#ThrowbackThursday - Rockford MI girls 2001
Throwback Thursday is a DyeStat feature that allows us to remember and celebrate some of the great meets and performances that have been a part of our DyeStat coverage since John Dye founded the site. Thanks to many stories, photos and videos that have been preserved in our archives, we are able to relive and share with you some of the very best of DyeStat.com.
Rockford girls' dynasty includes 4x16 USR at Roosevelt
By Steve Underwood
When people think of Rockford (Mich.) High School distance running, which came to national prominence around the turn of the millennium under coaches Brad Prins and Mark Nessner, they inevitably think first of Dathan Ritzenhein, and then probably Jason Hartmann – the program’s two top boys. Ritz, of course, became a legend as a prep from 1997-2001 while winning multiple Foot Locker XC and National Scholastic Athletic Foundation (NSAF) track titles, and has continued to excel for a dozen years since as a three-time Olympian and American record setter (saving his full accomplishments for a future story). Hartmann (two years older) has progressed from a Foot Locker fourth in 1998, to a strong career at Oregon, to becoming a two-time Boston Marathon fourth-place finisher.
But in terms of depth and long-term dominance, the girls’ teams at Rockford arguably exceeded the boys. Between a string of five straight state cross country state titles from 1998-2002 (with ridiculously low scores), a shared national XC title in 2000 (ranked by The Harrier), and 11 indoor and outdoor NSAF championship track relay victories during that span, they had an incredible run of success. Any of several girls were capable of being the best in a given event on a given day, but Class of 2001 stalwarts Kalin Toedebusch and Linsey Blaisdell were arguably the best, most accomplished and consistent. Toedebusch was 10th and fifth at Foot Locker XC Finals her junior and senior years, and had track bests of 4:56.4 1,600 and 10:38 3,200. Blaisdell, 16th at the 2000 Foot Locker, was the best miler (4:50.95 1600) and might have had the best range (2:14.7 800, 10:39.0 3,200).
That was just the beginning of the crazy depth that Rockford had, however. The 2001 class also featured Emily Blakeslee (4:56.67 1,600, 10:52.70 2M), Nora Colligan (2:12.3 800) and Aimee Keenan (2:12.22). Hartmann’s sister Jordan was a Class of 2000 force and Kalin’s sister Kelsey – two years younger – was outstanding as well. And running as freshmen in 2001 were Nicole Bohnsack (eventually 4:55.06 1,600, 10:39.80 2M) and Kristy Powers (2:13.60 800).
(It has to be said, as a group, the Rockford boys were no slouches: State XC champs in 2000 and 2002, and runner ups from 1997-99, as well as NSAF champs in the 4x1 mile (17:21.57) and DMR (10:03.09) in 2000. Just not quite as great as the girls.)
When Rockford wanted to hit a major outdoor invitational and crank out some fast times during that 2000-2002 glory period, they went to the Roosevelt Memorial meet in Ohio. In 2000, unsuspecting track fans were stunned the first weekend in May by an extraordinary Ritz triple there, including an 8:41.10 3,200 that would stand as the best 8-lap performance of his prep career.
In 2001, Rockford returned to Dayton, with John Dye on hand to get all the coverage for DyeStat. This time, Ritz was content to pace an 8:52.80 3,200 (a “time trial,” Dye called it) and left with an opportunity to take the headlines the likes of Canadian star Nathan Brannen, Ohio half-miler Marc Sylvester and ... the Rockford distance girls.
The talent for the Lady Rams was varied enough that they could run nearly equally superlative national-class times in the 4x800, DMR and 4x1 Mile. In 2000, they swept all three events at both the NSAF’s indoor and outdoor national championships, then took the 4x1 Mile and DMR at the 2001 indoor nats – as well as scoring individually (Blaisdell third in mile, Kalin Toedebusch third in 2M). But the longest relay was arguably their best, accounting for five consecutive indoor and outdoor national titles. It was the 4x1600 that stood out that weekend in Dayton.
Kalin Ritzenhein – the older Toedebusch married Dathan in 2006 – doesn’t recall any special record-attempt anticipation for that meet, but more that it was “scorching hot” and noting that producing great relays was about “four people clicking” on the same day.
Says Bohnsack, “Going into this season, and especially this race, we knew that we had four girls with the ability to run a 5:00 mile or faster. We are well aware that other top teams had amazing athletes, but very few teams had this depth.”
The Lady Rams would eventually finish more than two minutes ahead of second place in this race, and each of team members would run other relay and individual races during the weekend. But on that hot Friday, May 4, 2001 afternoon, they put together four 1600s faster than anyone had before – as well as faster (converted) than their own 4x1 Mile USR. Kelsey Toedebusch led off in 5:06, followed by Kalin in 5:00. Bohnsack took the penultimate four circuits in 5:09, then Blaisdell brought it home in 5:00. That’s 20:14.89, superior to the conversion of their own 4x1 Mile outdoor USR from 2000 (20:30.57), the 4x1600 mark set way back in 1985 by Brighton, N.Y. (20:20.87), and even the conversion of their 20:23.24 indoor 4x1 Mile USR from 2000.
And, surprisingly, it would stand as the school’s best-ever, because come June at nationals, Rockford would take the event again in 20:24.34 – outstanding, but not quite as good as their Roosevelt effort. And though there was still much outstanding talent to go with Bohnsack in subsequent years, that all-time team best from Dayton would remain intact.
“We just all needed to put it together on the same day,” says Bohnsack. “I remember that being a very special moment for all of us.”
But maybe the best testament to how great Rockford was in those years came in that 2001 adidas Outdoor meet (adidas sponsored the NSAF meet that year). It was kind of a tough meet for the Lady Rams. While they won the 4x1 mile, as mentioned earlier, they were beaten in the DMR and 4x800 – despite running still-standing school records in each.
The remarkable DMR came Sunday, after the track-flooding deluge of Saturday night pushed the final events to the following morning. Toedebusch opened with a killer 1,200, but the lead went back and forth between Rockford and Boys and Girls of New York. Blaisdell led into the homestretch only to get passed up at the end by Tameka Johnson. Boys and Girls, which set the 4x800 USR two days earlier, finished in 11:43.58 and Rockford in 11:45.05 – #2 and #3 all-time at that point.
But here’s the thing: Just six seconds behind Blaisdell was Bohnsack, digging down deep while anchoring Rockford’s ‘B’ team to third place in 11:51.21. Yes, one school with two DMRs at 11:45 and 11:51 in the same race. Rockford’s best marks of that era may not be near the top of the all-time lists now, with all the great girls’ long relay performances of the past dozen years. But few, if any, teams have ever shown that kind of depth since.
“I definitely remember that race,” laughs Bohnsack. “I remember whining about wanting to be on the first team – looking back now, that seems so funny! Thank goodness for Coach Prins and his ability to put me ever so kindly in my place as the ‘wet noodle with a great cardiovascular system’ and a freshman. I think that race really solidified our program on the map and I think that was the only race where third place felt like we won an Olympic gold!”
The success of the Rockford program, boys and girls alike, was due in large measure to the tough training regimen doled out by Coach Prins, known for both high mileage and intensity.
“He was a good coach,” says Ritzenhein. “I don’t think our success was due to the fact that we were that much more talented, but that we worked really hard. You had to be excited to put the work in. We developed a great work ethic and it got us ready for college, where everyone is putting in the work.”
Says Bohnsack, who agrees it helped prepare her for the next level, “I think the success of program shows that we were certainly doing something right. We did log more miles than most high school runners did, but even then we were doing two-a-days to break up those runs. Having lived in Texas for five years now, we weren’t doing anything different than any of the top football programs are.
“My whole freshman year, I learned everything by example,” she continues. “I ran every race with Linsey and Kalin and followed their lead. It was an amazing opportunity to run with girls who had competed and found success at the highest level. I was just happy to be mentioned in the same sentence as a freshman.”
After spring 2001, the oldest Toedebusch, Blaisdell, Colligan, and Keenan were graduated, while Bohnsack and Powers and, eventually, Rachel Wittum would help carry the torch. It must be said that in more recent years the program’s strong tradition has continued with national-class standouts like Katie Haynes and Taylor Manett leading the way for a perennial state title contending crew.
Toedebusch would run at Villanova and then Colorado, while Blaisdell performed at Wisconsin. Blakeslee and Colligan competed at Northwestern, and Keenan at Michigan State. Bohnsack, whose outstanding career would include the Foot Locker Finals in 2001 and 2002, went on to Penn State.
“I think all of us had goals to perform at different levels in college, and were able to get where we wanted,” says Ritzenhein now. Bohnsack adds that while her running career at PSU didn’t go quite as hoped, she had an overall “amazing experience” that helped determine a career path that currently has her on the last year of a doctorate program in Biomechanics at U. of Texas. “I still love to compete and recently started competing in triathlons,” she says.
Ritzenhein says she still keeps in touch with a lot of her teammates, especially from Classes of 2000 and 2001, and Christmastime reunions are a big part of that. She and Dathan aren’t the only Rockford teammates married from that era; Blaisdell and Brian Smith tied the knot in 2005, as well.
Bohnsack says she also keeps in touch with old teammates and concludes, “The best memories of my Rockford career are the friendships that I formed during that time, and everything that I learned from those four years ... Having been part of a high caliber program, the experiences that came along with that have been some of the fondest memories. The first two years in the program was when I learned what it meant to be mentally tough and, honestly, just how to compete. The toughness I learned then is still a part of my everyday life and I am grateful for that. The second two years of my high school career I had some significant injuries, but through it I learned persistence, how to overcome setbacks and maturity.”