s oldest son, Owen, was instrumental in getting an NSS track team established. He was already running cross-country and wanted to run in college. With no track times to show coaches, Dickenson had a choice: he could open-enroll to Northwestern or convince the Solon Springs School Board to add a track team.
After a lobbying campaign with his friends, Owen Dickenson succeeded in bringing a team to the school and even qualified for the state meet in the 800 meters in his first season.
“That first year we went into it with no expectations,” Shannon Dickenson said. “We just showed up to the meet like ‘You know what? We’re here to see what we can do,’ and … my son Owen made it to state that first year (in the 800 meters), and he just missed in the 2-mile to go to state. He kind of made it known that our track program is working.”
Owen Dickenson, now a cross-country and track athlete at Minnesota Duluth, was unable to run his senior year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the team continued to practice that summer and when it returned in 2021, Lisson gave the program another stamp of legitimacy with his win in the 400-meter dash.
All three programs have found unique methods of dealing with the challenge of competing without a track on campus.
The distance events are the easiest problem to solve with potentially the best solution.
“We go for a 3- or 4-mile run anyway,” Adams, who typically works with NSS distance runners, said. “Why would we run around a track for 3 miles if we can go out and run down to the park or go do some hills for training.”
Hill training is some of the best work to help with both speed and endurance, Shannon Dickenson said, and the variety is something the students enjoy.
“Personally, I love it because we’re always going around town,” NSS runner Zoe Smith said. “You get to see nature, which is a lot better than just running in a circle all the time.”
Hurdles and field events are more difficult, but the coaches have worked to find ways to train.
At Solon Springs, hurdlers work with makeshift obstacles and the distances are an inexact science, but when they practice at Northwood — the team alternates sites weekly — Maroszek has competition hurdles and even spray painted the exact distances so they know where to set them up.
At Cromwell-Wright, hurdles are typically set up in the hallways, according to Cardinals coach Dave Foster, but sometimes the team will go to McGregor to use that track.
Rose Antilla coached at Mesabi East until she retired in 2017 and never had the benefit of a track at her school, but they did whatever it took to train on their campus. They would also work with coaches at Hibbing and Virginia to get time on their tracks after those teams were done.
“We would adapt, we would use our field to do handoffs,” Antilla said. “We did whatever we could. We chalked out lines on the school parking lot … we would go on a road that curved so we would be running curves. We did the best we could.”
The most difficult part is practicing for throwing events with no concrete pad to work with. Currently, at Solon Springs, throwers are typically practicing from where home plate was on the old baseball field.
“You want to launch as much as possible, whether that is shot or discus, forward,” Maroszek said. “With the concrete you get more traction.”
NSS has continually added numbers since the program’s inception, from a team of mostly distance runners to one that competes in every event except pole vault. They even started competing in the high jump.
“We have a couple boys who know how to dunk a basketball — they’re just so good and they’re vertical,” Shannon Dickenson said. “They’ve been watching YouTube videos and they’ve been getting some pointers from coach Maroszek and guess what? One of our boys was the winner Friday night.”
Carson Kaunonen won for NSS the first time the team competed in the event at a meet.
While there are plenty of challenges in competing without a track, there may be some benefits to training without a track.
“I think it actually helps when you’re doing it out here,” NSS freshman Cade Lisson, Calin Lisson’s younger brother, said. “It’s pretty hard, but when you go to nice tracks, it’s nice foam and squishy so you can get better times. I feel like you’re always faster.”
The variation in training surface and the hills all make running on a track easier than training on a road or unpaved field.
“We had them in such really good condition because we’re running steeper hills and probably not very good roads,” Antilla said. “So once they hit the track it’s like ‘Whoa, this is easy. It’s flat, there’s no rocks to trip on.’”
Either way, the lack of a track to practice on makes every meet special for NSS athletes, where they made T-shirts after Calin Lisson’s win at state that said “No track, no problem.”
“We don’t know any different, so it just feels normal to us,” Shannon Dickenson said. “It’s like a luxury when we go to meets. The meets feel extra fun for us because we’re actually on a track — we get to see what we can do on a real track after we’ve put in the practice.”
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