For the first time in 36 years, the Baraboo High School boys cross country team will have a new head coach next season.
The program will undergo a transition after long-time head coach Peter Arndt announced his retirement at the team’s postseason banquet on Nov. 2.
“Thirty-six years is a good run,” Arndt said on Thursday afternoon, noting that he will continue at the high school. “It’s just been a great ride, but all things must come to an end.”
That great ride began in 1982. Since then, Arndt was at the helm of a Baraboo team that won 26 conference titles and sent four teams to the WIAA Division 1 state meet. Arndt capped off his career in fitting fashion, as the Thunderbirds won the Badger North Conference boys team title on Oct. 14 at Baraboo High School.
“That was very, very special,” said Arndt, who has been assisted by Jacob Boll since 2012. “I was very proud of those young men. They took that last half mile of that race, we were behind and the fact that they pulled it out is something that I will always remember.”
It was the 11th Badger North title under Arndt, who also coached the T-Birds to 15 South Central Conference championships. Every athlete who ran four years for Arndt won at least one conference team title, while 139 athletes earned all-conference honors and 11 individuals qualified for state.
“I think it was our commitment to chasing excellence,” Arndt said of Baraboo’s success. “We made no apologies that our goal was to always win a conference title. ... We wanted to be the best that we could be, and if we were the best we could be, chances are that we were going to compete for a conference title and then on an occasional year compete for a state berth.”
Arndt and the T-Birds qualified for state in 2003, 2004, 2011 and 2012. The 2003 state meet ended a 32-year drought, as Baraboo’s other boys cross country state trips came in 1965, 1967, 1969, 1970 and 1971. Baraboo’s top state finish under Arndt came when the T-Birds took 11th in 2003.
Arndt has also garnered individual recognition. He was inducted into the Wisconsin Cross Country Coaches Association Hall of Fame in January 2017, while he was also a member of the inaugural Baraboo High School Athletic Hall of Fame class in 2013.
A 1974 graduate of Baraboo High School, Arndt competed in cross country, track and wrestling for the T-Birds. Following graduate school at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, Arndt returned to Baraboo to teach. He coached seventh grade football for one year before taking on the cross country role in 1982, his second year at the school.
Arndt always felt coaching was in his future, thanks to his cross country coach, Harry Haslanger, as well as his father, Harold Arndt, who was a teacher and coach in Baraboo.
“I’ve been surrounded with incredible coaches my entire life,” Arndt said. “Whatever success I may have experienced, I don’t think it could have happened at any other place but Baraboo.
“When I grew up, I just saw all these incredible athletes... Being a Baraboo Thunderbird was a special thing and it made a lasting impression on me. I think I tried to instill that on my cross country runners, that it was a special thing to be a Thunderbird harrier.”
Baraboo athletic director Jim Langkamp said that attitude has allowed Arndt to serve as a representative of the school and the community.
“When I think of him, I think of Baraboo High School,” Langkamp said of Arndt. “He just embodies this school — as a teacher, as a coach and as a community member. He’s all about Baraboo High School.
“That’s what I think of when I see Pete Arndt. So much school pride and community pride. Nobody loves being a Baraboo Thunderbird more than Pete Arndt does.”
Several meets stand out in Arndt’s mind, including the 1987 South Central Conference meet that saw Baraboo upset the favorite, Nekoosa.
“Nekoosa had beaten us three times in a row, but every time we had gotten closer and closer,” Arndt said. “We went over there and we beat them. We had a guy by the name of Timmy Cejka who was our seventh man all year, but he took third that day and finished in the top seven. That was really quite special, that was one where you maybe weren’t favored to win it but you were able to steal one.”
There was also the 2011 sectional meet that saw Baraboo finish as runner-up to Madison West and qualify for state thanks to a memorable performance.
“It came down to Oconomowoc and us for second, and if you looked at their track and field times they were faster... we just knew that we were going to have to be tough,” Arndt said, noting that Sam Trotter came up big with a 10th-place finish. “Well Sam collapsed. He ran so hard that he collapsed maybe 15 feet from the finish line, and he crawled over the finish line. And then we had another guy the same race that was throwing up afterwards. We just gave it. The Oconomowoc coach came up to me afterwards and he said, ‘you know coach, your guys just put it all out there today.’ That made me very, very proud.”
Arndt also remembers his first cross country experience, a 1970 state meet the morning after he had attended a Baraboo football game.
“My father got me up really in the morning and said ‘come on, we’re going to go watch Coach Haslanger’s Thunderbirds run at the state meet,’” Arndt said. “I saw something special down there with the way that those young men, those athletes, ran so hard. ... That made an impression on me.”
Arndt isn’t going anywhere yet. He will remain a social studies teacher at Baraboo High School, while he will continue to coach the long-distance runners through at least the 2018 track and field season.
Next fall, Arndt will become a Baraboo cross country alumnus, a close-knit group that has developed due to the program’s continuity over the past 36 years.
“I reflect on the relationships that we’ve had,” Arndt said, noting that past runners frequently come back to watch meets. “I’ve just been blessed to have really good guys. Not only as runners, but just good, solid individuals. I don’t think we would have achieved what we would have achieved without that core of great young men.”
An increased amount of free time will be a new experience for Arndt, but he’s ready for the next chapter of Baraboo cross country.
“I’m sure that next fall I’m going to miss it,” Arndt said of coaching. “There’s a real thrill when the gun goes off, and the anticipation. But I’ve seen a lot of races over the years, and I just think it’s time to let go. It’s been a great ride and one of the joys of my life. Every year was a journey, with every team. Every year was a journey, we took that journey together and we’d see where we ended up.”