Bill Greiten chuckled when asked how the Angel Cross Country Invitational came into being.
“That’s 50 years ago!,” he said from his home in Townsend, Wis. “You want me to remember back 50 years?”
But the 78-year-old Greiten does remember. It was the autumn of 1968 and he had built a powerhouse boys cross country program at St. Catherine’s High School. Looking to enhance the identity of his program, Greiten conceived of a cross country invitational the Angels could host.
“Basically, there weren’t a lot of huge invitationals and I just felt we had an opportunity in Racine where we could run an invitational,” Greiten said. “I got it all organized, put it all together and got some teams to come.”
The irony is that the man who conceived of the Angel Invitational was destined to have no further involvement in it. It was announced in June 1969 that Greiten had accepted the cross country position at Case, a post he would hold until he retired in 1995.
But the Angel Invitational carried on quite well in the ensuing half century mostly under Tom Scheller, the St. Catherine’s cross country coach since 1974 who ran for Greiten at the school.
The 50th running of the event will be held Saturday morning at UW-Parkside, when a 39-team field will be converging at Somers. Among those expected to be on hand are Greiten; Chuck Wood, who coached the program between Greiten and Scheller; and 1969 St. Catherine’s graduate Mike Lawless, one of the greatest distance runners in Racine County history.
Scheller has been the primary keeper of the flame, having attended all but the first two Angel Invitationals. While Scheller has personally been keeping this event going since 1974, he downplays his significance.
“It’s remembering the kids who ran and the pride they put into running well in our meet,” Scheller said. “The coaches behind the scenes, whether it was Chuck or myself, doesn’t make any difference.
“You did the best to put on a quality meet and give those kids an opportunity to run at their home meet. For me, it reminds me of the kids who ran, starting with the kids who were teammates of mine who ran in the first Angel Invitational.”
That was Sept. 27, 1969, when Tim McGilsky won the race and led St. Catherine’s to the first of three straight championships in this event. McGilsky covered the H.F. Johnson Park course in 10 minutes, 10.6 seconds to break the course record (10:22) set earlier that day by Horlick’s Rudy Alvarez.
Also placing in the top five for St. Catherine’s that day were Joel Westrich, Dick Sawasky, Lenny Marsch and Chuck LeRose.
St. Catherine’s dominated in those days, winning nine of the first 18 invitationals through 1986. Following McGilsky as individual champions for the Angels were LeRose in 1971, Jeff DeMatthew (1972), Paul LeRose (1976), John Polzin (1984 and 1985) and Frank Porcaro (1987).
With the advent of girls cross country, the Angel Invitational became a co-ed meet in 1977. The only female to win for St. Catherine’s to date is Michelle Flynn in 1993 and 1994).
Through the years, the Angel Invitational would be held at various locations. The event moved to Washington Park in 1977, to Parkside in 1978, then back to Johnson Park from 1979 to 1982.
Then it moved to Pritchard Park from 1983 to 1990 before moving back to Parkside in 1991. The venue hasn’t changed since.
Because St. Catherine’s doesn’t have the size of team it once had, it will be represented only on the junior varsity level come Saturday. But it could be said that the brainstorm Greiten had 50 years ago this fall will be around for many more years to come.
“Just the number of kids who are there, the comments we get back and the number of teams that want to get in all the time, it’s quite regular,” St. Catherine’s athletic director Mike Arendt said. “You go down there and there are tents lined up all over the place, there are kids warming up ... it’s a great thing for cross country in the state of Wisconsin.”