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Plocker earns Hall of Fame call

HEADING TO THE HALL — Blue Earth Area head cross country coach Tom Plocker (right) stands with state individual competitor Grant Strukel (middle) and assistant coach Will Howieson (left) at the 2016 state cross country meet. Strukel is one of a long list of runners Plocker coached to the state meet, helping his resume for the Minnesota Cross Country Coaches Associaition Hall of Fame, which Plocker will join on August 10. (Photo courtesy of Tom Plocker)

Every Blue Earth Area cross country meet in the fall, the same sight can be seen.

BEA head coach Tom Plocker running around the course with his camera getting photos of his competitors and cheering them on.

“Photography has always been a big deal for me since I was in high school,” Plocker said. “… this was before the digital age obviously. So I had my own darkroom and really loved that type of thing and I think that was just kind of a natural thing with cross country. It’s a sport where we could take lots of pictures of the kids and I think kids appreciated that. … trying to honor and encourage the kids in that manner. It’s been really neat now with the expanded, you know, websites and things like that the kids can be encouraged and motivated by seeing their picture and their pictures of friends and things like that.”

Plocker said his love of photography fit perfectly with his idea that the most important aspect of coaching is being yourself.

His coaching style of encouragement and being himself has helped lead Plocker to a long coaching career in Blue Earth, one that is now being recognized for its success.

Plocker is joining the Minnesota Cross Country Coaches Association Hall of Fame class of 2020 on August 10. He’ll join other area coaches Bob Bonk of Fairmont (2003) and Kent Viesselman of United South Center (2000) in the Hall.

“I was blessed to be surrounded from the east and west by of course Bob Bonk in Fairmont and Kent Viesselman at Wells and later at USC. Those two guys are two of the greatest cross country and track and field coaches the state of Minnesota has ever known. So I don’t know if I was blessed or cursed to have those guys, who are actually both Blue Earth natives as well believe it or not, but I just learned so much from those guys and their friendship and their competitiveness. I’m really honored by that.”

Plocker has coached in Blue Earth for 33 years in both track & field and cross country. He grew up in Blue Earth and traveled to St. Paul to attend Bethel College, which is where he met eventual Heron Lake-Okabena head cross country coach Gary Hildebrant, the man who would nominate Plocker for the Hall of Fame.

“I have known Tom Plocker since his high school days, watching him run was very memorable,” Hildebrandt said of Plocker in his Hall of Fame nomination form. “… Tom is one of the hardest workers in and out of the classroom. … Great athletes or average, he is always positive toward them. Watching him interact with his runners before, during and after meets has taught me much, every athlete gets attention every meet.”

“We were actually college roommates for a time at Bethel College up in St. Paul,” Plocker said of Hildebrant. “… I know that he’s kind of the epitome of positiveness and enthusiasm to be sure, I think toward everybody that he interacts with. So that was really nice and gracious words on his part. I’m grateful for that.”

Plocker will be inducted into the Hall during a virtual ceremony from 11 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. August 10.

He earned his spot through the success of his program the past three decades.

Plocker has led Blue Earth Area’s girls cross country program to nine state appearances, including a stretch of three consecutive showings from 1993-1995 and another of four consecutive from 2005-2008. His girls team placed in the top 10 during two of those appearances.

He also led the boys team to three state appearances, finishing seventh in 2002, ninth in 2004 and fifth in 2005.

He has overseen six total top-10 placements by individuals as well. Plocker coached Jenny Davis to an eighth-place finish in 1994. The other five came on the boys side between Daniel Murray and Dan Ristau. Murray placed second in 2005, ninth in 2004 and 10th in 2003, while Ristau finished third in 2002 and ninth in 2001. Along with the top-10 finishes, Plocker has coached 21 runners to a top-50 finish.

That success might not have happened if Plocker had followed the paths he thought he was going down in both high school and college.

“I really have to give a lot of credit to my high school coach Dave Johnson,” Plocker said of what got him into coaching. “I was really big into football as a wishbone quarterback back in the 70s. And I thought that’s what was going to be my destiny. Then he got me to participate in a track meet, I think when I was in eighth grade, I was also big into baseball. And from the first time I competed in a track meet I was hooked and it was all track for the remainder of my years, and I kept playing football. Then I think I grew to love running when I would run from our old high school, which is kind of more downtown Blue Earth, to the track, which is about a mile away, and I kind of, even though I was mainly a sprinter in high school, I really kind of grew to love the warming up and cooling down and I would run to the track and back.

“And of course, Dave Johnson was also the cross country coach and certainly I really admired him. His knowledge, but more his just … his love of cross country and track and how much he cared for his athletes and so I was really drawn to that, too. So when I went out for cross country when I was a junior in high school, probably didn’t hurt that I was not that great a football player and our football team at the time was only OK, but our cross country team was definitely on an upward trajectory. They had won state the year before I went out so that probably has something to do with the two but certainly more my high school coach Dave Johnson.”

In college, Plocker considered coming back to Blue Earth to farm, or going into the seminary, but he said ultimately the good memories from high school sports brought him into coaching.

Plocker said he is fortunate to have a long list of assistant coaches he needs to thank. He said he wanted to thank assistant coaches Gary Agren, Chris Detert, Dan Ristau, Stacie Hassing, Will Howieson and Bjorn Olson as well as BEA athletic director Rob Norman.

He also gave a special thank you to his wife Becky.

“She really held things together with our family when I was putting in tons of hours coaching,” Plocker said. “And she has a very demanding job as well. I am extremely blessed to have her as a wife.”

As he looks back on the past three decades of coaching, Plocker said the top successes, state teams and high-placing state individuals, stick out in his memory, but his gratification has come more from watching the growth of other athletes.

“I suppose the headline successes, those are important and nice but I think the lesser known behind-the-scenes kids, they’re the really gratifying thing about cross country as well,” Plocker said. “I think cross country is the finest of all the high school sports, obviously I’m biased, but I think it’s the finest because everybody can do it. And some other sports, everybody can do those too, but the kids that really get to play or perform are probably kids that are very talented, athletic wise or they’ve been in those sports for many years. Cross country though, doesn’t have to be that way. The novice person or the person who is not that great a runner can still gain very much and participate for sure too in the sport of cross country.”

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