Four decades later, cross country coach passes a memorabilia baton

Former members of Coach Mark Parish's 1980 girls cross country championship team are encouraged to reach out.
1978 Wisconsin State Journal clipping black and white photo of two runners side by side, student Sarah Docter on left and coach Mark Parish on right.
Wisconsin State Journal newspaper clipping.
Madison Memorial student Sarah Docter with coach Mark Parish in 1978.

When I met Mark Parish for a cup of coffee in Madison last week, I figured I would get stories.

A former Madison public school teacher and coach, Parish, now 84 and living in Clearwater, Fla., was what we in the newspaper business called “good copy.”

My journalist friend Rob Zaleski featured the outspoken Parish in numerous Capital Times columns, critiquing the education system and what he viewed as overly aggressive youth sports coaches.

Last week, Parish didn’t disappoint. He told a few colorful tales. But he also insisted I accept a bulky package of photographs and newspaper clippings from a state cross country meet four decades ago, when his Madison Memorial girls’ team pulled an upset for the ages.

More on that momentarily.

When Parish sent me a note recently from Florida saying that he and his wife, Jessica, would be visiting Madison, I had to think a bit to recall how I’d first met him. It was in June 2000, and somebody told me Parish had built a golf course in his backyard in rural Mazomanie and was hosting a Father’s Day tournament.

It was extraordinary, both the course and the tournament. Parish himself was a gifted golfer, a junior champion growing up in Wausau, later the winner of the Madison Public Links tournament. When Pleasant View opened in Middleton, Parish shot a course record 65.

By 2000, he wasn’t playing much golf. But one day walking his property with a ball and club, Parish had an epiphany: If he cleared some trees, imported white silicon sand and overseeded bent grass to sculpt greens, he could build a course. It took 18 months. Parish did it all himself, other than removing the trees. Five holes, par 19.

Father’s Day 2000, 30 friends — “people who love golf for the right reasons” — teed it up. Parish announced them on the first tee. He got high school varsity golfers to caddy.

Pete Bauer, a local driftwood sculptor, won with a one under par 18. Bauer soon moved to the coast of Oregon, where he and his wife opened a gallery and Pete caddied at the legendary Bandon Dunes golf resort.

Parish’s orbit was wide-ranging. He was teaching English at Madison Memorial in the early 1980s when one of his students, Todd DeVries, blind since birth, said he’d like to compete in the national cross country skiing championships held by the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes. DeVries was a good athlete, a competitive swimmer.

But for skiing, DeVries said, “I don’t have a guide.”

“Now you do,” Parish said.

DeVries, with Parish guiding, won first place and the gold medal in both the 5 and 10-kilometer skiing events in 1982.

It was two years earlier, fall 1980, when Parish had what was likely his most memorable coaching experience. He took his Madison Memorial girls cross country team to his hometown of Wausau to compete in the WIAA state meet. Varsity sports for girls and women was in its infancy.

“I had to fight to get uniforms,” Parish recalled when we spoke last week.

In Wausau, his athletes included Karen Harris; Sarah Docter (later a world-class speedskater); Lucy Harrington; Sarah Wolberg; Kristi Ninneman; Julie Lacke; and Sue Shinnicks. One of their top runners, Katie Ishmael, didn’t compete in Wausau due to illness.

The race was held on Wausau’s American Legion Golf Club course — the course where Parish learned to play golf as a boy.

He gave an interview to the Wausau Daily Herald: “I had been the [boys] distance coach at Madison Memorial and I quit in 1973. But I told them if the girls ever needed a coach for any sport, that I would volunteer because girls had been shortchanged for so long. And I love doing it.”

The girls from Neenah, ranked at the top all season, were the heavy favorite. But a Nov. 2, 1980, story in the Wisconsin State Journal told what happened: “Madison Memorial’s Big Eight Conference champions, led by Karen Harris, Sarah Docter and Lucy Harrington, stunned favored Neenah and captured the Class A girls’ cross country championship….”

The photo that accompanied the State Journal story was of a runner from Slinger, Cathy Branta, who won the individual title in Class B with the meet’s best time. (Small world: I interviewed Branta recently for my book on Kit Saunders-Nordeen, the first director of women’s athletics at UW-Madison. Branta starred for the Badgers, who won the 1984 NCAA women’s cross country championship.)

In Wausau, Parish was thrilled — for his team, not himself. “They take victory well and they take defeat gracefully,” he told the Wausau paper. “We had three in the top 10 and have only two seniors.”

To me last week, Parish said, “They were a classy group of young women.”

Coach Mark Parish Today in a black t-shirt and red visor.

Coach Mark Parish today in a photo by Jessica Parish.

Coach Mark Parish today.

We’d been perusing an amazing trove of photographs and news stories of the team and their accomplishments. Parish said he wished he could share it with the athletes, all now likely in their mid to late 50s.

Which is how, after an extended discussion, I wound up with the bundle of memorabilia. “I’m going back to Florida,” he said.

If anyone connected with that 1980 championship team is interested in it, they can reach me through my website.

I’d told Parish people might be more interested in reconnecting with him. He thought a moment and said folks could write him, giving this address: P.O. Box 715, Safety Harbor, FL.

It was nice to see him. Nice to know he’s still good copy.

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