A staple of almost every sporting event is the national anthem — just not played on the accordion.
When you’ve been around 45 years as coach and the event, the Len Nikolai cross country invitational, is named after you, a little extra leeway to do these sort of things is granted.
The invite, now in its third year, was held at the Meadow Links Golf Course on Saturday and it was the final one with its namesake as coach of the Manitowoc Lincoln cross country team
“The accordion national anthem was all his idea,” laughed Lincoln athletic director John Johnson. “Len wanted to do something special being his last home invite so he orchestrated it between himself and some former runners.”
The backdrop of the celebration was the sport Nikolai has spent the better part of four decades coaching, as Valders’ Michael Evans was the highest local boys finisher coming in third with a time of 16:07. Lincoln’s Mike Thompson finished 36th (17:45) to lead his team. Sheboygan South’s McKena Ramos won the event in 15:53.
For the girls, the Vikings’ Beth Evans was eighth (15:30) while Lincoln was led by Miranda Gove who came in 40th (16:29). Brookfield East’s Rachel Werking won the event in 14:50.12.
As a team the Valders boys finished 4th and the girls 11th while the Lincoln boys and girls each came in 14th,
Thompson’s father, John, was shocked to find out that Nikolai was still coaching when his sons Mike and Ben decided to go out for cross country.
“He had been coaching the team when I had graduated in 1978 so to hear he was still around was pretty amazing,” said John Thompson. “Coach Nikolai is incredibly dedicated to all the kids he’s coached and it’ll be sad to see him go although I doubt he’ll disappear altogether.”
Johnson had similar thoughts when asked why the invite was re-named in Nikolai’s honor in 2010.
“He’s done more for hundreds of kids in his 45 years as coach as most people would do for the entirety of their lives,” said Johnson. “We knew he wouldn’t be coaching forever and thought he deserved the honor of having the invite named after him. When you think about Lincoln cross country his name is the first that pops into your head, so it was a natural decision.”
With his long career winding down, Nikolai took a little time to reflect at a post-race celebration.
“It’s been a great ride,” said Nikolai. “When I started, Green Bay Preble coach Dan Lawrence wasn’t even born, so I’ve been at this a while.
“I guess it’s really starting to hit me (retirement),” Nikolai added later. “I had a feeling they were planning something like this but I had no idea how emotional it’d be. I wouldn’t trade this experience for the world.”
Nikolai plans on hanging around the program and going to meets for at least three more years until the current group of freshmen graduates. He also plans to visit his two grandchildren more often when he’s not watching his former runners from a distance.
“I love cross country because there’s no politics,” said Nikolai. “Every kid is a winner because they might not win the race but they might have beaten their personal time, everything is clear cut.”
In the end, the real winners according to countless parents and Lincoln faculty are everyone who has been associated with a tireless educator. Nikolai might be closing the chapter of his coaching career but his legacy is only just beginning.
Team scores: 1. Stevens Point 39, 2. Sheboygan North 93, 3. Green Bay Preble 117, 4. Valders 125, 5. Grafton 141, 6. Appleton North 175, 7. Green Bay East 191, 8. Sheboygan South 191, 9. Ashwaubenon 229, 10. Plymouth 244, 11. South Milwaukee 365, 12. Green Bay Southwest 392, 13. Appleton West 397, 14. Manitowoc Lincoln 411, 15. St. Mary’s Springs 447, 16. Green Bay West 453, Kaukauna 456, 18. Menasha 525
Valders — 3. Michael Evans 16:07, 19. Derek Doescher 17:13, 27. Tom Meidl 17:31, 35. Joey Krizek 17:44, 41. Joey Kinscher 17:53
Manitowoc Lincoln — 36. Mike Thompson 17:45, 61. Amari Bauer 18:24, 97. Austin Keehan 19:30, 102. Andrew Ziolowski 19:46, 115. Ben Thompson 20:28
Team scores: 1. Green Bay Preble 72, Stevens Point 108, 3. Appleton North 109, 4. Brookfield East 112, 5. Appleton West 119, 6. Grafton 170, 7. Sheboygan North 213, 8. Green Bay East 228, 9. Plymouth 244, 10. St. Mary’s Springs 299, 11. Valders 304, 12. Ashwaubenon 329, 13. South Milwaukee 337, 14. Manitowoc Lincoln 370, 15. Kaukauna 456, 16. Sheboygan South 474, 17. Green Bay Southwest 549, 18. Green Bay West 578
Valders — 8. Beth Evans 15:32, 59. Jacqui Wenzel 16:44, 72. Morgan Kelly 16:53, 81. Corina Sieber 17:06, 84. Regie Bushman 17:12
Manitowoc Lincoln — 40. Miranda Gove 16:29, 70. Karly Rosinsky 16:51, 78. Taylor Albright 17:01, 86. Nicole Temme 17:14, 96. Courtney Griffith 17:30