Gophers senior Mitch Hechsel holds the sixth-fastest time heading into Wednesday's 800-meter prelims at the NCAA Track and Field Championships. The runner seeded 21st is a former rival turned teammate and close friend.
Fellow Gophers senior Nate Roese competed against Hechsel in track and basketball when they were at East Ridge and Apple Valley, respectively.
Roese definitely had the edge in track. He was a two-time state champ in the 400 meters and still holds the state record in that event.
Hechsel was a latecomer to high school track but enjoyed more success in basketball. He was a senior when Tyus Jones was a sophomore. That season, the Eagles knocked out East Ridge in the sectionals 72-51.
"[Roese] likes to joke around that he killed it and dunked on our team," Hechsel said. "But no, we won by like 20."
"I think I guarded Tyus pretty well," Roese said.
Hechsel swatted that right down, saying, "I was sitting out the whole second half because our team was up by so much."
They can go on and on like this, and often do. Hechsel still teases Roese about the "calf sleeves" he wore to add swag to his high school track uniform.
The two former southeast metro rivals forged a bond, training together all these years for the Gophers. Their track careers have taken different routes, but all roads led to this one final meet — the NCAAs in Eugene, Ore.
Hechsel finished 14th in the 800 at last year's NCAA meet, earning second-team All-America honors.
Roese also earned second-team All-America honors as part of the Gophers 4x400 relay team. He went on to set a Gophers 600-meter record (1 minute, 15.55 seconds) at this February's Big Ten indoor championships.
In May, Roese added a late twist to his track career, as he started competing — and quickly thriving — in the 800. It's been fun for teammates to watch.
At the Big Ten outdoor championships, Hechsel and Roese spent most of the 800 race toward the back of the pack, patiently biding their time. After 600 meters, Hechsel made his move, chugging into second place behind Penn State's Isaiah Harris.
Roese waited even longer to turn on his afterburners and was in last place before darting toward the front. He finished .005 seconds behind Hechsel for third place.
"He started running the 800 only recently, but it's been taking off for him," Hechsel said. "So it didn't surprise me at all he was right beside me."
That race offered only a glimpse of Hechsel and Roese's potential. At last week's first round NCAA meet in Austin, Texas, Hechsel trimmed more than three seconds from his Big Ten time. Hechsel posted the fourth-best time in Gophers history, 1:47.26; Roese (1:48.39) also turned in a personal record.
Their styles are different.
"Mitch really likes to have a hard, strong pace that he knows he can run fast off," associate head coach Paul Thornton said. "Nate being a 400-meter sprinter would like to have a slower race for the first , where he can utilize a kick."
Hechsel wants a top eight finish and a first-team All-America spot. Roese is aiming for another personal record and at least second-team All-America (top 16).
"It's still a newer race for me," Roese said. "I'm still trying to figure out how to run it. All I've been doing is kind of hanging with the group and having a big kick at the end."
Steve Plasencia, the ninth-year director of the Gophers track and field team, raved about what Hechsel and Roese have meant to the program. He said each has another personal record in him at Oregon. And if they are in the top eight Wednesday, they'll be back for Friday's finals.
"Oregon has the best track venue in the United States," Plasencia said. "There are good crowds in the stands, and it jacks up the athletes, so those rounds will be fast. I'm excited to see what they can do. "