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Distraction-free world helps Blue Jay runners dominate in mid-90s

The Jamestown High School girls cross country team has garnered 10 state championships since 1969.

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The Jamestown High School cross country team won four state titles in the 1990s. Gardner (middle row, first from left) went on to compete for the University of North Dakota. She also helped to coach the Blue Jay cross country team the last seven years.
Contributed / Jamestown High School
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A life without distractions helped to fuel four straight state championship runs for the Jamestown High School girls cross-country team.

"My teammates were very gifted and dedicated," Jessica (Neva) Gardner, said. "There wasn't as many distractions as there is now. It's hard for kids today to focus on one sport but back then — that's kind of all we did."

The Blue Jays garnered six state titles in the 90s, beginning with a pair in 1991 and 1992 followed by the four consecutive titles in 1994, '95, '96 and '97. Gardner was a member of the Blue Jays' 1994-'97 state championship teams.

There have been 14 Jamestown High School girls sports teams who have come home with a state championship trophy since 1969. The Blue Jay girls cross-country team collected ten state titles from the years 1969 to 1997.

The last state title a Jamestown High School girls team has brought home was in 2013 when the Jamestown High School volleyball team took down Bismarck Century in the state finals.

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"Russ Schmeichel was the coach at that time and he saw me running in gym class around the gym and pulled me aside and asked me if I was in any sports," Gardner said. "I wasn't really involved in any sports at that time and he said 'you hop like a bunny when you run, you should try cross-country.' I said, 'OK, what's that?'

"I had tried some other things like volleyball and baseball and I just was not coordinated. I personally love running and at that point, in seventh grade, I didn't know that there was a sport where you could just run."

Gardner began running competitively the summer prior to her seventh grade year but just a couple of weeks prior to the cross-country season starting, Gardner broke her ankle. She was able to recover in time to run track and field in the spring of 1995 and then made a go at cross-country again that fall.

"I think what kept me with it was that I loved running and Coach Schmiechel was absolutely wonderful and my teammates were great as well," Gardner said. "They were equally as dedicated as I was. We did some pretty awesome things backs in the 90s."

Schmeichel coached track and field and cross-country in Jamestown for 32 years from 1974 to 2006. He was named state high school coach of the Year in 1977. In 1982 he was named District Cross-Country Coach of the Year and was a nominee for the National honor.

Schmeichel was inducted into the North Dakota High School Track and Field Coaches Association's Hall of Fame in 2010. Schmeichel, who led the Blue Jays to 20 cross-country state championships, already is also a member of the North Dakota High School Coaches Hall of Fame and the University of Jamestown Hall of Fame.

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A Jamestown High School cross country runner competes in a race. The Blue Jays found great success in cross country under head coach Russ Schmeichel who coached the Jays from 1974 to 2006.
Contributed / Western Dakota Association

Schmeichel competed in cross-country and track and field at the University of Jamestown. In track, Schmeichel was indoor NAIA All-American in 1969 in the 800 yard dash. Upon induction he held school records in the indoor 600 and 800 meter dashes and the outdoor record in the 400 meter hurdles.

Schmeichel remained competitive after graduation and in 1986 he was the North Dakota-South Dakota District Time Trail and Road Racing cycling champion- Veteran’s Division and was also voted number one Master Tri-athlete in the upper mid-west. In 1987 he was the national champion indoor 600 and 1000 yard runs (Masters) and became the American record holder in the 1000 yard run. At the Drake Relays in 1987 he set the Masters half-mile record.

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"Coach Schmeichel kept us motivated," Gardner said. "(Current JHS Coach Ken) Gardner says that he thinks we were so good because Coach Schmeichel was kind of ahead of the times with the summer running we did, going to running camp and running at elevation and stuff like that."

Gardner said Schmeichel took the Blue Jay runners to running camp in Buffalo, Wyoming. The Blue Jay cross-country team still goes to Wyoming each summer for running camp.

Whatever type of training Gardner and her teammates went through during their six years in Jamestown was all worth it.

"I remember getting to go up on the stand with my whole team and celebrate," Gardner said. "I remember how happy that we were state champions."

You don't get to be a four-time state champ without putting in the work thought.

"Every year that I was competing we were state champions so it felt like a lot of pressure just because, at that point, there is not anywhere to go but down," Gardner said. "We put that pressure on ourselves — sometimes to be a good distance runner you have to be the hardest on yourself and you don't need that outside pushing.

"It probably felt more special at the end because I knew more. My first year in it — I didn't know what was going on, I didn't know that it was special to be all-state or all-conference — I just ran and did what my coaches said. The older I got, the more special it became."

Gardner went on to run in college, competing in cross-country and track and field at the University of North Dakota.

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In 1999, Gardner was a part of UND's NCAA fourth place team. She ended up 11th at the 1999 NCAA national meet and placed fourth at the 2000 NCC cross country meet and eighth in the region championship. A year later, Gardner was a member of the NCAA national runner-up team and placed 17th at the 2000 NCAA Championships.

In 2001 Gardner earned All-American cross-country honors with an 18th place finish at 2001 national meet. She missed the 2001 NCC cross-country meet due to illness but placed 12th at the regional meet.

Gardner was named a three-time NCAA cross-country All-American, three-time All-North Central Region selection and two-time All-North Central Conference selection.

Since graduating and taking on post-college life, Gardner has deemed herself as an "intermittent serious runner." Most recently, Gardner completed her goal of running the Boston Marathon.

She has also been on the coaching side of things, serving as the assistant coach for the Blue Jay cross-country team for the last seven years.

"My first couple of years of coaching, I would get so nervous like I thought I had to compete," Gardner said. "It was the same feeling because some of the races were in the same places that we would run. That died down the more I coached and now I just want everyone on the team to do well and improve and work hard."

In her time spent on the sidelines, Gardner was able to coach up her fair share of gifted athletes and give them the benefit of her experience.

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Jamestown's Meghan Ford runs on the Parkhurst trail system Saturday, Aug. 22, 2020, at Pipestem during the first cross country meet of the season. John M. Steiner / The Sun

"My first assistant year of coaching cross country, Meghan (Ford) was a seventh grader and I actually ran with her that winter after her seventh grade year to get her in shape for track. I told her back then that just because she was from Jamestown, it didn't mean that she couldn't do great things.

"She was already gifted but I told her that if she put in the work she would be able to beat people from all over the state."

Ford now runs for Furman University, a Division I institution out of Greenville, South Carolina. Ford ended her North Dakota prep running career as a five-time state champion in track and field and a three-time champion in cross country.

Ford isn't the only Blue Jay who Gardner has put the time and effort into.

"My second daughter, Brooklyn, is on the team so that's been kind of fun," Gardner said. "She doesn't really like to take coaching from her mother — she's kind of funny that way.

"There are so many other things these days that kids can read with the internet and stuff like that. Kids look up to athletes and they can go online and read their training plans and stuff like that — so she only kind of takes coaching from me."

Gardner won't be coaching the Blue Jays this fall but said that she is excited what the crop of 2022-23 athletes will do this season.

Particularly for the female athletes, Gardner said that as the girls mature physically, their workload and focus will have to increase but if they remain focused, they will likely be among some of the toughest athletes in the West Region — just like she and her teammates were some 20-odd years ago.

"They were top-notch kids," Gardner said of her former teammates. "Russ Schmeichel was ahead of his time with his training ideas and that kind of thing and that helped and I see that coming back. There's a lot of athletes around here that are pretty bright. We just need to keep them focused and dedicated in this new world."

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Russ Schmeichel's 34 years of coaching, he helped guide the Blue Jays to 20 cross country state championships.
Contributed / Western Dakota Association

Katie Ringer is a sports reporter for the Jamestown Sun. Katie joined the Sun staff in the summer of 2019 after graduating from the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire with a degree in journalism. She can be reached by email at kringer@jamestownsun.com or by phone at 701-952-8460.
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