The Miracle in the Black Hills: A Coach, A Fallen Teammate and a Season for the Ages

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In July, Division II school Black Hills State lost rising senior Gage McSpadden in a tragic lightning accident. No one will ever forget how they responded.

By Jonathan Gault
December 3, 2015

The best season in the history of Black Hills State University cross country began as the worst season in the history of Black Hills State University cross country. It was July 12, a Sunday. Though there were a few clouds in the sky, temperatures were in the 80s with no inclement weather in the forecast — a nice day to be outside. Several members of the Black Hills State team, a Division II school located in Spearfish, S.D., decided to take advantage of the weather. Head coach Scott Walkinshaw went out to his driveway to wash his car. Junior Aaron Schone was out climbing with some friends in Spearfish Canyon. Senior Gage McSpadden thought it would be a good day for some disc golf (golf played with frisbees) and called up his friend Evan Strand, a recent BHSU alum. Along with McSpadden’s girlfriend, Tess Byrd, the two friends drove to Walmart to pick up a disc before heading out to the course at the mouth of Spearfish Canyon.

McSpadden, a walk-on to the BHSU team, was in the best shape of his life. He’d redshirted the 2014 XC season but after a breakthrough year on the track, running PRs of 4:30 (mile) and 15:26 (5,000), McSpadden was firmly focused on his goal of helping the Yellow Jackets earn the program’s first bid to the NCAA Championships that fall. The day before, he had driven 45 minutes down to Rapid City to run 12 miles with some teammates. Later that night, he called Walkinshaw to discuss the team’s upcoming running camp, where McSpadden, a steeplechaser, would demonstrate to campers how to perform a water jump.

“Gage and I would always talk a lot of trash back and forth, but that day he was in such good spirits,” Strand said. “I’d throw one into the bushes or way off the course and he’d say, ‘That’s all right buddy, you’ll get the next one.’ He was in incredibly high spirits that day.”

McSpadden had jumped out to a nine-stroke lead when a few raindrops began to fall on the course. Climbing in the canyon, Schone noticed the clouds moving in over Spearfish. A few minutes later, Walkinshaw saw a lightning strike in the distance and decided to move his car into the garage.

***

When Evan Strand came to, he was having trouble seeing. Strand had no vision in his left eye, and whatever details he could make out with his right one were blurry. As he picked himself up off the ground, he looked over at McSpadden, who was lying motionless on the ground. That was when everything clicked.

“I just knew we’d been struck,” Strand said. “We didn’t hear any thunder but for some reason I just knew.”

Normally the first strike in a thunderstorm is a warning; a sign to pack up and head back to the car. But the first strike in this storm hit Gage McSpadden (directly) and Evan Strand (indirectly). Once he realized what had happened, Strand rushed over to give McSpadden CPR, but his friend wasn’t responding. A group of nearby players called 911; after what seemed like forever, an ambulance arrived to transport McSpadden and Strand to Spearfish Regional Hospital (Byrd was unharmed).

Word quickly spread around the team that McSpadden and Strand had been hurt. For the past 14 years, the BHSU XC team has rented an off-campus house on Third Street, and McSpadden was living there at the time of the accident. When Gage McSpadden was around, the house was full of energy. That night, it was close to silent. Schone, along with roommates Kendall Murie and Joe Rath (also members of the team) stayed up late into the night pondering their teammate’s fate.

“A lightning strike is something you never think of,” Schone said. “I’d never had an encounter with it. I don’t think it really hit us…we kind of knew the extent of their injuries but we were pretty optimistic.”

McSpadden second from left celebrated his 5k PR in February with from left Murie, Seth Ulvested and Donnie Decker

McSpadden (second from left) celebrated his 5k PR in February with (from left) Murie, Seth Ulvested and Donnie Decker (photo courtesy Black Hills State XC)

On average, there are 20-25 million cloud-to-ground lightning strikes in the United States per year. Around 300 (just over a thousandth of a percent) of those strike a person. Even for those who are struck, the odds of dying are low — about 10 percent. According to the National Weather Service’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, there were an average of 33 reported deaths per year due to lightning strikes in the U.S. from 2004 to 2013.

Unfortunately, McSpadden’s injuries were serious. Upon being struck, McSpadden had lost consciousness. He had to be put on life support and the doctors at Spearfish Regional were unable to bring him back to consciousness. By Monday, he had been transported to the Burn and Reconstructive Center at the Swedish Medical Center outside of Denver. McSpadden’s father, Tyler, his step-mom, Candice, and his brother, Clayton, all sat in the waiting room as doctors ran a battery of tests on Gage. By 7 p.m. that night, the results came back: Gage had no brain function and would not regain consciousness. The family made the decision to take him off life support. The next day, Gage McSpadden died. He was 21 years old.

***

Scott Walkinshaw knew early on where his destiny lay.

“When I was a junior in high school, I knew I was going to be a college track coach,” Walkinshaw said. “I tell people I’ve never had a job. I was gonna coach until I was 85, die, be cremated and sprinkle my ashes on some track.”

Walkinshaw is the kind of guy who never forgets a PR. Speak to him about his program, and he transforms into talking track database.

“Zach [Kintzley] didn’t make it to state in cross, he was 12th in the two-mile, ran 9:57…Cody Bordewyk, he went 8:59, 4:14, two-time cross All-American…”

When Walkinshaw arrived in Spearfish in 1998, after stops at Orem (Utah) High School, Garden City (Kans.) Community College and Odessa (Tex.) College, there wasn’t any distance-running tradition to speak of at Black Hills State, at the time an NAIA school (the Yellow Jackets became a full member of NCAA Division II in 2013). In fact, there wasn’t much of a cross country team at all: Walkinshaw inherited precisely two male distance runners.

Walkinshaw quickly began assembling a team. While he was interviewing for the job at BHSU, Walkinshaw met a young man named Mike McDaniel, who was in the process of transferring from the University of Sioux Falls. McDaniel became Walkinshaw’s first recruit. Shortly thereafter, Walkinshaw received a tip from a hurdler on the team that Rob Marney, an athlete at Butler County (Kans.) Community College was interested in BHSU. Marney visited campus with Butler County teammate Tim Bishop, who was also looking to transfer. Marney was sold on the program, but Bishop needed more convincing. So at a meet one day, Marney made Bishop a deal: if he could stop a stopwatch on exactly one second, Bishop had to come with him to BHSU. Bishop agreed. Marney took out his watch and clicked down on it twice in rapid succession: 1.00 on the nose.

Bishop began protesting, trying to back out of the agreement. But a few weeks later Walkinshaw sat down with Bishop’s mom while he was out on a run, and won her over. That was that. Bishop was headed to Spearfish.

Bishop’s recruitment hinged on a game of chance; for Dennis Newell, Black Hills State was his last chance. Newell, who grew up in Billings, Mont., was 24 years old when Walkinshaw began recruiting him in 1999. Due to what he calls “a series of poor decisions,” Newell had already been kicked out of two colleges and hadn’t run track in high school — he’d been kicked off that team too. While Newell had also served three years in the U.S. Navy, he was still very much a risk when he applied to BHSU. Still, Newell had talent, and Walkinshaw chose to believe in him when Newell didn’t even believe in himself.

“I didn’t feel judged, I just felt like they opened the door for me,” Newell said. “It was a very life-changing time in my life because I was at a crossroads when I went there. I don’t even want to think about what the other direction would have been or where I’d be. But I directly credit everything I have in my life now to Black Hills State.”

Walkinshaw’s first couple of years were not easy. Newell recalls one meet where someone saw Black Hills State’s crappy uniforms and asked if they were a high school team. But by Walkinshaw’s third year, the program had turned around completely, led by the quartet of McDaniel, Marney, Bishop and Newell. In the fall of 2000, BHSU took second at the NAIA national meet in cross country; Walkinshaw was named NAIA Coach of the Year. That winter, the Yellow Jackets won their first national title, claiming the victory in the distance medley relay, with McDaniel on anchor.

The motto of Black Hills State University is “Where Anything Is Possible.” For the first time, Walkinshaw’s athletes came to believe it.

“I think [the DMR win] changed our mindset,” Newell said. “It changed from a chip on our shoulder to, ‘Hey, we’re here. We have arrived and people are going to respect us. We’re going to do this at a very high level now.’ I think that was the first moment where we saw we are capable of anything we want to achieve here.”

Between the men’s and women’s teams, Black Hills State won 16 Dakota Athletic Conference xc titles from 2000-2010. During that same span, the Yellow Jackets finished in the top five in the combined standings (men and women) at the NAIA XC Championships seven times. More than that, though, Walkinshaw built a culture — and people in Spearfish began to notice.

“We were appreciated and I think that’s really unique in our sport,” Newell said. “We walked around, the cross country team, and we felt appreciated by the community, by the staff, by the faculty. And that was really neat…We’re distance athletes, we’re used to not getting a pat on the back and I don’t expect it. But it’s really nice when it happens.”

***

The challenges Walkinshaw faced in building a program were nothing compared to the task that fell to him on the night of July 13. Shelby Stoltz, one of the athletes on the women’s team who had driven down to visit McSpadden in Denver, called Walkinshaw that night and delivered the news: Gage’s family was taking him off life support in the morning. Now Walkinshaw faced a million questions. How do I tell my athletes something like that? Should we even bother racing this fall? What would Gage have wanted?

Walkinshaw called the upperclassmen that night and instructed Mitch Kraft, a recent BHSU alum, to call the incoming freshmen. A few days later, the team loaded up into cars and made the five-hour drive to Gage’s hometown of Rawlins, Wyo., for the funeral. Over 500 people turned up, including dozens of BHSU athletes from the track and football teams (Gage’s brother, Clayton, played football at BHSU). Walkinshaw took a drive out to the Rawlins High School track to pay tribute to Gage. When he arrived, he noticed four of his runners doing the same thing.

BHSU’s annual running camp was in Spearfish the next week, and most of the team returned to campus to help out.

“I think that helped with the healing, just being around each other,” Walkinshaw said. “And I’m so glad we were because if we weren’t it would have been really tough. And I think there just kind of came that [sentiment of], ‘Man, we’re going to dedicate this season to Gage and see what we can do.'”

Walkinshaw started talking to Newell, now the head coach at the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D., and McSpadden’s story resonated with him. For Newell, Black Hills State cross country was a family, and even though he didn’t know McSpadden, he felt the need to do something.

“When something happens to one of our own, we’re going to do our best to take care of it,” Newell said. “I don’t know how to explain it. It’s family.”

Newell took it upon himself to spearhead fundraising efforts. He shot off 40 or 50 texts to former athletes and he and Walkinshaw began taking donations for a scholarship in McSpadden’s memory. In order for a scholarship to become endowed at BHSU, you need to raise a minimum of $10,000. The Gage McSpadden Memorial Scholarship reached that total within 24 hours. Steve Meeker, BHSU’s Vice President of University Advancement, handles the university’s endowed scholarships. He told Walkinshaw that in 25 years, he’d never seen a scholarship become endowed that quickly. As of now, the total stands at over $22,000. Almost $5,000 of it was raised at the inaugural Gage McSpadden “Sheriff” Memorial 5K race/3K walk, which was held on September 12, the day after BHSU’s home meet (which will now be known as the Gage McSpadden Memorial Invitational).

***

The main reason, Newell believes, that the scholarship was such a success was due to the strength of the BHSU family. And the main reason for the strength of the BHSU family is Walkinshaw.

“If it wasn’t for Walkinshaw, I don’t think people would have been as fortunate to really know Gage as a person,” said Strand, one of his closest friends on the team. “Just the way Walkinshaw runs his team, it just helps to build really strong relationships…Initially when Gage first got there he wasn’t extremely well-liked by the vast majority of the team because they thought he was trying really hard to get along with everyone.”

McSpadden would strike up a conversation with anyone and this turned some of his teammates off. Who is this freshman that won’t shut up? But after a while, they realized it wasn’t an act — McSpadden was just trying to be friendly. Eventually, he became Walkinshaw’s go-to host for recruits.

“By the end of the year, he was one of the most beloved members of the team,” Strand said.

Outgoing by nature, McSpadden wouldn’t hesitate to lend a helping hand. During his redshirt year, McSpadden was driving one of the team buses back from a meet in Gillette, Wyo., when he noticed a car stopped on the side of the road. McSpadden pulled over and spoke to the driver, who was out of gas and appeared to be suffering from dementia. McSpadden drove to the nearest gas station and returned with a can of gas, making sure the man could get home safely. A couple of years earlier, shortly after he moved to Spearfish, McSpadden was driving with a friend when he spotted a young woman on the side of the road, her car parked with a flat tire. McSpadden insisted they pull over, even though he didn’t know how to change a tire. Fortunately, his friend did. The girl got a new tire; Gage got her phone number.

McSpadden loved to spend time on the open road — Strand fondly recalls the time they re-enacted the film Smokey and the Bandit driving back from Denver one weekend — but his impact extended beyond a few distressed travelers. He tutored students in the library. During his sophomore year, when a teammate couldn’t afford a new pair of shoes, Gage bought them out of his own pocket. He’d play wingman on Saturday night trips to Besler’s Cadillac Ranch, where he’d teach teammates how to swing dance. On one of Gage’s last trips home to Rawlins, he told his father Tyler that he had decided to become an organ donor. Tyler disagreed with his son.

“When you’re in that condition,” Tyler said, “I’ll be in control. You came into this world with your organs, you’re leaving with them.”

“That’s not fair!” Gage countered.

The two argued for a while that night, neither willing to budge. A couple of weeks later, Tyler lost his wallet on a trip to Montana. After Gage sent him some money to get home, Tyler had to replace his driver’s license. And he realized that not only had it been silly to have argued with his son, but that Gage was right. Tyler is now listed as an organ donor.

Gage’s status as an organ donor became extremely important after his accident. Shortly after the family decided to take him off life support, Gage was wheeled into an operating room and prepped for surgery; it was important to harvest the organs as quickly as possible after the doctors pulled the plug. Gage’s kidneys saved the lives of two women in the Rocky Mountain region; doctors were also able to take skin grafts and Gage’s retinas went to the retina bank.

Reflecting on the experience, Tyler said. “I learned another thing from my son on how to live. It’s not supposed to be that way, but I think he did more teaching than I did.”

Gage also possessed a unique ability to motivate people; fitting, seeing as how he wanted to become a coach. When he died, Gage was studying for a master’s in kinesiology (he received his bachelor’s as a psychology major last year), working on research about how Special Olympic athletes respond to physical activity. At the cross country house on Third Street, he’d always be the first one up before a morning double, dashing from room to room to make sure his teammates got out there too.

“My freshman year, we wanted to get to nationals pretty bad and did not have a fifth guy,” Aaron Schone said. “Late one night at the cross house, we were just kind of hanging out. I had been our fifth guy once that year. Gage looked at me across the table and said, ‘Aaron, I need you to perform next week.’ It was the weekend before regionals. He said ‘We need you, we need a fifth guy. I think you need to get tough. I know you’re new, but you can do it.'”

Schone struggled at regionals — he finished 140th — but McSpadden had succeeded in lighting a fire in his belly. Every since then, Schone has been focused on getting the team to nationals at the NCAA DII level for the first time in program history.

Newell sums up McSpadden’s legacy best:

“I never met him. He’s not a school record holder and wasn’t an All-American. But I think the impact he had at BHSU was tremendous.”

***

On September 1, there was nothing to suggest that the 2015 Black Hills State cross country team would be the one to make history. Top runner Alec Baldwin (he’s heard all the jokes) finished 53rd at NCAAs last fall and ran 3:45 that spring, taking fourth at nationals in the 1500. But beyond Baldwin, there was little reason for optimism. BHSU finished 12th at the NCAA South Central Regional meet in 2014, nowhere close to an NCAA bid (the number of auto bids varies by region in DII as there are no at-large bids; the South Central Region gets six auto bids). And McSpadden’s death had taken more than an emotional toll — he was the team’s third man at regionals in 2013. His absence created a massive hole in both his teammates’ hearts and on BHSU’s depth chart. Entering the 2015 season, the Yellow Jackets didn’t receive a single vote in the USTFCCCA preseason coaches’ poll. Heck, they didn’t even appear in the 10-deep regional rankings.

Black Hills State’s roster was hardly stocked with blue-chip recruits — it’s hard to attract top talent with just 1.3 scholarships. Baldwin was a legitimate star, a 4:14 high school 1600 runner who fell into Walkinshaw’s lap. The son of two BHSU alums, Baldwin ran at Iowa State for three years but sought a transfer after coach Corey Ihmels left the program. During his stint at ISU, Baldwin’s father decided to buy a furniture store in Spearfish and moved the family there from Iowa. When Baldwin was looking for schools, he remembered Walkinshaw from his high school recruitment and elected to stay close to home. Freshman Jonah Theisen was the squad’s only other “big-time” recruit. A high school teammate of standout Boise State freshman Allie Ostrander (second at the NCAA Division I XC meet in November) from Kenai, Alaska, Theisen ran 4:16 and 9:23 in high school.

The rest of the team’s top returners read like the kind of ragtag bunch of spare parts you’d find in a sports movie. Sophomore Kendall Murie, a transfer from the University of Montana and the team’s #2 runner, owned high school PBs of 4:54 and 10:28. A member of the Chippewa Cree tribe, Murie danced at a pow wow on his visit to Black Hils State. Schone, a 2:02 800 man in high school, only decided to walk onto the team after running into his middle school coach, Gary Miller, at a meet. Miller told Schone he was wasting his talent by not competing. The next day, Schone set up a meeting with Walkinshaw. Sophomores Isaac Iverson and Josh Davis were solid runners in high school, but neither broke 9:50 for 3200 meters. Apart from Baldwin and Murie, no one on the team bettered 4:10 for 1500 or 15:38 for 5,000 last spring.

The Yellow Jackets were young, and if a few guys could capitalize on the traditional freshman-to-sophomore jump in fitness, they had a chance to surprise some people. But there was a reason they’d been snubbed in the polls: they were unproven.

***

The Yellow Jacket men after their victory at Roy Griak. Photo courtesy Black Hills State TF

The Yellow Jacket men after their victory at Roy Griak (photo courtesy Black Hills State T&F)

Flash forward to September 26, a sun-splashed 77-degree day at Les Bolstad Golf Course in Falcon Heights, Minn. The Yellow Jackets walk past a row of maroon and gold flowers, past a white picket fence and climb onto the yellow podium emblazoned with the massive University of Minnesota “M.” They’re here to collect they first-place trophy they earned earlier that day after upsetting No. 5 Augustana and No. 10 Wisconsin-Parkside to claim the team title in the Division II race. Led by Baldwin’s individual win (25:27), the Yellow Jackets put three men in the top 20, just enough to prevail in a tight battle in which the top three teams were separated by a mere five points. After claiming their prize and posing for pictures, the team descends the steps onto the surrounding grass.

Two years ago, McSpadden had inspired Schone with a late-night speech about becoming the team’s fifth man. Now that Schone had done just that (he was 39th overall, BHSU’s final scorer), he can no longer hold back the maelstrom of emotions raging within him.

“Coach, there should be one more guy here,” Schone tells Walkinshaw as they step off the podium, tears streaking down his face.

If it ended there, the story of Black Hills State’s 2015 season would have been a good one. The upset at Griak was the program’s biggest win since moving up to Division II and earned the Yellow Jackets their first-ever ranking in the USTFCCCA national coaches’ poll (No. 18). But they had bigger ideas. McSpadden’s entire running existence was pointed toward the 2015 NCAA Championships. It was more than a goal: it was a guarantee.

“He just told me, ‘Dad, you better get your tickets. We’re going to nationals this year,'” Tyler McSpadden said.

There’s no guide for how to respond when tragedy strikes a team. Nobody wanted to forget Gage McSpadden, but a crucial part of moving on is coming to terms with the loss. Spend too much dwelling on questions that will never be answered — Why him? Why now? — and you’ll drive yourself mad.

Gage was never far from their minds. In huddles, the team would break with a chant of “Gage!” on three. Before races or at practice, the team would share their favorite Gage stories or crack jokes they knew he would make. But they decided the best way to honor Gage was to devote themselves to his goal of making nationals.

“[Gage] definitely motivated a lot of us,” Murie said. “We tried not to let it affect us too much mentally to a point where it’s kind of hard to run, but we always kept him in mind.”

Walkinshaw and his men struck the perfect balance, remembering Gage while focusing on the season at hand. Unlike the win-at-all-costs mentality that pervades many Division I programs, BHSU’s history as an NAIA program allowed Walkinshaw to find the happy midpoint between the pursuit of athletic success and keeping his athletes loose. Walkinshaw has been known to cancel practice for a game of dodgeball if he feels his team is getting worn down; at Halloween, everyone on the team draws a name and has to find a comedic gift for that person.

Using that experience, Walkinshaw kept the Yellow Jackets focused in 2015 despite the lingering memory of Gage’s death. Even a disappointing showing at the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference meet, where Black Hills State finished 6th, did not deter them. Walkinshaw reassured his men by pointing out that every team that beat them came from a higher elevation than they did, a significant factor in a race held at 7,500 feet in Alamosa, Colo. The NCAA regional meet in Canyon, Tex., on November 7, would suit them much better. Canyon sits at 3,500 feet, Spearfish at 3,600.

Privately, though, Walkinshaw was worried. The South Central Region is Division II’s deepest. Colorado Mines and Adams State would go on to finish 1-2 at NCAAs this fall. Perennial power Western State was always favored to make nationals. That left just three auto spots at regionals (refresher: top 6 go, no at-large spots). To earn a bid , BHSU would have to beat at least one of the teams that had taken them down in Alamosa — and hold off Heartland Conference champs Oklahoma Christian and Lone Star Conference champs West Texas A&M. Walkinshaw called up Newell and told him that, based on their conference result, BHSU would likely wind up on the outside looking in back in seventh place.

“It was going to be a long shot going in,” Walkinshaw said.

***

Midway through the regional race, it was still looking that way. With their sights set firmly on an NCAA bid, the entire team had gone out hard, particularly Murie, who ran with Baldwin in the lead pack for the first 2.25-mile loop. The team began to fade, however over the second half of the race. Baldwin was his usual brilliant self, finishing sixth overall in 30:18, and though Theisen had closed tremendously in his first 10k to take 29th in 31:27, the feeling around the team was that the Yellow Jackets had given up too many places during the race’s middle stages.

“I kind of sat there and felt a little disheartened because I didn’t have a strong finish,” Murie said.

“As soon as I crossed that finish line, I walked off to the side and I sat down,” Schone said. “I was really nervous and I just felt it was way too close.”

He began to think about Gage.

“I just kept telling myself, over and over, ‘I’m sorry. I did what I could and I hope it was good enough.'”

Eventually, the squad regrouped with Walkinshaw, some parents and several shirtless, chest-painted teammates who had driven over 12 hours from Spearfish to lend their support. Grad assistant Scott Foley approached Walkinshaw and told him he thought they were eighth. Then the results were posted. Another assistant coach, Seth Mischke, went over to check and tried to signal BHSU’s place with his fingers. To Foley and Walkinshaw, it looked as if Mischke was holding up seven fingers.

Oh no, thought Walkinshaw. It’s going to be a looong trip home.

“And then Alec’s dad walks by and says, ‘Hey, we’re sixth,” Walkinshaw recalls. “I can’t describe the exhilaration.”

The BHSU men and women after the South Central Regional meet

The BHSU men and women after the South Central Regional meet (photo courtesy Scott Walkinshaw)

As expected, Adams State, Colorado Mines and Western State all qualified easily. Metro State, who had lost to Black Hills State at conference, was fourth, with West Texas A&M fifth. And with 200 points, the sixth and final NCAA berth went to BHSU, who avenged conference defeats to Colorado Mesa (7th, 215) and UC-Colorado Springs (9th, 231) to earn their spot.

Any nerves, any doubts, any regrets among the BHSU athletes were replaced by feelings of pure joy. They had come through for their coach, for themselves and for their fallen teammate. Walkinshaw’s first call went to his wife. His second went to Tyler McSpadden.

“He called me and said ‘We did it, we’re going to nationals!’ and I just started to break down,” Tyler said. “I said, ‘I knew it Coach, Gage said you were going to do it.’ He said, ‘I know you did.’ Coach kept talking because he knew I couldn’t…I just cried and told Coach, ‘Great job.’ It’s an unbelievable job of coaching to keep them focused on what they needed to do through this kind of turmoil.”

The significance of BHSU qualifying in Canyon — the site of Gage’s last and best cross country race two years earlier — was not lost on the team. Gage’s favorite place on that trip was Braum’s, a burger and ice cream joint in Amarillo, and that became Celebration HQ for the men of Black Hills State. Later, the boys went to an IMAX showing of Spectre before rising early for a 7 a.m. run the next day.

It was a historic day for Black Hills State, the best possible way to honor Gage. But the Yellow Jackets’ story still wasn’t over. After the race, Baldwin had approached Foley and asked “So now what do we do?” The plan had always been to get to nationals. Now that they were actually going, what should they shoot for?

As usual, Walkinshaw made the right move. He gave his men a few days to themselves to recover from the emotional regional meet before addressing NCAAs, to be held in Joplin, Mo., on November 21. After talking it over with the team, they settled on four goals:

  • Finish higher than their national ranking (22nd)
  • Finish higher than their highest national ranking earlier in the season (17th)
  • Beat one of the five teams who beat them at the South Central Regional
  • Have Alec Baldwin earn All-American honors

The Yellow Jackets achieved all four, running the best race in program history to take 14th at NCAAs thanks to an incredible final two miles that saw BHSU’s top four pick up a combined 63 places. They beat not one, but three of the teams that beat them at regionals (the other two, Colorado Mines and Adams State, went 1-2) and almost had two All-Americans — Baldwin took 9th, while Murie ran the race of his life to finish 43rd (top 40 are All-American), moving up from 136th at 2k and 69th at the halfway point.

“I don’t think people realize from a coaching standpoint how tremendously difficult it is to go to nationals two weeks later and run better,” Newell said. “You had the emotional high of qualifying for nationals [for the] first time, that emotional peak. There’s a little sense of we accomplished our goal, we got to nationals…But because [Gage] didn’t have the opportunity to do this, [they were] not going to blow this opportunity. [They said], ‘We’re going to take advantage of it’ and he’s going to be looking down on it saying, ‘That’s exactly what I expected, guys.'”

***

Courtesy Clayton McSpadden

Photo courtesy Clayton McSpadden

The 2015 season may be over, but what the Yellow Jackets accomplished will echo in eternity. Once a two-man NAIA “team,” Black Hills State is now a D-II school on the rise, one that returns all but one runner from this year’s top seven (Baldwin is the exception). Gage’s inspiration lives on, too, with another race in mind: Tyler, who weighed 320 pounds when his son passed away, wants to run in Gage’s 5K memorial race in Spearfish next year. He’s already down to 280.

“Gage asked me more than a few times to lose weight to be around for his sister [Cheyenne, who is two years old],” Tyler said. “He said, ‘Please lose weight so you don’t die [early]. So that’s what I’m trying to do: lose weight so I can be a good dad to Cheyenne, because that’s basically the only thing he ever asked of me.”

Gage won’t be forgotten in Spearfish, either. The scholarship fund is still accepting donations and will be awarded for the first time next year. Gage’s yellow adidas racing spikes sit in Walkinshaw’s office, a reminder of a goal fulfilled after a life cut short. After meeting every goal, Walkinshaw has just one more wish: a heavenly conversation with his most gregarious athlete.

“It’s surreal that it happened and it’s still kind of surreal that we responded and had the season we did,” Walkinshaw said. “It’s still like a dream. And I’d love to sit down with Gage and talk about the national meet. Even though he knows [what happened], he would love to talk about it.”


If you would like to make a donation to the Gage McSpadden Memorial Scholarship, you can go to this link and specify that you want your donation to go to the Gage McSpadden Memorial Scholarship. Alternately, you can send your contribution by mail to Yellow Jacket Foundation, Attn:  Gage McSpadden Scholarship, Unit 9506, Spearfish, SD 57799-9506.


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