By Dave Boehler
Beacon Sports Editor
In the countless interviews I’ve done in the last 20-plus years, I’m not sure anyone has laughed as much as Jeff Jurss during the conversation I had with him last week.
I guess that’s what happens when you’re talking about a cactus.
“It’s pretty well known,” the Sheyboygan Lutheran cross country coach said.
It’s not unusual for cross country teams to have its own “mascot” – separate from the school’s – and it can range from big stuffed animals, spirit sticks, shields, swords, etc.
Runners bring the mascot to meets and even up to the medal stand when they receive one.
Well in 2004, Lutheran did not have a mascot … until Adam Lang bought a half-priced cactus he spotted as he was leaving his job at Piggly Wiggly and brought it to the next meet.
“We were like,’ what the heck is that?’” Jurss said.
Lang finished in the top 10 that meet and took the cactus with him when he picked up his medal.
The next meet, more boys received medals and they also took the cactus with them to the stand.
“I thought it was a one-time thing, not a, what do we have, a 15-year tradition,” Jurss said.
The cactus, which does not have a name, has been to the winner’s podium at three state championship meets, and many sectional and conference races.
To this day, other schools even ask to take pictures with the cactus or touch it at meets.
“Oh yes,” Jurss said. “It is actually very funny. … It happens almost every meet, where somebody points out Sheboygan Lutheran is the team with the cactus or they ask where it is.
“There was some weird tradition that our people would lick the cactus, that was like a senior tradition that at some point you have to lick it. Which we stopped that because it seemed unclean, unsafe and kind of silly. That was like the rites of being a senior. I don’t know how that all started either.”
The coach, in his 25th season, estimates the team has gone through eight or nine cactuses over the years. It’s not easy keeping it from falling over on bus rides to and from meets, or losing its dirt after sitting in a basket in the back of a senior’s moped one time.
“It’s abused that way,” Jurss said. “Normal use, but some crazy things happen to it.”
None crazier than last season, when the mascot was “kidnapped” that led to some boys thinking it was a prank by one of their rival schools. They even got “Free the Cactus” T-shirts.
They kept scratching their heads when “Adventures of the Cactus” showed up on Instagram. That is where their mascot was seen in 51 pictures, ranging from the beach to a Brewers playoff game.
“It was the talk of our team: ‘hey, did you see what the cactus did last night?’” Jurss said. “Just crazy stuff. It was at Culver’s eating ice cream one time.”
It turns out three girls from the team took the cactus.
Current seniors Emma Schmideler and Carly Schreurs, along with junior Kirstin Solle, were walking out of school one day last year when they spotted the cactus all alone for whatever reason.
Schmideler jokingly suggested they steal it, and the next thing they knew they had a cactus in their car as they drove to Noodles.
“We didn’t really plan on keeping it that long, but it was hilarious because all the guys were blaming each other on who took it and who’s doing it,” Schmideler said. “We just thought it was so funny.”
The girls said it was hard to keep it a secret all of last season, and they would even try to make the boys talk about it to see who was blaming who. Alibis were also used by the three.
“Even one time on the bus home from a meet, one of the senior guys at the time asked to search my phone to see if I had Instagram,” Schmideler said. “I think someone else distracted him and then I deleted the app, except I had all the photos on my phone still. But he didn’t check my camera, thankfully.”
The girls even put a ransom note on their coach’s doorstep toward the end of the season that stated: “run fast to see me at last.” Schmideler thinks the note blew away, however, before he saw it.
Then at the season-ending team banquet, Schmideler and Schreurs asked Jurss if they could address the crowd. Usually, that’s something only seniors do.
“They were juniors and I was like, ‘well, yeah, whatever, if you want to motivate the team with some let’s run hard this summer or something,’” he said.
They read a letter and then pulled the missing cactus out of a box to a handful of cheers.
“Some people were surprised but I think the varsity guys were thinking that it was us,” Schreurs said.
So the boys increased their security.
Dominic Willadsen took it home in the offseason and even replanted it to get it ready for this season.
The girls would try to get a picture of the cactus at meets or on the bus this year, but it was not easy.
“I think the boys were all like, ‘leave it alone, don’t touch it,’ that kind of thing, in fun,” Jurss said. “It’s funny because the cactus really does represent the whole team. It’s not just like the boys’ cactus, but they seem to have a real ownership of it.”
With a few weeks left, this season would the girls steal the cactus again?
“No, we would get caught easily,” Schreurs said.