Frank Mencin inherited a legacy when he started at Lake County. He left another legacy when he departed.
When Frank Mencin stepped away from the Lake County cross country program to take a position as an elementary principal in Frisco in 1991, he had coached the program for 10 of the 11 preceding years. During the other year, he was on sabbatical, completing his masters degree and coaching cross country at Western State. Over the span of those 11 years, Lake County won eight boys state championships and seven girls state championships.
Dynasties come and dynasties go, but this one still sets the standard for cross country dynasties in Colorado.
This was not the product of an upscale community and children of privilege. Although relatively more prosperous than it is today, Leadville was then as it is now: a stubbornly independent, blue collar community. The comfortable trappings of prosperity that attach to upscale suburbs are rarely experienced in Leadville.
Mencin took over the Lake County program from Dick Anderson who had brought the program to prominence in the 60s and 70s. Anderson had already helped Lake County capture several state titles, including a sweep of the boys and girls titles in 1979.
A graduate of Abraham Lincoln HS in Denver, Mencin first heard of the Lake County program when running cross country at Western State in the early and mid 70s. His college roommate was also a member of Western’s cross country team and a product of the Lake County program. “I never would have guessed that I would end up in Leadville six years later,” Mencin remarked.
As dominant as Lake County was during Mencin’s tenure, there was a rivalry or two to keep things interesting. When he took over the program, a well-established rivalry with Centauri High School of La Jara was already in place. “It was a competitive and sometimes bitter rivalry going into the state meet, with the last runner from each team deciding the title.”
While Lake County did get the better end of the rivalry, it would generally be Centauri teams that disrupted the runs of consecutive state championships. It would always be Centauri that was keeping Lake County honest.
Later in the 80s, when Larry Zaragoza moved from Centauri to Alamosa, the rivalry moved with Zaragoza. Centauri’s fortunes slipped a little, but Alamosa took its turn as a thorn in Lake County’s side. Alamosa would grab a boys state title in 1985 and claim a few more individual titles during Mencin’s tenure.
Lake County’s dominance extended well beyond the ranks of the small schools. “We were proud to run the big meets like Arapahoe, Aurora, Wasson, and Fairview, running head to head against the 4A/5A schools. And, we would win the meets. One year I wanted to declare in the spring that we would run in the 5A division for the state meet, but our AD would not approve of that situation.”
Some may find this surprising but, for the most part, Mencin and his athletes went their separate ways following their graduation from high school. “I see some around Leadville who have never left and now have kids in the school system, or in the summer at Leadville’s Boom Days. You only hope that those who ran in the system have kept some of the values we taught them for use in later life—discipline, dedication, leadership skills, et cetera.”
Lake County’s cross country teams were not small, even by big school standards. Team sizes ranged into the 30s for both boys and girls teams. And, Mencin’s athletes were motivated by many of the same factors that still motivate cross country runners in top programs today, “We had a lot of families running, brothers and sisters who wanted to be on a state championship teams and have their name on a trophy in the school forever.
Needless to say, a number of young athletes got that opportunity. Some family names became common fixtures on those trophies, names like Stegall, Wrenholt, and Martinez. It is striking, however, how many different names from Lake County appeared among the lists of state medalists over the 11-year period. The accomplishments were spread broadly across a multitude of athletes.
Not a few attributed Lake County’s success to their high-altitude training base. In retrospect, altitude was probably not as determinative as many would have liked to believe at the time. Mencin’s teams relied on the same staples that have propelled other teams to great things—base work, intervals (perhaps a little shorter at high altitude under the Mencin system), winning tradition, heart, and pride.
“I don’t think I was the most popular coach at the beginning of the year, but as the year went on and we had success the athletes saw they were involved in something special. This was really true after the state meet.”
The “something special” that the Lake County harriers enjoyed was very much a team phenomenon. Amazingly, despite winning 15 team titles during the span ranging from 1980 to 1990, Lake County individuals won a mere four individual state titles over that time. The championships were far more a product of packing runners into the top ten or twenty places than of standouts crushing the competition from the front of the pack.
Frank Mencin is now retired and living in Leadville. Outdoor activities still rank high on his list of favorites. The fact that he belongs to another era of Colorado high school cross country is underscored by the fact that many of those who ran against Mencin’s teams are now coaching somewhere in Colorado. Of those who coached against Mencin, precious few—with Larry Zaragoza being the notable exception—are still guiding their teams.
There are few left who remember in a direct way what Lake County brought to the landscape of cross country in Colorado. And that is why stories like this must be told and retold.