HIBBING — In the 1999, Austin Miller advanced to the state cross country meet as an individual, but that experience is one he’d rather forget.
Miller wanted another opportunity to go, but this time, he was hoping the entire team would go.
Miller got his wish as the Hibbing High School boys cross country team placed second at the section 7AA Meet.
Now, Miller had some company at the 2000 state meet.
“It was special for me that year, but I was dissatisfied with my performance at the meet,” Miller said. “It was the nerves and the emotion. I didn’t have a good race. I was rather immature and got caught up in the excitement. I wore myself out.
“It wasn’t my slowest time, but it was close to it. I needed some redemption. My goal was to go back and make things right, and to go with the team. We were close the year before, so we did what was necessary to go the following year. I didn’t have to travel to Northfield alone. It was a lot more fun with my teammates.”
Being a team is exactly what the Bluejackets were that season.
The team consisted of Miller, Dustin Simonson, Ethan Osterhoudt, Doug Downs, Darin Nevalainen, Rob Snyder and Joel Demaris
“That was the best team I had been on, and that’s ironic being an individual sport,” DeMaris said. ‘We showed up to practice and pushed each other, then we would sit around and shoot the breeze for 30 to 45 minutes after practice.
“We enjoyed each other.”
Miller was the leader.
“I was the guy that usually finished seventh,” DeMaris said. “We knew Austin would be consistent and Dustin would run well. After that it was who would perform better on that particular day.
“Usually it was Doug or Ethan, but it could have been any of us on any given day. I was regularly the seventh guy, but there were times when I was fifth, fourth or third. It all depended on the course.”
According to DeMaris, he was better on the flatter courses and worse weather. The wrestlers on the team ran better on the tougher courses.
“Mentally, they could work through those things,” DeMaris said. “I wasn’t strong enough to manage that.”
“That was a good team,” Simonson said. “Austin was a stud, and Ethan and myself were decent. It was a tight-knit group that was coming into its own. We were blossoming.
“It was a solid group of runners.”
Miller was good for Simonson, and Simonson was good for Miller.
“It was awesome to see him run,” Simonson said. “He picked off people as the race progressed. I tried to match him in terms of work ethic, but he was in a pack on his own. I probably wasn’t as good as that, but I always had a sprint in me at the end.
“I gave it my all. Competing, pushing each other, chasing each other, challenging each other. Austin’s dedication and work ethic… He put in the miles and got fast. He picked his places, and got faster every single race.”
Hibbing would get a new coach, but a familiar face to the program, Dan Pullar, and it turned out for the best of the team.
“We embraced him,” DeMaris said. “He had a different strategic standpoint, like here’s how you match up one through seven with the other teams. He broke it down like that, which we had never done before.
“He made it seem more reasonable to compete at a level with those teams that were constantly beating us. He told us to run with this guy on that team, and we’ll be fine. That gave us a clear picture as to what was going on.”
Pullar knew that team could take some hard training.
“That was a nice team my first year back,” Pullar said. “They were hard workers, too. They were talented, but we worked hard. They were an older team, so I could push them a little harder.
“They were more mature. I didn’t worry about hurting them.”
They were all superstitious, too.
“I considered myself overly irrational,” Miller said. “Everything from training runs, when we had to stop, depending on what colors we saw. We had different prerace things like changing food.
“We had to eat pretzels before races. It was soothing to have a list of things to go through just so you were distracted before the race started.”
There was one particular tradition the team did that kind of bugged Pullar.
“There was a red sidewalk by the high school,”DeMaris said. “Pullar would tell us to run through to the end, but we stopped there. We had that tradition for two or three years, stop at the red sidewalk, the walk in. He didn’t like it.
“That’s something I do remember about that team.”
The team tried dying their hair blond, but that didn’t work out so well.
“We looked like a spotted leopard,” Simonson said. “It was terrible, an abject failure. We were an eclectic group of people from all different walks of life. In terms of pre-race prep, everyone did their own thing about getting into that mental state.”
DeMaris remembers how wrong the hair dying went.
“We had fun,” DeMaris said. “One time, we dyed our hair blond for the IRC, and it turned out to be coppertone. It was one of those things. We had fun together.”
The Bluejackets would place second to Duluth East at the section meet, which meant Miller was getting his second shot at state.
“That made all the difference in the world,” Miller said. “Frankly, I didn’t run as well as I would have liked to. I didn’t contribute as I would have wanted, but the rest of the team stood up and had their best races of the year.
“It was fun to be able to celebrate with that team. We got a trophy, so it was fun to have that ceremony with everyone. The year before, I was all alone. I rode home with my parents. This time, I got to share it with a much-larger contingency from Hibbing.”
DeMaris ran into some bad luck a week before the state meet.
“I was doing a cool-down run in the gym when I stopped and pivoted,” DeMaris said. “It was a non-contact injury. I showed up with a leg brace on Halloween, and he (Pullar) wanted to see if I was serious or if it was just a costume.
“I had to tell him it was serious.”
With the help from former trainer Tom Lange, DeMaris ran at the state meet, but he wasn’t 100-percent.
“He let me run because I was senior,” DeMaris said. “I ran with a brace on my leg, so I didn’t perform well at state. I was devastated. That took an opportunity away from me. To have that happen before state, that was a bummer.
“I was embarrassed after that meet. We could have done better. Part of it was my fault, but you learn from it and manage it. You put your head down and run harder.”
Every five years, when Miller visits Hibbing High School, he visits one place in particular.
“I go see that trophy, and that gives me some pride,” Miller said. “All of the races blend together, but that state meet sticks out. Joel had that leg injury. Was he going to be able to run? What was going to happen?
“Dustin almost beat me one time. Those are the things I’ll never forget.”