Women’s cross country head coach Gary Wilson has dreamed of a new cross country facility since 1982, when he visited Indiana University’s private course. Wednesday, that dream took a step toward becoming reality.
Wilson and Dave Percival met with the Parks Commission of Hugo, Minn., late Wednesday to discuss a 125-acre plot of land they hope to turn into a cross country facility.
The nine-member panel voted unanimously to take the next step in the process. Wilson and Percival will now design a cross country course, Wilson said.
Percival is the Roy Griak Invitational assistant meet director. His wife, Patti, ran for Wilson as a collegian in 1985-88.
Wilson and Percival told the board that, with no money from the city, the two hope to design and construct a course on the city-owned land. At the same time, they’d be working with the city at every juncture of the project to ensure the team and the city weren’t “stepping on each other’s toes.”
Minnesota’s cross country team currently trains and competes on the University of Minnesota’s Les Bolstad Golf Course in Falcon Heights, just north of the St. Paul campus.
Wilson said his ultimate vision is to take the plot of land in Hugo, which used to be a gravel field, and turn it into a common-use facility called “Irish Meadows.”
Located about a half an hour northeast of the Gophers’ current course, both of the University’s cross country teams could use the course. However, with the already tight athletics department budget, Wilson said he will not be asking for any money from the University.
“This is not the U doing this,” Wilson said. “This is Gary Wilson and Dave Percival with a dream of having a cross country course that can be used by everybody in the state. Cross country is a big deal in the state of Minnesota. We’ve have great cross country runners out of here.”
He added that Minnesota doesn’t currently have a championship-caliber, spectator-friendly course. He hopes Irish Meadows could become that, not only for cross country, but for other sports as well.
In the short term, his plan is to run a course around the outside of the lot, but in the future he said the city may choose to invest money in the lot as well and add things like softball diamonds or soccer fields in the middle, Wilson said.
The course itself would also serve as a track for other colleges, high schools and recreational activities like cross country skiing in the winter.
Percival is a physical education teacher at a White Bear Lake, Minn., middle school where the principal, Noel Schmidt, serves on the Hugo Parks Commission board.
Schmidt and Percival spoke about the idea several months ago, and when it wasn’t quickly dismissed, Wilson said he and Percival began pursuing it.
City administrator Mike Ericson could not be reached for comment, but Wilson said he told the pair two months ago that it was a great idea and they should press on and set up a meeting with the board.
“You can’t get anything done if you don’t get to the table,” Wilson said. “[Schmidt] got us to the table and they were excited about it.”
The next step is to assemble a planning committee to design the layout of the course so that it won’t interfere with any possible future structures or fields.
Wilson said their goal is to have planning approved by December and break ground in the spring of 2012. He said he hopes the first race will be held in the fall of 2013 or 2014, with the idea being that as soon as people see a spectator-friendly course, more people will want to donate time or resources to help improve it.
“If you build something that’s got a good foundation and you treat people right and you give them a facility that people can be proud of, then it’s going to build on itself and get better and better as the years go on,” Wilson said.
“Everything is going to be gift-in-kind. If you’ve got a tractor or grass seed or time to come out and help or rake and hoe, we’ll take it. It’s going to be that kind of a grassroots cause,” he said.
University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Zimmer Championship Course could serve as a model for Irish Meadows. The 2-year-old facility serves as Wisconsin’s full-time facility and is as spectator-friendly and as flat as courses get in the Big Ten. Zimmer cost $375,000 — all donations — according to Wilson.
All-American and three-year Bolstad veteran Steph Price said their current course is much more difficult than other facilities she’s run at and not nearly as spectator-friendly. It’s not without its advantages, though.
“I think it can give us an advantage because we train on it and are used to it,” Price said. “It’s definitely not a place to run fast times and it’s hard to bring in other teams there because it’s a little daunting … We hosted a high school section meet and that was even a hard sell.”
Her teammates Missa Varpness and Ashlie Decker agreed.
“There’s the mentality that if we can run here [at Bolstad], we can pretty much do it anywhere,” Varpness said.
Decker added: “It’s definitely challenging and nice to train on, but if you want to run a fast time, it won’t be on the Bolstad course.”
Wilson, a veteran coach of 25 years, couldn’t resist drawing a parallel to a famous Kevin Costner movie about a field and a dream: “If you build it, they will come,” he said.
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