SOMERS — It was a late summer party on a sun-splashed, warm Saturday morning.
OK, maybe it wasn’t so much of a party for the sweat-soaked runners, many of whom were gasping from the heat as they crossed the finish line at UW-Parkside’s Wayne E. Dannehl National Cross Country Course. A few even collapsed after finishing and were immediately attended to by medical personnel.
But what a spectacular event the 50th running of the Angel Invitational was, right down to 78-year-old Bill Greiten, the man who conceived of it in the fall of 1968, being on hand. Greiten, coach of the St. Catherine’s boys cross country team at the time, organized an invitational his own powerhouse team could host, but ended up taking over the Case cross country program in 1969 — a few months before the first Angel Invitational was held.
“You get to be a part of the 50th event,” said Horlick’s Steven Cannalte, who was 67th in 18:37.8. “I liked it. It was nice.”
Joining Greiten were so many others who were a part of this event’s history.
There was Tom Scheller, St. Catherine’s coach since 1974 who has kept the Angel Invitational alive and well. There was Chuck Wood, St. Catherine’s coach from 1969-73 who bridged the Greiten and Scheller eras.
There were some former champions from St. Catherine’s, such as Jeff DeMatthew (1973) and John Polzin (1984 and ‘85). Even 1969 St. Catherine’s graduate Mike Lawless, one of the great distance runners in Racine County history, drove from his home in St. Paul, Minn., to be on hand.
And then there was 1973 St. Catherine’s graduate Pete Henkes, another former Angels runner and a long-time race organizer, overseeing the hundreds of runners who competed Saturday.
The first Angel Invitational was a small affair held at the H.F. Johnson Park course Sept. 27, 1969. Nearly a half century later, 39 programs converged in Somers, including seven from Racine County, to compete on what is widely considered one of the finest cross country courses in the nation.
This event has not only lasted, but continued to grow. Wood, who coached St. Catherine’s in the first Angel Invitational in 1969, continues to be amazed.
“It’s unbelievable,” Wood said. “I don’t think people understand the magnitude of the Angel Invitational. Thanks to Greiten’s vision in starting the whole thing, it’s just unbelievable.
“We were reminiscing how Pete Henkes and his group and Tom Scheller have elevated this to a level where it’s probably in the top two or three in the state of Wisconsin.”
In a twist of appropriate fate, Sylvia Hanson of Gillett was the overall girls winner, covering the 5,000-meter course in 19:22.4. Greiten coached the Gillett program for several years after his retirement from Case in 1995.
The boys champion was Ian Nadolski of Mukwonago, who finished in 16:04.5.
Several county runners had strong performances. In the boys race, Union Grove junior Kevin Hall was the top county boys finisher, finishing 17th in 17:13.3. Kyle DeRosier of Burlington was 31st in 17:35.3), Vincent Guardiola of Prairie was 36th in 17:35.3 and Nathan Voge of Union Grove was 50th in 18:12.4.
The only county top-50 finisher in the girls race was Olivia Pitrof of Horlick, who was 21st in 21:42.4.
While many of the parents of the athletes who competed Saturday weren’t even born when the first Angel Invitational was held, those competing Saturday still understood the significance of it.
“This is very unique,” DeRosier said. “The only meet I’ve been to like this is the Wisconsin state meet. I ran here, actually, last week and it was nowhere near this size and there was not as much competition.
“I think this is great. It’s a big, nice course. It’s hilly and it’s supposed to be difficult and it was. I think this is fascinating because it brings new opponents and new challenges.”
Girls entrants were equally impressed, including Pitrof.
“This is so much more exciting to see teams coming from all over and are teams that are public and private,” she said. “It was really fun.”
Catholic Central’s Emma Klein, who was 165th (27.08.5) agreed, saying, “You have over 300 competitors for JV and over 200 for varsity, so it’s just great competition overall. And you get to race against bigger schools and smaller schools, so you see what each division has.”
Perhaps the biggest thanks for everything that went on Saturday should go to Scheller, who has been the heart of soul of the Angel Invitational for nearly 45 years.
“Coach Scheller has done a great job with it and I’m very proud of the fact that I went to St. Catherine’s and they have this event here yet,” DeMatthew said.