Hoops for high jumps: Netzer content with choice

Ben Goessling

Kevin Netzer hails from Rib Lake, Wis., – or about a five-minute drive from the middle of nowhere.

His hometown has roughly 800 people, no stoplights and only three NCAA Division I athletes in its history.

All of this is what makes his long, strange trip to Minnesota’s men’s track and field team even more abnormal.

The 6-foot-5 Netzer, who was planning to play basketball at Division III Wisconsin-Stevens Point two months before his high school graduation, was first awakened to a shot at the big time by Gophers coach Phil Lundin in April 2001.

“As soon as Minnesota called me, I knew I wanted to go,” Netzer said. “There was no question about it.”

The decision has paid off for both Netzer and the Gophers. The sophomore won the Big Ten outdoor championship in the high jump last year and is currently tied for the best mark in the conference this spring.

“I thought he had a big upside, and it obviously worked out,” Lundin said. “He doesn’t choke in big meets, and he was able to make an impact right away.”

Netzer started playing basketball in sixth grade and immediately fell in love with the sport. All through high school it was hoops, not track, which commanded his attention.

Even though he was a three-time state qualifier in the high jump and a state champion his senior year, he would rather have been leaping over defenders than into landing pits.

The 2001 Marawood Conference MVP in basketball, Netzer told Wisconsin-Stevens Point coach Jack Bennett he would take the court for the Pointers in September 2001.

Track would be his second sport at Stevens Point, just as it was in high school.

But 180 miles away in Minneapolis, Lundin was preparing to change Netzer’s college plans.

“I saw his marks in late March 2001, and I called his high school to do an inquiry on him,” Lundin said. “When they told me he was 6-foot-5, I went, ‘Whoa.’ There was obviously some athleticism there.”

Lundin drove to watch Netzer compete in a driving rainstorm, and he was sold.

“He hadn’t spent much time in the event outside of meets, so he was raw, but I knew with time he would be pretty good,” Lundin said.

Netzer finished second at the Drake Relays two weeks ago, but so far hasn’t matched the marks he put up last season, which included a jump of 7-1 1/2 to win the Big Ten title. He has gone over seven feet just once this year.

Lundin, however, expects the Big Ten championships, which the Gophers host from May 16-18, will bring out the best in his prize sophomore once again.

“He’s going to lay it on the line, and he’s completely capable of going 7-2,” Lundin said. “I think we’ll see a little more consistency from him in the next couple weeks.”

Netzer said he still plays “too much” basketball, although he doesn’t do any more than shoot around during the track season.

“The coaches don’t like me playing basketball,” he said. “They told me if I sprain an ankle, I’m not competing.”

Netzer, who grew up on a farm, will jump in front of his parents for the first time in college at next weekend’s conference championships.

And if the sophomore finishes off his second season with back-to-back Big Ten titles, it’s safe to say his move from basketball and the backwoods to a track complex shadowed by the Minneapolis skyline will look pretty smart.

“I have a ton of friends from home calling me all the time to see what it’s like on a Division I track team,” Netzer said. “With all the traveling we get to do and the level of competition we have, it has been well worth it.”

Ben Goessling covers track and field and welcomes comments at [email protected]