By Dennis Grall
Special for Second Half
MARQUETTE – Red is the dominant color when you talk about cross country in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
Courtesy of one of the pre-eminent cross country programs in the state, red is worn by the Marquette High School teams that have been a scourge to the rest of the U.P. since the sport's inception.
The boys have won 22 Upper Peninsula big-school championships heading into Saturday's U.P. Finals at Beauchamp's Grove in Flat Rock, in the countryside west of Escanaba. The boys have been competing since 1966, and Marquette began its title string in 1979.
The girls have been even more dominant, claiming 29 U.P. titles since the sport began in 1980, including a string of 13 straight (1980-92).
Both teams have won the past two U.P. Division 1 titles and are expected to repeat again Saturday.
All of the championships have come with Dale Phillips as head coach. Phillips, 73, started coaching both teams in 1977. He was inducted into the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame in 2009 for his coaching exploits with Marquette's cross country and track and field programs.
Asked what has kept him running the program for 39 years, Phillips did not hesitate. "My love working with the program and the young men and young women and seeing the success they can achieve," he said, noting he is coaching a second generation of runners and enjoys visiting the parents of today's athletes, many of whom he coached.
"They are a great recruiting tool," he said of parents bringing their kids into the program.
Phillips traces the program's success to when it started piling up those various trophies. "Then we started drawing boys and girls into it. They like what we do," he said. "The program kept building. It is like the Menominee football program. It seems they re-load every year, just like we do.
"You are going to hit a down period. There were some lean years," said Phillips. Of course, those "lean years" meant settling for second, third or fourth place.
"Sometimes you just don't get that quality you need. You just get kids into the program and they really work."
This year's leaders are Lance Rambo for the boys and Lindsey Rudden for the girls. Rambo is looking into running at either Central Michigan University, Michigan State or Grand Valley State after graduation. Rudden, who has never won a U.P. cross country title but owns eight U.P. track championships (with MHSAA meet records in the 800, 1,600 and 3,200 and with the 1,600 and 3,200 relay units), has verbally committed to run for MSU.
But it is not about super individuals. Rather, it is about the overall depth of the program and the family-like atmosphere. "The varsity cheers for the jayvee group, and the jayvees cheer for their varsity teammates. They know they are a total team. It is not just the top seven we are interested in," Phillips said.
"You don't have to be the number one or two runner," Phillips tells his squads. "You can be number five, six or seven. You can help us immensely by getting ahead of the scorers of our opponents."
To illustrate, at the recent Great Northern Conference meet at Marquette's Presque Isle (complete with a water spout on Lake Superior, tornado warning, lightning, thunder and rain), the first nine girls jayvee finishers wore Marquette red. Marquette's boys and girls swept the varsity and junior varsity team titles.
"We emphasize that we are a team. The kids get so close as a team," Phillips said of the runners gathering for a variety of activities such as meals, movies and swimming. "We are a family. That word has come up for years."
Of course, a lot of that likely comes from the success they have all enjoyed together throughout their careers and from watching their predecessors do the same thing.
Agreeing that success breeds success, Phillips said, "that is a tremendous positive we have going for us. We have a large freshman class out and they learn how we do our workouts correctly and how we handle pace (of racing). We have some talent coming up."
The Redmen set such a tremendously high bar of success without piling up excessive mileage. "We try to get them to reach their peak at the end of the season," said Phillips.
While every coach tries to accomplish that goal, there is a fine line to reach in the process – no matter the sport or the level the athlete is playing.
"Leadership on a team is important," said Phillips, noting he sends groups of runners out at various distances and locations and tries to match them up with those of similar skill sets. With captains such as Rambo and Rudden setting the pace this year, Phillips knows the workouts will be fruitful. "Those kids lead by example. They keep the young runners going. They have responded well over the years," he said.
The coaching staff sets mileage limits and tries to monitor how much the athletes do on their spare time. "We are not a high mileage team," said Phillips. "We try to get a recovery day after a tough workout or a tough meet. We structure our program to keep the legs fresh and minimize injuries."
The runners do just 30-40 miles a week, much of it on an exquisite city trail system or at a grassy park close to nearby Northern Michigan University. "If we do a hard workout, we try to find a soft surface," said Phillips. "We can do hard workouts but they are not hard on the legs."
Including pre-and-post stretching sessions, the weekday workouts last two hours a day in August before classes begin and no more than 90 minutes a day once the academic season starts. "We do longer intervals before the start of the season and shorter intervals later," he said, adding runners are told not to run on one of the weekend days.
Having quality runners throughout the group prevents varsity runners from becoming complacent. "Our jayvees keep the varsity on their toes," Phillips said.
He also encourages his runners to use alternative sports in their training to keep their legs fresh. "If you don't feel like running, jump on a bike. Biking is an excellent cross-trainer. They also go cross country skiing. You shouldn't run 365 days a year," he said.
"If you're in a winter sport, you can't get in better shape than running in cross country," said Phillips, noting several of Marquette's highly successful winter athletes have been on his teams. "That has been a drawing card as well" to attract participation.
In his 39 years at the helm, Phillips said a major highlight was when the girls won the prestigious Holly Invitational and the boys were 10th out of 30 teams in 1982. It was the first time the Redettes and Redmen participated, and many of the downstate runners were surprised to learn Marquette came from the Upper Peninsula.
The girls finished second, fifth, seventh, ninth and 11th and beat Clio, ranked No. 1 in the state at the time. "They couldn't believe someone from the U.P. could come down and dominate a big meet," said Phillips.
Competing in Holly, and big meets in Wisconsin, gives his runners a chance to see "other faces and other teams" and a chance to gauge their performances. That is especially important because cross country (in addition to track and field, tennis, golf, and swimming and diving) is split into Upper Peninsula and Lower Peninsula Finals.
While Phillips and former U.P. cross country coaches John Prokos, Dave Lahtinen and Arne Henderson previously made a strong push to merge for an all-peninsula MHSAA Finals, they were unable to convince the majority of U.P. teams to accept the proposal, which has been rejected twice.
In the meantime, Marquette makes everyone else look at red across the Upper Peninsula.
Denny Grall retired in 2012 after 39 years at the Escanaba Daily Press and four at the Green Bay Press-Gazette, plus 15 months for WLST radio in Escanaba; he served as the Daily Press sports editor from 1970-80 and again from 1984-2012. Grall was inducted into the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 and serves as its executive secretary. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for the Upper Peninsula.
PHOTOS: (Top) Marquette’s girls cross country runners, including Lindsey Rudden, front right, prepare for the start at Marquette’s cross country relays earlier this season. (Middle) A pair of Marquette runners including Lance Rambo, right, compete during the boys race. (Below) Coach Dale Phillips has led the program for 39 years. (Photos courtesy of Marquette athletic department.)