Proctor graduate Welch regains elite running status with Gophers
Already an accomplished runner entering his senior year at Proctor, Matt Welch was hungry for more.More mileage. More success.So, in the summer of 2012, he upped his weekly output to more than 90 miles. The result was one of the finest high schoo...
Already an accomplished runner entering his senior year at Proctor, Matt Welch was hungry for more.
More mileage. More success.
So, in the summer of 2012, he upped his weekly output to more than 90 miles. The result was one of the finest high school cross country seasons in Northeastern Minnesota history, a splurge of nine victories in nine races that culminated with a Class A state title - the region’s first boys individual champ since Duluth East’s Nic Matack in 1996.
Welch was rewarded with an athletic scholarship to the University of Minnesota, where he redshirted in 2013 and spent the next two years trying to rediscover his form. Plagued by injuries, including a balky hamstring, consistency was elusive.
Welch returned to the Northland this past summer and focused on two things - working at the YMCA’s Camp Kitchigami at Chester Park and running. He averaged 90-95 miles a week and went as high as 120 while training alongside Minnesota alum and South Ridge coach Jeremy Polson. To Welch, it’s what had allowed him to morph from a good runner into an elite runner at Proctor.
Why not try it again?
Welch, now a redshirt junior, was fifth at the Gophers’ season-opening Oz Memorial on Sept. 9 in Falcon Heights, Minn. Two weeks later he was even better, finishing second in the gold division at the prestigious Roy Griak Invitational. Back on a muddy Les Bolstad Golf Course in Falcon Heights, Welch covered 8 kilometers in 25 minutes, 7.7 seconds to highlight Minnesota’s ninth-place team showing.
Welch went into the race hoping to crack the top 15. He and teammate Obsa Ali went out conservatively. Both felt strong.
“And we just started picking ’em off one by one,” said Welch, 21. “I ended up finishing second and (Ali) was sixth, and I was like, ‘Holy moly, what the heck just happened?’ ”
At the Griak, the lone man to beat Welch - by 1.3 seconds - was Colorado State’s Jerrell Mock, who’s now ranked ninth nationally.
Welch’s confidence is surging once more.
His coach, Steve Plasencia, the director of men’s track and field and cross country at Minnesota, doesn’t consider it a hot streak so much as a new normal. Welch always has had this kind of potential. He just had to tap into it.
“His career has been a little bit confounding in that there have been some highs and lows,” Plasencia said. “Our belief in his talent has been there. We’ve always thought that when he’s in stride, he should be able to run pretty well.”
Plasencia then uttered words that would have seemed far-fetched as recently as last fall, when Welch competed in six races.
“Right now, he’s definitely running like one of the top guys in the Big Ten,” Plasencia said.
It’s been a long time coming, and it wasn’t just injuries Welch has had to overcome.
The 2013 Proctor graduate, who grew up in Duluth, says he struggled upon arriving on campus. Small-town living had given way to the always-in-a-hurry Minneapolis lifestyle, where he was just another face in a sea of them. He was separated from friends and family for the first time, in an unfamiliar environment, all the while adjusting to demanding academics.
And he wasn’t running competitively.
“I dealt with a lot of depression because, my whole life, everything was running,” said Welch, a kinesiology major who will graduate next spring.
He credits his parents, Mark and Jacqueline Welch, for lending unconditional support during the rocky intro to college.
There were signs a year ago that Welch was moving in the right direction. He still wasn’t “seeing the times I wanted,” but Welch was getting healthy, something he hadn’t been - not completely - since the undefeated fall of 2012, when he became Proctor’s first cross country state champ since some guy named Garry Bjorklund in the 1960s.
Incidentally, Bjorklund sent Welch an encouraging note ahead of his state triumph.
The previous spring, Welch was second in the 3,200-meter run at the Class A track and field competition. He was a half-second behind Foley’s Charlie Lawrence. Roles reversed in cross country a few months later, when Lawrence finished second behind Welch three times, including the state meet.
The two are now roommates and teammates. They talk often about their high school rivalry. Good-natured ribbing is inevitable, with each able to claim bragging rights depending on the distance and season.
Plasencia noted the Northland’s reputation for producing high-mileage athletes. That isn’t always a good thing, he says, but for Welch it’s worked. And his strength, not to mention the recent resurgence, had Plasencia drawing comparisons to ex-Gopher and 2016 Olympian Ben Blankenship, who was eighth at 1,500 meters in Rio.
Both are wiry, lean guys, but with some muscle, too. Welch, like Blankenship, runs high on his toes, almost bounding.
“He’s got some pop,” Plasencia says.
There are other comparisons, notably eccentric hair. Welch is in the midst of a man bun phase, with a Steve Prefontaine-esque mustache. It’s not necessarily a stylistic expression, but rather laziness, he joked.
There are more pressing concerns than grooming, starting with Friday’s Wisconsin Invitational in Madison.
Welch is having fun running again.
“I think Matt has just kind of broken out a little this fall,” Plasencia said. “I think he knows he can do it, but I think for him it’s been almost frustrating trying to show it. Now that he’s showing it and everybody can see it, I know that will make him feel a lot better about things.”