Pheasants For Life

Parker High School head cross country & track coach Phil Bjorneberg, left, poses for a photo during an indoor meet in February at the DakotaDome in Vermillion with Zack Anderson, one of his former athletes and now an All-American high jumper at the University of South Dakota. Bjorneberg is retiring after this school year, leaving a legacy of strong track and cross country programs at Parker.

When Zack Anderson was in high school, there was a certain spot he liked to sit during his social studies class.

It was in the back corner.

There were state championship pictures and other memorabilia that showcased the cross country and track & field success that Phil Bjorneberg has brought to Parker.

“It was the coolest thing,” said Anderson, now an All-American high jumper at the University of South Dakota.

“Sitting by all that success, something would manifest inside you. It’s easy to believe in your coach when there’s success on the table.”

And with Bjorneberg, there has been plenty of that for the Pheasants.

His boys’ cross country program has won state championships in 2010, 2011 and 2012, and Parker won the combined team title in 2013. His boys’ track team also won the 2014 state title.

Now, after 34 years in Parker (the only school he’s ever been at), Bjorneberg is retiring.

“I’m a one-job guy,” he joked this week.

“I was a 23-year-old guy who had never been outside of Sioux Falls except for college.”

A Sioux Falls native and Black Hills State University graduate, Bjorneberg — a social studies teacher and head cross country/track coach — came to Parker in the fall of 1986.

One of his fellow teachers recently did the math: Bjorneberg has spent the equivalent of a year of his life driving to and from school every day — he lives in Sioux Falls.

Sure, there have been regrets that Bjorneberg has never lived in Parker, he said, but he landed in what he called a “perfect situation.”

“I’ve loved the size of the school, because you get to know everybody,” Bjorneberg said.

When he first arrived in Parker, the school did not have a cross country program, but Bjorneberg served as the assistant girls’ basketball coach.

“Basketball was my first love,” said Bjorneberg, who had played basketball at Sioux Falls Washington.

He spent 6-7 years as Jill Christensen’s assistant coach before spending four years as the head girls’ basketball coach. He had already served as Parker’s head girls’ track coach, but later took on the boys’ duties as well in 1998 or 1999.

Bjorneberg credits former girls’ standout Annie (Whipkey) Thury with helping him push his athletes.

“She took it very seriously and really pushed me to make sure we had tougher workouts,” he said.

As time went on, Bjorneberg’s boys’ track program began to see the development and progression of a middle schooler named Zack Anderson. Then an eighth grader, Anderson said he can clearly remember a run-in he had with Bjorneberg after clearing 5-foot-2 to win a meet.

“He came up to me and congratulated me, and I thought it was so cool because he was the high school coach,” Anderson said.

In short order, Bjorneberg invited Anderson to compete at a high school meet, and Anderson said he remembers being excited when he cleared 5-feet at that first meet.

The two developed a connection that would last Anderson’s entire career — one that included a high jump mark of 7-feet in 2016, which still has Anderson has one of only six athletes in state history to reach that barrier.

“We molded together really well,” Anderson said. “To me, a coach needs to be a friend, especially when a competition comes — and that’s what high school track is.

“That’s how it was with him; we worked together really well.”

Another standout athlete who blossomed in part due to Bjorneberg’s tutelage is Karley Peters, the former Parker sprinter. She captured nine state titles and 20 state meet medals during her track career, and is now at the University of South Dakota.

She and Anderson are among the 18 individual state meet champions that Bjorneberg has coached during his career — Duane Jongeling won three Class B state cross country titles during Parker’s run of three straight team titles (2010-12).

This spring’s track season was supposed to be Bjorneberg’s grand finale, but that has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic — the status of the state track meet is still up in the air.

Stepping away, though, was something Bjorneberg said he debated on a year ago when the Parker School District lost nearly 200 combined years of experience through retirement.

“It would’ve been fun to go out with that group, but I wasn’t ready,” Bjorneberg said. “I was excited to come back.”

A realization set in early this school year, however, that maybe it was time, he added.

“I started thinking, I don’t know if I want to do this on a daily basis,” Bjorneberg said.

As he prepares to step away from his classroom and his coaching duties, Bjorneberg said he can’t help but feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to teach and coach the kinds of students he did.

“I’ve been very blessed,” he said. “I’ve been around super people, and that makes it that much better.”

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