The best college stories don’t always begin with a high school hotshot calling a press conference and choosing from a line of baseball caps.
This one involves a marginal basketball prospect who finds that path blocked, yet keeps searching for his calling. It involves the perfect intersection of untapped talent, outstanding coaching and, most of all, fierce determination.
Monte Larsen’s story is worth learning. The 2008 Tri-Center High School valedictorian arrived at Morningside College in the fall of that year as one of 21 freshman basketball hopefuls. He’s leaving as the school’s most decorated track and field athlete, a four-time NAIA national champion and 12-time All-American.
And his numbers can’t measure his impact on the Morningside program.
“I remember one time where one of the guys was in a slump,” said Mustangs coach Dave Nash. “He was probably our eighth-best 800 runner. I told him, ‘What would you do if I told you I could get you on a relay with Monte Larsen?’ It was a very small meet. He was like, ‘Coach, are you kidding me?’ It was like something he was going to tell his grandkids about, just to be in a relay with Monte. Of course, it was the best he ran all year.
“Nobody wants to let him down. It was like being on the court with Michael Jordan for these guys.”
Larsen’s career ended last weekend in style at the NAIA outdoor track and field championships in Marion, Ind. He anchored the Mustangs to the national title in the 3,200 relay with a split just over 1:50. Morningside ran 7:26.33, missing the national record by two-tenths of a second.
For perspective, that winning time would have won the college division of the Drake Relays in that event in 101 of the 102 years it’s been run. It was about seven seconds faster than the same quartet ran at indoor nationals. And it would have been 11th on the Division I charts this season.
“It was a special day among special days,” Nash said. “Monte made that energy in that relay, where everybody says, ‘If Monte Larsen’s anchoring this relay, I’ve got to do something special ahead of him.’”
Of course, Larsen didn’t always command that reverence. A five-sport athlete at Tri- Center, Larsen chose Morningside partly because older brothers Paul and Bryan went there and partly because he wanted to try to make the basketball team. A skinny 5-foot-10 guard, Larsen languished on the JV squad as a freshman and wasn’t really enjoying it.
“I knew probably halfway through the season that it was going to be my only season playing,” he said.
The Neola native had earned four state track medals in high school, three in the 400 hurdles (but never higher than third), and a third in the shuttle hurdle relay as a junior. He approached Nash, who had tried to recruit him in high school, about joining the team. Nash said he was “somewhat hesitant” about allowing Larsen to join, but he obliged.
In his freshman year, he ran one open 800 (a 2:02, which was about two seconds faster than his high school PR), but focused primarily on the 400 hurdles, where he finished second in the Great Plains Athletic Conference and qualified provisionally for nationals but didn’t go.
“I said, ‘You’re not a bad hurdler, but if you really want to reach your potential, you have to expand it up to the 800,’” said Nash, the school record-holder in the 800 at the time. “It was exciting because he’s so coachable.”
Nash also persuaded Larsen to join the cross country program, and he eventually ran in two national meets. After his sophomore year of cross country, he ran his second college 800 in the first indoor meet of the season at Iowa State.
Larsen ran just over 1:55, his PR by about seven seconds. The light came on. Nash and Larsen call it a breakthrough moment.
“We’d seen him do some 600s, so we weren’t totally stunned,” Nash said. “But our jaws still dropped.”
Added Larsen: “I think that was a good sign for him that he needed to keep working with me on that 800.”
Larsen quickly blossomed into a star. At indoor nationals as a junior, he ran on the second-place 3,200 relay team and finished second in the 600. At outdoor nationals, he placed second in the 800, breaking Nash’s school record with a 1:50.28.
At local meets, people stopped what they were doing to watch him.
“There was a Briar Cliff kid. He didn’t realize who Monte was and he was just a freshman,” Nash said. “He was like, ‘I thought I had him, I thought I had him.’ His whole team was like, ‘You have no idea who you were running against.’”
Since he missed cross country and indoor track as a freshman, Larsen realized if he left school after four years, he’d be leaving eligibility on the table. That didn’t sit well with him.
“I sat down with him one day and I said, ‘Coach, I’m not ready to be done,’” Larsen said. “He’s like, ‘Well, we can look at graduate school here at Morningside and you can come back for another year if that’s what you really want to do.’ I didn’t have to think about it too hard. I talked to my parents and they were all for it.
“With all the success we had, I didn’t want to regret it for the rest of my life, not finishing that last year since I had it. I mean, I can work the rest of my life.”
In his senior year of indoor track, he won his first national title as a member of the 3,200 relay team. He finished second again in the 600. Then he redshirted during the outdoor season to allow him one more full year of cross country, indoor and outdoor track as a graduate student.
He still competed at the meets unattached. But he had to provide his own transportation and buy his own food. He couldn’t wear the Morningside uniform.
“It was hard, but it was definitely worth it,” he said.
In his fifth year, with fellow small-town Iowans Taylor Chapman (Spencer), Jay Welp (Marcus) and John Harris (Holstein), the 3,200 relay team repeated as national champs at the indoor meet, and Larsen also broke through individually, claiming the 800 title in 1:52.21.
Welp said Larsen set the tone for the entire program.
“Monte is just a great leader and a great role model,” Welp said. “You know you’re going to get Monte’s best every time.”
In addition to the 3,200 relay title with the same trio at his final national outdoor meet last weekend, he also placed third in the 400 hurdles (52.12) and fourth in the 800 (1:52.41).
The 800 came 40 minutes after the hurdles race. Larsen wanted to try both, and Nash accommodated him. Larsen had run a 1:49.3 split at the Drake Relays a month earlier, and Nash is convinced he could’ve run faster than that if he’d not tried to juggle the hurdles.
Regardless, Larsen said he wouldn’t trade any of his experiences, starting with his freshman year.
“It’s been a blast, the last 4˝ years,” he said. “I don’t regret trying basketball at all. If I wouldn’t have done that, I don’t know where I’d be. I don’t know if I would have been at Morningside or not. I’m obviously really happy the way things turned out. I think it was meant to be.”
Larsen had a 3.99 GPA as an undergraduate (one A-minus his freshman year) and carries a 4.0 with three classes left before earning his master’s degree. He said he’s lucky to have had his family’s support and made so many friends. Parents Mike and Kim never missed a meet, traveling thousands of miles, often with grandparents Mo and Karen Larsen.
Nash said Larsen’s impact on the program can’t be overstated. And Larsen is intent on making sure that impact doesn’t fade away when he’s gone.
“He’s just transformed this,” Nash said. “One of the things that’s neat is that when he gets done, he’s like, ‘OK, let’s see how they do when I leave.’ His attitude is, ‘I hope this continues. I want this to be a testament of me handing the baton to the youngsters, and having this positive, aggressive, fearless style of running continue on into the next group and the next group.’”
He’ll be only six miles away. Larsen will be a fifth-grade teacher in the Sergeant Bluff- Luton school district this fall. He’s also the new head girls and boys cross country coach.
“Monte is going to be an outstanding coach because he has patience,” Nash said. “He might come across as intimidating once they hear about him, but he’s a people person. He’s going to do great with his young men and women.”
The track community is tight. In that region, Nash said, Larsen’s impact and respect is almost immeasurable.
“It’s like Cher. It’s not even a last name,” he said. “You just say one name. Oprah. Monte. You don’t even have to say the last name. He left quite a legacy.”
Larsen plans to continue training with the team when he can and competing when possible. His long-term goal is to make the “B” standard for the 800 for the Olympic Trials. Nash is convinced his best days are still ahead of him.
Meanwhile, Nash will often refer to the one-time basketball hopeful’s story when prospective student-athletes visit campus. He won’t, however, promise them the same amount of success.
“I think when he’s gone, people are going to look back and say, wow,” he said. “It’s going to be more and more special, after he leaves. It’s like trying to describe (Steve) Prefontaine. You just had to be there.”
Contact the writer:
402-444-1055, firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter.com/KWhiteOWH