A chance get-together early this summer produced memories of a shared state championship experience 40 years ago.
Curt Munson and Roger Linde returned to Norfolk this summer to provide support for 1979 Norfolk High School classmate and sports teammate Terry Kurtenbach after the death of his father. The pair — who served as senior co-captains of that year’s state track championship squad — along with Kurtenbach also unexpectedly spent time reminiscing with longtime track coaches Lyle Moeller and Steve Porter.
At the time, the championship was the first in any sport in Class A for Norfolk, which had only a Class B tennis title from years earlier to its credit.
“It was kind of a last-minute deal that Roger, Terry and I decided to surprise coach Moeller with a dinner at Divots, and in the meantime we had a crystal plaque made to give him to commemorate the 40-year anniversary of the track championship,” Munson said.
Moeller invited them to his home the next night and shared books and memorabilia from the 1979 track season, which brought back a lot of memories, Munson said.
“It was a lot of fun seeing them and reminiscing,” Moeller said. “I’ve kept somewhat in contact with Curt and Roger, but the last time I had seen or talked to Terry was the day he graduated from high school.”
As a group, the Panthers scored a then-state-meet-record 90 points to win the title, defeating runner-up Omaha Burke 90-75. Norfolk also earned the all-class grand championship with 53 points, seven points ahead of Burke. Six members of the team picked up all-class gold medals — a feat just two boys in Norfolk High track and field history had accomplished.
Moeller’s pre-meet calculations had determined that Norfolk was capable of scoring 95 points “if everything goes perfectly.”
But the makings of the Panthers’ championship had its roots in the success, yet disappointing end, of the 1978 season.
“The year before, we had won every one of our six invitational meets but did poorly in the district, then scored just 26 points in the state meet to finish sixth,” Munson said. “For example, I was undefeated in the 100 going into state and didn’t even make the finals.”
The 1978 squad also had won Norfolk’s first Big 10 Conference title, but the Panthers wanted more.
A change in the difficulty of workouts the following year by Moeller — who was in just his second year as the program’s head coach after taking over for Gene Whealy — may have produced a fresher, better-prepared team. But Munson said the group also had several athletes capable of “high-quality” performances, as opposed to the team’s “depth” of the year before.
“The first year we did tough workouts all year long, and we may have gotten worn down, but in ’79 we did a lot more technical stuff and, as the year went along, we backed off the hard workouts,” Munson said. “We didn’t see the results as much during the year — we weren’t winning the invites — but when we got to the end of the year, the top performers started performing better.”
Entering the 1979 season, the Norfolk coaches discussed their team’s prospects on the track and, according to Moeller, decided that “we had a really good chance, and our team was deep with talent, so we raced the top kids less and scaled back the quantity of training and replaced it with quality training.”
“It really paid off toward the end of the season,” he said. “Our marks for the most part were the best of the year.”
Moeller also pursued and accomplished a change of the Nebraska School Activities Association’s proposed district site from the six-lane track at Lincoln East to Norfolk’s eight-lane facility, and the Panthers performed “as well as a team (he) was involved with ever performed.”
“That district performance reassured the thought that we had a chance to do something special the next week at the state meet,” Munson said. “And we did.”
Other noteworthy aspects of Norfolk’s state track meet performance include:
— In 1979, the NSAA was changing race distances from yards to meters, so during the season, athletes were typically competing in both, meaning times had to undergo a conversion formula that offered confusing performance charts in the media. Therefore, Munson’s sprint times were not included among the state’s top sprinters until late in the season.
— Linde, who also had qualified for state in the discus as a sophomore, won the event as a junior before emphasizing “bringing the shot put up to speed” with coach Porter and finished second in both at state in 1979.
— Senior Kevin Boettger placed second in the mile run, breaking the Norfolk High school record at that time — the day after finishing last in the 2-mile run.
— The 880 relay squad (Kurtenbach, Mike Paulson, Steve Weaver and Munson) hadn’t placed first in a meet all season long until setting a school record in the district meet, then winning the all-class gold at state.
— At that same district meet, Lincoln Southeast’s state-leading 880 relay team dropped the baton during the race, was disqualified and did not qualify for state.
— Munson and Weaver, by being part of a three-way tie for third following the heat races, became part of a run-off to determine the two sprinters from the group of three who would advance to the 100-yard dash final. Munson won that run-off, with Weaver finishing second, so both qualified for the final, with Munson in lane one and Weaver in lane eight. Munson went on to win the all-class gold.
— Munson never won a race or qualified for a final in any sprint event as a sophomore. “The new strength training program started to come into play between my sophomore and junior season,” Munson said. “My goal became to be the fastest kid in Nebraska.”
— Norfolk’s point total late in the state meet trailed that of Omaha Burke by as many as 30 points, but when sophomore Chris Wentling and senior Al Wentling went 1-2 in the pole vault — with Chris winning on fewer misses — the final totals confirmed the Panthers’ championship.
— No Norfolk High boys track team had ever scored more than 30 points at the state track and field meet before the 90-point total in 1979.
— For Moeller, who mentioned having “a couple dreams about us winning a state championship” weeks before the state meet, a fortune cookie brought to his classroom by a student offered “affirmation,” with the fortune suggesting, “One of your dreams will prove profitable.”
“A big reason for the state meet success in ’79 was the leadership and attitude of the kids,” Moeller said. “Curt, Roger, Terry, Al Wentling and others were so instrumental in getting the team — and, to some extent, even the coaches — to believe the dream.”
Moeller agreed that winning a state championship as a young coach often indulges the mindset that there will be more to come; however, the Panthers would not win another track and field championship. Norfolk did win back-to-back girls cross country titles in the early 2000s under Moeller.
“It seemed so easy at the time. I just assumed it would happen many more times,” he said. “We came close a few times. In 2006 we finished three or four points out of first and had a few more top five finishes and a number of top 10 finishes.”
Moeller mentioned that even in 1980, the Panthers were thinking about repeating the feat, but injuries to key performers negated the opportunity. He added that “nothing will take away the memories from that spring weekend in 1979.”
All in all, Munson and Linde said, the 1979 state track championship reflected the components typical of most championship teams — talented athletes, quality coaching, preparation by all, a high-level performance in competition and a little good fortune along the way.
“Winning the championship our senior year was a perfect storm that came together because of a lot of hard work by everyone on our team and the coaching staff that pushed us to do our best and be prepared for competition,” Linde said.
Norfolk’s 1979 boys track and field coaching staff included Moeller (head coach, distance), Porter (throws), Dave Oman (sprints, hurdles) and Randy Johnson (jumps).