The spring semester may have concluded this week at UW-La Crosse, but the corridors of Mitchell Hall will continue to buzz throughout May and early June as the university prepares to become a hub for track and field.
In the span of two weeks, Veterans Memorial Field Sports Complex will play host to the NCAA Division III track and field national championships (May 24-26), and then hold the WIAA state track and field meet on June 1-2.
The latter part of that stretch isn’t a surprise — this is the university’s 29th year of hosting the state’s premier prep track event. But the double dip of adding the Division III championships has university administrators and coaches working in overdrive to get things prepared.
“This facility was built to have championship events on it,” said Josh Buchholtz, UW-L men’s track and field coach and the meet director for the WIAA championships. “That includes national events, regional events, the state track meet, the Badger State Games. It’s made for this.
“We’ve got great facilities, our staff is top-notch. Everything from our grounds to our custodial, the administration that puts these on, we put on good meets.”
Continuing that tradition of good meets has been the focus of the Eagles athletic department, and planning for this test started more than a year ago when UW-L was named host of the Division III championships. This is the second time La Crosse will host both meets, having previously done so in 2013.
Erin Thacker is UW-L’s deputy athletic director and meet director for the Division III championships. She said she’s been on monthly calls with the NCAA since December to ensure NCAA guidelines are being met ahead of the meet. Those calls have become more frequent as the meet draws nearer.
“You’re finding people, getting things staffed, doing whatever we can to make sure the meet goes off without a hitch,” Thacker said.
Along with a network of officials put together by the NCAA, former UW-L track coach and emeritus coach Mark Guthrie is fielding groups of meet officials and volunteers.
The NCAA provides financial help, day-of officials who will make decisions on potential weather delays, certain equipment, and signage for the facility. Jason Murphy, UW-L’s facilities manager and women’s soccer coach, has been coordinating with his staff and the university’s grounds crews daily in the past few weeks to get ready for the two meets.
“They all (NCAA and WIAA) have expectations, but they’re more on-site, day-of management,” Murphy said. “We coordinate through them beforehand so we’re on the same page.”
However, sorting through the thousands of items — awards, equipment, etc. — being shipped to Mitchell Hall takes time. Thacker said she has two interns whose entire week has been inventorying the NCAA shipments, while Buchholtz said he and his staff will be organizing the WIAA awards that arrived Friday, ensuring none were damaged en route.
The 2013 meet was the first Division III national championship test after the campus complex was remodeled in 2008. While some things have changed, the experience of having hosted both meets gives the meet directors knowledge of potential trouble spots.
“I think having the experience of hosting in ‘13, we knew that back-to-back was happening, so it makes it a little easier just knowing what we need to do,” Thacker said. “It still has some difficulties. We’re well-prepared for it, but it doesn’t make it easy.”
After the soccer field north of the track was rebuilt this fall, there are some new challenges that come with hosting duties this time around.
Teams won’t be able to build the “tent city” on that plot as they have in that past because they can damage the artificial turf of the soccer field. While that isn’t as much of an issue for the Division III meet because competitors come and go from the venue more frequently, this will be a big change for the WIAA competition. Buchholtz said there will be other areas available for team tents.
The Division III meet won’t see the same number of spectators as the WIAA championships, which set an attendance record last year at 21,007, but it does feature nearly 900 athletes from across the country. Competing on their home track is something Buchholtz said is a boon for his athletes — UW-L routinely has one of the largest contingents at the Division III championships.
The WIAA meet — which is estimated by The La Crosse County Convention & Visitors Bureau to bring in about $4 million to the Coulee Region — is an important showcase for the La Crosse campus.
Thacker and Murphy noted how the high school track meet continues to put La Crosse on the map, and allows the university to bring people into city restaurants and hotels. Buchholtz added how important the meet is as a recruiting tool for the Eagles track and field programs, something he knows firsthand.
“In 1995 when I sat at the end of the runway, I had just won the state championship in the pole vault and I’m just like, ‘I’m going to La Crosse,’” Buchholtz said. “It does play into it. I’d be lying if I said it’s not a big part of what we do and who we are.
“But there’s stress into it, because if we don’t run a good show … maybe athletes wouldn’t want to come here because they had a bad experience.”
The best track and field athletes in Division III and Wisconsin will pass through La Crosse in the next few weeks. Despite the rush to get things done in the weeks leading into it, the opportunity to display La Crosse as a campus and community is important to Thacker.
“I think it puts La Crosse on the map even more. People in Wisconsin know La Crosse for the state track meet, and in Division III for our track program. And it’s a gorgeous place to compete,” she said. “You compete next to the bluffs and then go by the river for dinner.”