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The NDSU Foundation Magazine invites you on a field trip with NDSU President Dean L. Bresciani and alumna Kristi Hanson. Read on to experience an NDSU indoor track and field meet alongside some of NDSU's biggest fans.
Story by Micaela Gerhardt | Photos by Ann Arbor Miller | Illustrations by Leah Ecklund | April 11, 2022
On a shelf in the NDSU President’s House there is a photo of a young man — red bandana tied around his head, wrists wrapped in athletic tape — standing atop the 867-foot Devils Tower. Below him, the Belle Fourche River carves through a brown landscape scattered with ponderosa pines and sagebrush. To a casual observer, he may be difficult to recognize, but the man in the photograph is, in fact, NDSU’s 14th President Dean L. Bresciani.
Dr. Bresciani was first introduced to rock climbing as a photographer; eventually, he overcame his fear of heights and exchanged his camera for a harness, chalk, and climbing shoes. He’s climbed all over the western United States, including Rocky Mountain National Park, Grand Teton National Park, and the Grand Canyon. Before he received the job offer that began his career in higher education at Humboldt State University, he planned to be a professional climbing guide.
“Climbing taught me a lot about myself: first, that my fears can be overcome, and second, that the only things holding me back are my beliefs about what I can and cannot accomplish,” Dr. Bresciani said.
Dr. Bresciani recognizes that same grit in NDSU student-athletes — and it’s part of what makes him such a dedicated supporter of NDSU Athletics. Dr. Bresciani and his wife, Kristi Hanson ’87, NDSU architecture alumna and NDSU Foundation Trustee, have established a legacy by attending every athletic event — for every sport — they possibly can. Kristi, who has a home in California, has driven to track and field meets in Riverside and Long Beach, and she earned naming rights for the women’s track and field locker room in the Sanford Health Athletic Complex due to her philanthropic support.
“Somebody should be there to cheer student-athletes on, and I consider it a privilege to be able to do it,” Kristi said. “When you see the effort these kids are putting in, you get excited for them. I’ve just found a passion for all sports.”
On a snowy Saturday in January, I met Dr. Bresciani and Kristi at the Shelly Ellig Indoor Track and Field Facility, where, in typical fashion, they were cheering on NDSU student-athletes in the track and field Bison Team Cup.
The meet, which included competitors from NDSU, the University of North Dakota, and South Dakota State University, began with the national anthem; the athletes and a sparse crowd placed hands over heart and sang. A brief moment of silence washed over the facility, and then, from the far corner of the field, one of NDSU’s throwers gave a loud whoop that signaled the start of the meet. Throwers and high jumpers took their places; around them, other athletes began stretching and jogging on the green and gold track, loosening up in preparation for their events.
One thing that struck me, almost immediately, was the way the athletes drove the energy in the space. They cheered for each other — clapping slowly as high jumper Daejha Moss ’22 made her approach, speeding up their claps as Daejha’s feet pushed off the ground, holding their breath as her back arched in midair, then erupting in celebration when she cleared the bar.
Throwers hollered and grunted as they gathered momentum and spun within the throwing ring, sending 20- to 35-pound weight throws soaring through the air.
Track and field offers spectators the opportunity to home in on one athlete, one performance at a time. With this unique focus, I watched as the student-athletes exhibited such graceful movements they looked almost like dancers clad in spandex and neon-bright running shoes.
While we stood cheering on the field, Kristi was approached by Sofia Naranjo Mata ’23, a multi-athlete studying architecture, who is the recipient of the Hanson/Zander Family Foundation Fund, a scholarship established by Ed and Mona Zander “in honor of a distinguished graduate and friend, Kristi Hanson.” Sofia competes in the pentathlon, which includes hurdles, long jump, shot put, high jump, and the 800-meter run, as well as the heptathlon, which adds the javelin throw and 200-meter sprint to the previous events.
“I’m an immigrant and a first-generation college student, so just being able to go to school and not having to worry about tuition is honestly incredible,” Sofia said. “We have awesome people in the NDSU community, and I know I have people behind me no matter what. I think that really speaks to what being a Bison is about.”
The meet ebbed and flowed; by late afternoon, when the mid- and long-distance runners took their marks, the crowd nearly filled the bleachers. The music that had played over the speakers all day was muted, and a hush fell over the stands as former head coach Don Larson fired the starting pistol. In the quiet space of each race, running shoes pattered against the track, projecting the steady sound of power and speed.
Dr. Bresciani and Kristi cheered for the athletes down on the field, beside the coaches and student-athletes, shouting words of encouragement as the runners passed by, clapping as they neared the finish line. They’re proud not only of the student-athletes’ performances in competitions but in their academic successes as well. It is, in Dr. Bresciani’s opinion, what makes NDSU so successful.
“We have created a culture of comprehensive excellence. It isn’t just the sport, it’s your academic success, it’s your personal success, and we only hire coaches who’ve bought into that culture,” Dr. Bresciani said. “Truth be told, our coaches will say, ‘Give me a good over a great athlete, but that good athlete who’s disciplined, who’s going to focus academically, who’s a good person. I’ll coach them — I’ll get them athletically where they need to be.'”
Stevie Keller, director of NDSU track and field and cross country, is currently in his 22nd year of coaching at NDSU. He transitioned from assistant coach to head coach after Don Larson, former head coach of 41 years, retired in 2021. Like Dr. Bresciani, Stevie said NDSU student-athletes must be determined academically as well as athletically to continue building the Bison tradition — and just as importantly, they must be good people.
“The upperclassmen do a really good job of teaching the youngsters the tradition of success — how to compete, how to be a Bison: you respect the officials, respect your opponents. You must be a class act,” Stevie said. “When you come to North Dakota State, the pride of being a Bison — of being a part of this athletic program — is something special, and I think the student-athletes get that. That’s where your family and the culture come in, by knowing what it means to be a Bison. It comes down to finding the right kids who want to work hard.”
For Don, who still volunteers at nearly every meet, helping where he’s needed even in retirement, coaching at NDSU was all about family — celebrating student-athletes in their successes as well as supporting student-athletes through personal challenges, like competition anxiety and, on a few occasions, homelessness. Through it all, his priority was making sure every person he coached learned to believe in themselves, and support from Dr. Bresciani, administrators, professors, alumni, and the community helped make that possible.
“People would say, ‘The university president goes to your meets?’ and I’d say, ‘Don’t they all?’ The answer is no,” Don said. “Dr. Bresciani is just one of those people who sees the whole picture — academics, athletics, and fundraising.”
Dr. Bresciani and Kristi both consider Don a good friend. The wallpaper in the men’s track and field locker room includes a photo of Dr. Bresciani and Don standing side-by-side, throwing up Bison horns. In fact, it was Dr. Bresciani who brought the “horns up” sign back to NDSU, borrowing the importance of the idea from his experience at Texas A&M University where hand signs are extremely popular. He and former NDSU Student Body President Kevin Black began reintroducing the “horns up” sign to core groups on campus to promote NDSU culture — and it just took off. Even here, at the Bison Team Cup, student-athletes and fans hold their hands up — pointer finger and pinky poised — brimming with Bison pride.
- Head coach Stevie Keller estimates that 110 NDSU student-athletes are participating in the university’s track and field program this year. About 30-40 people work each event, including coaches, meet officials, and volunteers.
- NDSU Track and Field proudly boasts three Olympic Athletes who competed in the program. Payton Otterdahl ’19 placed 10th in the men’s shot put in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics; Erin Teschuk ’16 competed in the women’s 3,000-meter steeplechase event in the 2016 Rio De Janeiro Olympics; and Amanda Smock ’05 competed in the women’s triple jump in the 2012 London Olympics.
- Trevor Otterdahl ’22, younger brother of Payton, placed first in the weight throw competition at the Bison Team Cup with a throw of 71-6 (21.79-meters), earning a place among only three men in NDSU’s history to throw more than 70 feet in the weight throw event.
- In 2021, NDSU women’s track and field won their 14th consecutive Summit League Indoor Championship, and NDSU men’s track and field won their 11th consecutive Summit League Outdoor Championship. Due to their consistent, high-level success, NDSU student-athletes are often seen as the ones to beat; in a metaphorical sense, they have a target on their backs at the track and field meets. Stevie taped a photo of a target to both the men’s and women’s locker room doors to remind them to “wear it with pride.”
Bison Track and Field will compete in an outdoor season that culminates with the 2022 NCAA Outdoor Championship June 8-11, 2022, in Eugene, Oregon. Visit GoBison.com to view the track and field schedule for a list of upcoming local, regional, and national events.
Bringing your kids? NDSU Track and Field home meets include opportunities for children 12 and under to run in friendly competitions, including the 60-meter dash and one-lap run. All runners are awarded a participation medal at the meet.
You can help NDSU track and field student-athletes succeed in the classroom, in competition, and beyond by making a gift to the Track and Field/Cross Country endowment fund at NDSUFoundation.com/donate/track-and-field-endowment.
Thank you to NDSU President Dean L. Bresciani, Kristi Hanson, Stevie Keller, Don Larson, Sophia Naranjo Mata, and Daejha Moss for their help with this story and to Carleton College, whose own Field Guides inspired this series.