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Dubuque Hempstead won the first girls cross country state championship in school history on Oct. 29 in Fort Dodge, Iowa. Coach Sharon Klein (back row, second from left) has been named Iowa’s coach of the year by the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association.

Sharon Klein will never forget the support she received as a solitary high school distance runner in a community obsessed with basketball.

The Cuba City, Wis., native has been trying to pay that support forward throughout a 30-year teaching and coaching career in the Dubuque Community School District.

Klein, who guided Dubuque Hempstead to its first girls state cross country championship in late October, on Thursday earned the girls state coach of the year award from the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association. The honor makes her eligible for the national award later in the school year.

“I’m still trying to wrap my mind around it,” Klein said Friday morning. “To think this small-town farmer girl from Cuba City could become a state coach of the year … it’s still hard to comprehend. Thankfully, those coaches and administrators I had in high school supported me and always encouraged me, even when I was running at Loras College.

“I never really thought about the awards. I just thought about helping these young ladies achieve their goals. I had a lot of people who were in my corner helping me achieve my goals, and I just wanted to return the favor.”

From a professional standpoint, that started when Klein served as a student teacher and substitute teacher at Jefferson Middle School. Principal Duane Frick and assistant principal Joe Wysocki encouraged her to give coaching a try, and she started with track and field along with 8th-grade girls basketball.

In 1998, she took her passion for coaching distance runners to the high school coaching level and served as an assistant for Hempstead girls coach Beth Duccini and Hempstead boys coach John Penning in what started as a shared position.

Duccini and Klein helped the Hempstead girls start a streak of state meet appearances eight years ago, and Klein moved into the head coaching position six years ago when Duccini stepped down to spend more time with family. The Mustangs haven’t finished below seventh place at state during Klein’s tenure.

“I’ll admit, I didn’t know if becoming a head coach would happen, but I’ve always been happy coaching in the district,” Klein said. “I had a few other opportunities and I could have left, but I wanted to hang in there and see what happened.

“For some people, becoming a head coach might happen quicker, but I wouldn’t change a thing about my path. I think this award shows that hard work and dedication will pay off.”

But Klein’s vision for the program involves more than just hard work.

“We have a lot of fun,” Brooke O’Brien, a Hempstead junior said on the eve of the state meet. “One of our main focuses is on having fun instead of just work, work, work. We want to work at it, but we also want to appreciate the time we get together. We know we can’t take anything for granted, especially in these times.”

The No. 2-ranked Mustangs placed three runners in the top 20 en route to 108 points while defeating top-ranked Pleasant Valley by 24 points for the Iowa Class 4A championship at Lakeside Golf Course in Fort Dodge. Keelee Leitzen, a sophomore who became the first Dubuque public school runner to win a girls state championship during her freshman campaign, led the Mustangs with a fifth-place finish this season.

“We’ve all been walking on Cloud Nine since that day, and I think winning this award is just like a cherry on the top of it all,” Klein said. “To be honest, it’s something I really wasn’t thinking about, so it kind of took me by surprise.

“We’ve already transitioned into preparing for the (spring) track season and I’ve been helping out with the Polar Bear Club, so we’ve kind of moved on from the cross country season.”

Klein’s name will be on the award, but she considers it to be a group effort. When her phone “blew up” with congratulations, it drove home the point.

“I’m very honored and grateful for all the people who have been in my corner, especially my family and the Hempstead family,” Klein said. “It’s a huge deal for all of us, not just me. This doesn’t happen without the buy-in from the girls, parental support and administration support.

“And I can’t say enough about Amanda Edwards. She’s so much more than an assistant coach to me. This is just as much her program as it is anybody’s, and she deserves the recognition, too.”

Klein’s influence on her runners extends beyond high school graduation. During the Christmas break, she went on runs with many of her former athletes.

“It was such a gift to be able to do that,” Klein said. “It means a lot to me that they still want to hang out with the old coach and talk shop with her.

“When you win a state championship or get an award like this, you reflect on all the people that have helped you. And I’ve been very fortunate.”

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