Organizers in Ishpeming, Mich., had everything in place to host the 2003 U.S. SuperTour Finals and Distance Nationals. Everything but snow. The area had encountered a heat wave and with barely any coverage, the competitions needed to be moved.
The chief of competition and the organizing committee for the weeklong event, Joe Haggenmiller had his hands full in finding a new venue. A little more than an hour northwest was his answer.
Houghton, located in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, had plenty of snow and had reconfigured its trail system three years earlier. What began as a headache for Haggenmiller would become a defining moment for the next 14 years of his life.
While organizing that SuperTour event, Haggenmiller fell in love with Houghton, particularly the newly developed trails maintained by Michigan Technological University (MTU). When Michigan Tech advertised an opening for a head ski-coaching position a couple months later, Haggenmiller decided to apply.
“After spending a week up there, I was really intrigued by the opportunity to train on that trail system,” Haggenmiller reflected on the phone earlier this week. “Before that I hadn’t really had a chance to get to know the Houghton area. Then when the position opened two or three months later, it really seemed like an exciting opportunity.”
He got the job — his first within the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), though he had been involved in coaching beforehand for eight-plus years — and for the next 14 years, Haggenmiller led the Huskies’ cross-country skiing and running programs.
During his tenure, scholarships were introduced and his position became full-time for the first time in the university’s history. The resources to build a high-caliber college program were surfacing, and Haggenmiller was at the helm.
“The administration and I worked together in the early years to change the level of commitment the university was putting into the program,” he explained. “All those factors contributed to going from, ‘Boy, if we just get someone to NCAAs [Skiing Championships] to ‘Boy, if we don’t get four people to NCAAs who are going to compete well, then we haven’t really done our job for the year, we had an off-year as far as NCAA qualifying goes.”
Under Haggenmiller, MTU’s Division II ski team produced not only national-level competitors, but adept ones. More than 40 of his athletes qualified for NCAAs, and seven of those finished in the top 10 at the championships to become All-Americans. In 2010, Haggenmiller coached the men’s to team Central Collegiate Ski Association (CCSA) championship title. Two years later, he did the same for the women.
“Regionally, getting one skier to the NCAA’s was a successful year, whereas I think now with Joe we’re looking at two three or four skiers being successful here,” Joel Isaacson, Michigan Tech’s associate athletic director for external relations, said of the changes he witnessed with Haggenmiller as head coach.
“Joe definitely pushed our program to be better as an institution,” Isaacson continued. “That’s with quality of the student athlete that we’re bringing in, the competitiveness of our program, pushing our department to start hosting events and do that on a continuous cycle. He was a big advocate in our department to make sure that we were show casing our premier trails.”
Beyond helping improve individual performances, Haggenmiller also helped bring U.S. Cross Country Ski Championships to Houghton (first in 2007), as well Junior Nationals Qualifiers. U.S. nationals would come to Houghton three more times: in 2008, 2015 and 2016.
“That’s definitely something that bittersweet about moving on,” said Haggenmiller, who recently resigned from his role as MTU head coach. “I built up some great relationships with the people who really were the movers and shakers and the race organizing committee, and not only is it a great course, it’s a great group of people.”
While he enjoyed his time at Michigan Tech and the opportunity to develop its program, a restructuring of the position last season prompted him to seek new opportunities. His wife took a job in Duluth, Minn., and after spending a year four hours away from his family (including two daughters, ages 10 and 14), the 48-year-old Twin Cities native decided to return to his home state.
“I have accepted a position with Central Cross Country (CXC) skiing,” Haggenmiller said.
He’ll mostly work in the realm of athletic development and organizing CXC’s race series, as well as with clubs, he explained. His official first day on the job was Monday, May 1, and though the position is new to the CXC program and doesn’t have an official title, his future in the skiing world continues, now in athlete-and-program development instead of college coaching.
“I certainly wouldn’t be opposed to getting back into NCAA coaching,” he added. “At this point I also don’t know what the future might hold.”
Michigan Tech is currently in the hiring process for a new head cross-country skiing and running coach.
“A key for Michigan Tech is finding a candidate that is going to make our student athletes not only successful on the trails and in the classroom, but also going to make good men and women. Good husbands, good wives, good moms, good dads,” Isaacson said.
Gabby Naranja considers herself a true Mainer, having grown up in the northern most part of the state playing hockey and roofing houses with her five brothers. She graduated from Bates College where she ran cross-country, track, and nordic skied. She spent this past winter in Europe and is currently in Montana enjoying all that the U.S. northwest has to offer.