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For the entirety of the Neligh-Oakdale cross country program, there has always been one person associated with Warrior cross country. That person is taking a step back and passing the torch on.
In a letter to the administration, Rick Eickholt officially announced last week that he is stepping down as head cross country coach. In a phone call with the N-O administration the next day, they confirmed Eickholt’s resignation.
“I’ve looked for a way to lessen some of my school responsibilities the last couple of years,” Eickholt stated. “I didn’t want to give up the cross country program unless I knew I would be able to move it on to someone who is interested, knowledgeable and someone who would work hard to keep the program working.”
Athletes across Eickholt’s 25-year coaching career reflected on the impact their coach had on their athletic careers.
“He has been a really big mentor for me,” said N-O senior Cole Belitz. “I can talk to him about anything I need to. He’s the one that got me going with cross country. After junior high I was going to do football, but thought I was too tiny to do football. So I wasn’t going to do anything in the fall. Then he came to my house and convinced me give cross country a try. He constantly helped me improve, was never negative, always positive and he is really nice. You can talk to him about anything, whether it’s track and cross country, or just anything.”
Starting the program
Eickholt has been a staple of Neligh-Oakdale athletics and joined the Warrior teaching staff as an elementary teacher in 1985.
In the early 1990s, the Warrior track and field coaches decided to convince the school to start a cross country program to improve the distance portion of the track team.
“I did all of the leg work and getting the program started. I thought our distance coach for track and field was going to be the head cross country coach,” Eickholt said. “I wasn’t expecting to be the cross country coach, but I’ve learned to love it. I was not a distance runner in high school. I was a sprinter, jumper and hurdler and, unfortunately, I still have that mentality from time to time. That’s why it was so great to have another distance person to talk about workouts and other things. I thoroughly enjoyed my time as the cross country coach. I got to know some wonderful people, I’ve had some wonderful young men and women to work with, I’ve seen some outstanding athletes in the area and around the state and it’s been a positive experience all the way around.”
Since the inaugural season in 1994, the Neligh-Oakdale cross country program has grown and improved to become one of the most competitive cross country programs in the area.
“The growth that I have seen in the program is shown in the competitiveness and ability of younger runners,” said 1997 N-O graduate Jeff Carpenter. “Course and all-time records continue to fall. I’m not sure if I am even in the Top 10 of anything anymore.”
Time To Retire
Eickholt waited to pass the baton to the right person to take over the program as assistant coach, Kali Bohling is now tasked with the leading the program. Coach Bohling brings a whole different perspective as far as her experiences as an athlete and coach. “I expect the program to do nothing but continue to grow and improve,” Eickholt said.
Bohling said she appreciated the advice Eickholt gave during her two years of volunteer and assistant coaching.
“It’s been a great opportunity to work under coach Eickholt,” Bohling said. “It’s been a great learning opportunity to see how he’s run his program, from a coach who’s been in the business for a long time. How he works with athletes and how he presents information to the athletes before a meet, is something I’ll take away and look to incorporate next year.”
Eickholt has coached seven conference champions, 69 all-conference runners, 19 state qualifiers, the 2013 girls team state qualifying and one state medalist.
“He is the one who started the program and it’s been his from the beginning,” Bohling added. “He has been the only one behind the wheel. The culture he has built, is something the athletes take a lot of pride in. The foundation has been laid really well.”
Eickholt’s final season was a special year. Numerous records fell and there were several program firsts, including the school’s first state medalist.
“It was really special,” Eickholt noted. “It has been something we had as a goal at day one, to bring home a medalist at the state meet. We didn’t really advertise that a great deal, but it didn’t take long once we were into the season to realize that had a real strong possibility of becoming a reality. Because of Cole and Emma’s (Bixler) hard work, they both had great seasons. Probably the two greatest individual seasons in school history. That makes it a lot easier to say, ‘Hey, this is the right time to move on.’ ”
Eickholt capped his coaching career with Bixler and Belitz each winning an individual conference crown and earning a state qualification. Belitz captured a state medal and a spot on the podium with a 12th-place finish at the state meet.
“It’s pretty cool,” Belitz said on ending Eickholt’s career with a state medalist. “I knew going into this year this was going to be his last year as head coach. Our goal was to make state as a team because he’s never had a boys team qualify. But we got thrown into a really hard district. We realized that chance went down a lot, but being able to go out with another first in school history for him, is pretty cool.”
Eickholt has been a renaissance coach throughout his career. During his 37 years of coaching, the Iowa native has served as an assistant or head coach for cross country, track, football, wrestling, baseball, softball and basketball.
“The consistency is always a good thing,” said N-O Athletic Director Ron Beacom. “He is a high charactered person and has the kids’ well being at the center of his philosophy. It’s always a good thing and if you can get someone like that and keep them for a number of years; it’s good for the school and great for the program.”
Eickholt’s impact has gone far beyond the course and the track.
“Coach Eickholt was always very realistic and encouraging,” Carpenter said. “He and I always had good honest conversations about my workouts and whether I should do my own workout versus that of the team, his expectations for me each meet, about what to expect from my competition at meets, about where to take advantage of my strengths during meets, and how to serve as a leader for the team. Coach and I have continued to have a good relationship through the years that crossed over to my time on the Board of Education and fundraising efforts to replace the track.”
Eickholt continues to stay in contact with former athletes.
“I wasn’t thinking about running in college until the coach from Concordia found I was coming here and he did some research on me. He found me and wanted me to run for him,” said 2017 N-O graduate Kasi Grosserode, who just finished her sophomore season of cross country at Concordia University. “When I told Eickholt about it he thought it was incredible. Coach Eickholt said, ‘Let’s do some work and see what you can do.’ ”
All three runners reflected on memorable stories about their former coach.
“I remember a lot of laughter during my time running for him,” Carpenter recalled. “I think some of my best memories with coach took place much more recently when we both worked on fundraising efforts for the track.”
It is hard to believe that anyone ever got upset with the cross country mentor, but Grosserode recalled such a time.
“We had our watermelon run and every year we have a river run,” Grosserode said. “One year, we went out for this river run and we were done and having watermelon afterwards. We were messing around in the river after practice and a lady came up and was so mad at us. She came storming over to him (Eickholt) and she was yelling at him for letting us do this. She was all up in his face. We thought he was going to get hit or something. It was so funny after the fact. We were all laughing after she left.”
Belitz remembers a different side of coach that not many people saw. “I remember watching movies at his house for pre-meet meals and his girly little laugh he did all the time,” said the N-O senior. “That was pretty funny. I remember him getting mad at a lady walking through (our practice) looking for her dog and he yelled at her and told her to get out of practice. That was pretty funny.”
Although it may be the end of Eickholt’s head coaching career in cross country, the longtime elementary teacher still plans on helping with the program and continuing to serve as the head track and field coach.
“I’m actually looking forward to being told what to do instead of making the decisions myself,” Eickholt said. “There were moments throughout the season I was emotional about the situation. But within the last couple of weeks, I’ve really come to grips with it. I’m at ease with it and the program is in great hands. It’s not like I’m completely walking away from the program. I’m still going to be able to contribute in certain ways. I’m really comfortable with where we are right now and with where the program is going to go in the future.”