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Strukel to make trek to UM-Morris

SETTING THE PACE — Blue Earth Area’s Grant Strukel (far right) takes the lead during the 3,200-meter run at the 2019 Section 2A track & field meet on Mankato West High School’s campus last spring in Mankato. Fairmont’s Will Saari (far left) keeps pace with the group. Strukel will utilize his long-distance running skills at the University of Minnesota-Morris in the fall. (Greg Abel/Sentinel Archives)

When a spindly freshman qualified for the Class A state cross country during the fall of 2016, Blue Earth Area High School long-distance mentor Tom Plocker knew he literally had a runner in the prep sport for the long haul.

Little did the Bucs’ legendary cross country and track & field coach realize the heights that Grant Strukel would attain in Plocker’s two athletic programs’ scoring charts.

“Grant closed out his (cross country) career as No. 4 all-time in our varsity club in school history,” Plocker said in reference to his specialized scoring system that’s existed for 30 years.

The 6-foot-3 Strukel steadily climbed and descended countless hills to earn all-Big South Conference accolades four consecutive years to complement advancing to the state cross country competition at St. Olaf College in Northfield four seasons in a row.

The long-striding Strukel covered the 5,000-meter course in Montgomery in a time of 16:18.1 to garner runner-up individual honors at the 2018 Section 2A Meet en route to a career-best mark in cross country.

“The sectional meet during his junior year was Grant’s crowning accomplishment,” said Plocker. “He went on to capture 28th place overall at state with a solid time of 16:42.9.

“Unfortunately, he had a rough go to begin his senior cross country season last fall.”

The long-and-lean Strukel got off the starting line in good shape, but seemed to be drained of energy less than halfway through the 3.1-mile courses during the first three or four cross country meets in 2019.

“We still don’t know what happened to me physically last fall,” said Strukel. “Maybe I overtrained during the summer or had a vitamin deficiency. Whatever it was, I ran fine at practice, but during a meet, my legs would die in the first mile.

“The most frustrating thing was I couldn’t build off the momentum from my junior year, but I fought my way through it.”

“Grant possessed a good mental perspective and literally stayed the course,” said Plocker. “Like all great athletes, he had to experience a tough time in his career and managed to bounce back down the stretch to qualify for state for a fourth consecutive time.”

Strukel managed to generate a time of 17:03.4 during the 5K state run to pocket 56th place overall last fall.

Once again, Strukel displayed his mettle by adapting to his changing role within Blue Earth Area head basketball coach Colby Swanson’s system on the hardwood court in 2019-20.

Strukel, who had started the majority of his games as a sophomore and a junior, proved instant offense in his dual role as the Bucs’ sixth man and part-time starter.

“Grant’s the most unselfish student-athlete I’ve ever coached,” said Swanson. “He bought into his role and our overall game plan this season, and proved a strong leader both on and off the floor.”

Strukel produced nearly five points per 20-minute outing and proved an integral factor behind Blue Earth Area’s late regular-season run and eventual ascent to the Section 2AA, South Sub-Section championship game.

A couple of weeks after capping his prep hoops career, Grant — along with parents Patti and Joe Strukel, and brother Carson — relocated to Forest City, Iowa, to get closer to his parents’ recently-changed career paths only a few days prior to the Minnesota State High School League’s moratorium on spring sports on March 13.

“We had just moved out of Huntley and were getting settled into our new place when the news about the pandemic hit,” said Grant. “Ironically, I was going to finish out my senior year at Blue Earth Area online before the shutdown, so not much changed there.

“On the down side, I thought we had a good chance at qualifying for True Team state again after making it my freshman year and then coming so close the last two years.”

Plocker agreed with Strukel’s preseason analysis, noting that his senior track & field standout was more concerned about the team aspect than individual success.

“Grant’s a team-first kind of student-athlete,” said Plocker. “He was our iron horse distance guy since our boys team had been a little thin in that area the last couple of seasons.

“Not only did I ask him to run the 1,600, 3,200 and a leg on the 4×4 (relay), but I also asked him to high jump in the true team meets,” said Plocker. “I only ask our top athletes to do that much, and he never complained once about the difficulty of doing all of those events in the same meet.

“That’s a key characteristic of Grant — he’s an ‘all-in’ for the good of the entire program.”

Now, with the MSHSL’s official cancellation of the entire 2020 spring sports campaign, Strukel can only look back at the indelible marks he left in the Bucs’ record books.

The three-time all-conference runner in the 3,200 and one-time 4×800 relay all-league honoree exits as the Blue Earth Area outdoor track program’s No. 7 all-time 2-miler and No. 10 1-miler.

But Strukel’s long-haul running days are far from over as he will run both cross country and track at Division III University of Minnesota-Morris next season.

“I went on a visit to Morris before my junior year of high school, met the coach (Tony Krueger), and kept in contact with him,” said Strukel. “I liked the campus size (nearly 1,600), their educational program is good, the price is right, and I like the direction the coach has their cross country and track programs going in, so it made my (collegiate) choice easy.”

The next steps for Strukel will be completing his seven-course academic load online en route to a virtual graduation, having a group cross country meeting on Zoom with his future Morris teammates, registering for college classes and hopefully, attending a cross country camp the first week of August.

So, what will Strukel miss about high school, beside his entire senior track & field season?

“I’ll miss competing against about seven or eight guys from the section from the last four years, but I’ll definitely miss Mr. Plocker,” said Strukel. “A lot of other aspects about high school can be replaced — I’ll always develop friendships with teammates and still get to compete in sports — but it’ll be hard to replace him.

“The way Mr. Plocker interacts with athletes, truly cares about everyone in both of the programs he coaches, and carries himself with dignity at and away from school is truly special.”

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