WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- After he was asked, Chip Schneider wondered when the championship win will sink in. His Wisconsin-Eau Claire men’s track and field team had sealed its first Division III indoor national title -- its first of any kind, indoor or outdoor. He started to answer and almost from the first word, there was a catch in his voice.
“When I get back home and see my wife and kid,” he said, and then pauses, his face flushed and tears welling up in his eyes. “Can you give me a second?” he adds before turning away and walking quickly to a corner to compose himself. He has to help present some awards and it’s a few minutes before he’s able to return.
Schneider has tasted success on this stage before. He was a national champion in the long jump and 400-meter hurdles as a Wisconsin-Platteville runner in the mid-1990s and served as a graduate assistant for Wisconsin-La Crosse’s 2002 indoor and outdoor titles.
When he took the helm at Wisconsin-Eau Claire, however, people told him it couldn’t be done. For 12 years, it must have seemed like they might be right. That changed here Saturday afternoon. Forever.“This has been my goal since I’ve been at Eau Claire,” Schneider said, and while his voice cracks again, he’s able to continue. “Thirteen years is a long time. A lot of people had me believing that I couldn’t do it at Eau Claire, but I knew we could. A lot of people.”
Friday’s first day of competition was up and down for the Blugolds, right up until the final event of the day. Adam Moline, Ryan Graham, William LaJeunesse Jr. and Josh Thorson won the distance medley relay, breathing new life into the team’s effort overnight.
“It was a typical track meet,” Schneider said. “We had some great things happen, some bad things. The nice part was the rollercoaster yesterday ended with the DMR and us winning. That was a huge lift for us coming into today.
“We weren’t seeded to score in it and we came out winning. That obviously helps catapult you. It puts you in the right mindset going to the motel. We felt pretty good after that. Up to that point, it was pretty tenuous for sure.”
The meet came down to two University of Wisconsin schools -- Eau Claire and rival La Crosse. La Crosse had won 29 indoor and outdoor national championships, to Eau Claire’s zero.
In the last event of the meet, the 4x400 meter relay, Schneider looked crestfallen as his Blugold runners slipped further and further behind in the third and final heat. Not again. This wasn’t the work it was supposed to work out.
Wisconsin-Eau Claire wound up tenth out of twelve teams … but Augustana (Illinois) won, with Wisconsin-Oshkosh taking second and Mount Union third. Wisconsin-La Crosse took fourth in the event.
That was good enough to give the Blugolds a razor-thin 62-60 victory in the chase for the national championship.
“I would’ve liked to run a little bit better in that last race, obviously,” Schneider said. “I always like to close in the 4x400 with a really good race. The main thing was that we did enough with that group to make sure that we held our spot.”
Still, the look on his face said it all. The championship seemed to be slipping away once again. Augustana and Wisconsin-Oshkosh were both in that same heat … and they helped. A bunch.
“I was not feeling real good in the middle of that race until I saw what the two teams that won our heat ran,” Schneider admitted. “They had done enough to help us. We definitely got some help out some people in that last race, instead of helping ourselves.”
How exactly did they help?
“Some other teams beat La Crosse for us,” Schneider concluded. And that, in the end, was good enough. The golden championship trophy is headed to Eau Claire.