Contributor: The Nerd
This is it, folks. The Nebraska high school cross country season is over, and it's time for me to recognize that I have a wife, a job and two basset hounds. I can't live in distance running heaven forever. I have to go back to the real world.
But first, let's take a victory lap and hit the highlights of the State meet. I could write 10,000 words and not do justice to the eight-Super-Bowls-in-an-afternoon extravaganza, but you'd lose interest after about five minutes. Instead, I'll give you my nerdy observations from the back side of the course where only photographers and highly-athletic fans dare to venture.
Before I forget
We wrote last week about the Omaha Burke runner who fell 75 meters short of the finish line at the A-2 District race - and the Bellevue East boy who helped him cross the finish. Our Tweet and subsequent Facebook post have reached over 2 million people, led to a local TV news feature and now a story on the NBC Nightly News on Sunday, 10/24 on the 5:30 newscast. We'll post a NBC link if we find one, but Brandon Schutt (the Good Samaritan) and Blake Cerveny (the fallen runner) have taken the notoriety in stride. We're thrilled to see the two boys on TV and we hope that it sheds further light on the cross country community and the wonderful humans who inhabit it.
On an entirely different note, it surprises me that a person could read about the two boys and still find a way to be critical of it on Facebook. I had to delete a lot of dumb comments from seemingly well-credentialed medical professionals who know nothing about distance running, as well as non-runners who were trying to blame other competitors from not helping Blake. However, the posts and article clearly hit a nerve -- people are looking for anything that reminds us that most humans are innately good.
Results and interviews
There were sixteen athletes who finished first or second at State. We managed to interview fourteen of them in the last two weeks, and those interviews are posted at:
Class A - Dahl, Sievers, Hinrichs, Kirchner, Romary
Class B - Rodewald, Seiler, Stuckey, Ejerso, Boonstra
Class C - Green, Henning, Noecker, Bonifas
Class D - Schlueter, Kuncl, Arens, Swanson
To my knowledge, of the eighteen athletes, only a few (Hinrichs, Dahl, Sievers and Romary) have been featured in a statewide publication. We were particularly excited to post the first extensive profile of Carson Noecker, now a 3-time Class C XC champion. All eighteen kids have a wide variety of backgrounds and achievements, and Keeli Green and Madison Seiler may have the most far-fetched stories of them all. The paths those two girls traveled to become 2021 State champions are truly incredible.
The results for all eight races are on the NSAA website and posted on our Results page at www.preprunningnerd.com/results.
Just like we've done for the last five years, we'll be posting a lot of photos from all eight State races. We came home with about 10,000 photos, so it will take some time to get them posted to www.facebook.com/preprunningnerd. Class A photos have been posted, and we'll hopefully knock out the rest of the races by Wednesday night.
If you're still waiting for the Class District photos, it will be a while. We have about 10,000 to edit, and State takes precedent.
Some records are made to be broken
In the pre-State hype, I suppose we overlooked the fact that this year's amazing athletes were going to have to run incredibly well to break the State records set by previous amazing athletes. While we had hoped for more, the three State meet records set this year ought to be a record... but it's not. Three State records were also broken in 2016 and in 2020, and I'm sure there were even better years that I haven't found. The records that were broken:
Class A girls: Elli Dahl of Fremont ran 17:58 to break Stella Miner's 18:11 record from 2020 (in a previous Nerdsletter I mistakenly listed Jeralyn Poe of Lincoln North Star as still holding the record at 18:14 ).
Class C girls: Keeli Green of Arlington ran 18:50 to top the record of 19:18 set by Alexus Sindelar of Pierce in 2020. Lindee Henning Ogallala played a huge role in Keeli's record, pushing Keeli well past 3200 meters.
Class C boys: Carson Noecker of Hartington Newcastle ran 15:19 to break his own 2020 mark of 15:22. Like nearly every race in the last two years, he ran the last 4600 meters without any company.
The following records were not broken this year:
Class A boys: Gabe Hinrichs took the all-Class gold in 15:18 but Seth Hirsch's 15:04 in 2016 still stands.
Class B boys: Greg Kahnk of Elkhorn ran 15:25 in 1987. Veteran coaches believe the 1987 course was short due to some construction on the country club grounds. Mesuidi Ejerso of South Sioux City won this year's title in 16:28.
Class B girls: Mazie Larsen of Gretna set the record in 2016 with a 18:31; this year Madison Seiler of Gering won her second straight title, this time in 19:29. With more than 9 weeks of training under her belt, we think Madison could have a shot at the record next year.
Class D boys: Ty Schlueter of Ainsworth was hoping to knock off the record of an Ainsworth alum, Ben Arens, who ran 16:02 in 2018. Ty won the title but fell short of the record with a 16:40.
Class D girls: Rylee Rice of Ainsworth may have the most difficult 'old' record to break; she ran 18:34 in 2016. Jordyn Arens of Crofton ran an incredible solo race in 19:11.
The prospect for more records fell off a bit when the temps rose and the clouds stayed away. While it was a beautiful day to be a spectator, it was too hot for a distance runner's preference, and the number of DNFs among ranked runners reflected that.
Of course, there's always next year. Noecker, Green, Seiler, and Arens all return, as does former record holder Stella Miner, who sat out this fall due to transfer rules.
In Class A, 8 of the top 10 girls return, led by silver medalist Jaci Sievers. Only seven medalists return for Class A boys, but two-time medalists Piercze Marshall and Isaac Ochoa headline that group.
In Class B, the top 9 girls return and the top 11 of 14 boys return.
In Class C, the girls return 7 in the top 11, while the boys bring back 8 medalists.
In Class D, a whopping 13 medalists return for the girls, while just six medalists return for the boys.
Is it too early to make our 2022 rankings?
A tough day for tough kids
There's an old saying, "If you fly too close to the sun, you may get burned," and that certainly applied to a number of ranked runners who went out with the leaders. Eight years ago, when I wandered back to the XC world, the traditional wisdom at the State course was to let some other fool lead through the first mile while you relaxed 5 to 10 seconds back. Seth Hirsch's highly-successful front-running tactics may have been partly to blame for the shift, but Seth was playing to his strengths -- he didn't have a great kick, so he wanted to run the sprint out of his competitors' legs.
While Friday's early morning cool temps suggested that aggressive running might be rewarded, the course said otherwise. Cross country races are never won in the first mile, particularly in Kearney, but they are often lost there. I couldn't always catch the-race-within-the-race from behind my camera, but Claire White of Westside ran one of the smarter races of the day. She was probably in 25th place after 200 meters, 7th at 1000, 5th and closing at 3000, and she ended up in 3rd in 18:34 with a 21-second margin before 4th place. Could she ran more aggressively and tried to challenge Jaci Sievers for 2nd place? Yes, but I don't think it would have worked. In my opinion, Sievers could have ran faster than 18:27 if she had someone to fight after Elli Dahl pulled away from her.
I've attended a lot of races and I have a pretty good sense of who's going to fall based on whether they're running a straight line and how their body is tilted. With 400 meters to go, Carter Waters of Fremont was in 4th place but listing to one side, and he had all the signs of a guy about to lose his legs. He had no business finishing, and yet he held his 4th place. If not for his guts, there is no chance Fremont would have won the team title.
Less than a minute later at the same spot, I saw another Fremont runner walking. It wasn't until I was editing Class A photos that I realized that runner was Braden Taylor, Fremont's other top runner, ranked #9 in Class A and a guy whom we thought had to place high in order for Fremont to have any chance at upsetting Millard West. Braden was in 10th place at 3000 meters, tied for 8th at 3200 meters (10:24 split), and then at some point just before 4600 meters he lost the ability to run. Within probably 15 seconds of walking, he was the 7th Fremont man and had zero chance of having his points count. It was clear he was cooked.
The Fremont fans and coaches, who had been yelling 'finish hard' at their first six runners, quickly transitioned to a 'Walk it in, finish proud' theme. I believe he walked it all the way in, finishing in 20:54. Based on the times of the boys who were with Braden at 4600 meters, I'm guessing that it took Braden four minutes to walk the last 400 meters. Last May, Braden ran 1600 meters in 4:18.
Braden finished next to last. His points didn't matter, but finishing did. This is cross country. We're distance runners. We finish things.
Your grandaughter is fast, Sir
I had one of those this-only-happens-in-cross-country moments in the Class B girls race. After I took pictures at the 900 meter mark, an older gentleman asked me where I was going in the golf cart. I told him I was headed to the 2500-meter mark and he could ride along if he wanted. He jumped in despite having no idea who I was, and I don't think he was sure it was a good idea.
A few minutes later, I figured out he was Kendall Zavala's grandfather, and he ran for UNK back in the day. He was able to see Kendall at 2500 and 3000 meters, and I got him back to the finish line in time. I never did catch his name, but he got to see his granddaughter a few more times. Even better, Kendall finished 2nd in the race and Norris won the team title. Mr. Zavala, you have a very fast granddaughter.
At the front of the races, there were some great match-ups that delivered. Class D probably had the deepest race at the 3200 mark, with Ty Schlueter of Ainsworth leading a pack of five boys (Lander, Kuncl, Hammond, Miles, Orton) by eight seconds. Schlueter expanded that lead and would eventually win by 15 seconds, but Grant Lander came through 4600 meters with a 10-meter lead on 3rd-place Trevor Kuncl. Lander had a similar lead at the UNK meet, with Kuncl winning at the tape. On Friday, Lander appeared to be at maximum effort by 4600 meters while Kuncl still looked relaxed. Kuncl won by five seconds, but Lander finished off an incredible season with a third-place medal.
Jaci Sievers has been Elli Dahl's shadow in their three previous matchups this year, with Dahl winning the three races by a combined 11 seconds. Through 3200 meters, it was the same situation, with Dahl pushing the pace and Sievers on her shoulder. In their first three races, Dahl had been content to kick in the last 200 meters, but she surged at 3400 meters and separated from Sievers. Dahl finished in an all-Class course record of 17:58, while Sievers finished in 18:27 with Nebraska's second fastest time of the year.
Fast is fast, and Daniel Romary proved that at State. While he downplayed his chances during a pre-State interview, he was tied with Evan Caudy for 2nd place at the two-mile split (10:11). Romary was able to create a 50-meter gap over the next 1200 meters, and he dropped 9 seconds off his PR to finish second in 15:43. Daniel's biggest achievements have been on the track, but he's proven to be a strong competitor on the grass.
Class B showdown
Lexington and Skutt have been ranked as the top two Class B teams all season, and their State showdown was impressive. At 2500 meters, out of a pack of 12-14 boys fighting for 10th place, there were at least eight boys from either Lex or Skutt. The above photo shows the situation at 3000 meters, and I think I see at least eight Lex/Skutt boys in the pictures. The Skutt boys were clearly keying off the Lex boys, and vice versa, and I'm sure the fans for both schools were going nuts. In the end, Lex won by just four points.
Reports of great times were greatly exaggerated...
I can't find last week's predictions, but I think I said there could be up to eight sub-16:00 boys and six sub-19:00 girls. We only had three sub-16:00 boys: Hinrichs (15:18), Noecker (15:19) and Romary (15:43). However, the girls had five under 19:00: Dahl (17:58), Sievers (18:27), White (18:34), Green (18:50) and Bri Rinn (18:55). What if the initial forecast had held? It could have been even more impressive than it was.
No room for fear or doubt
During Districts week, I spoke to a number of parents who were worried that their athletes were so worried about performing well that they were going to end up not performing well. In response, I posted my 'No Room for Fear or Doubt' article the night before Districts. Emma Bonsall of Kearney gave us a shout out on Instagram that the article helped her get through her Districts nerves. After the State meet, a Central City fan sent me the above photo of what Ella Buhlke wrote on her arm for the State race. Ella wrapped up her high school XC career with a 12th-place finish in Class C, her first State XC medal. I love it.
Three-time Class A medalists
I've only done the research for Class A, but earning three State XC medals is really hard. Boys struggle to medal as a freshman or sophomore, while it can be difficult for a girl's freshman or sophomore success to continue through their career.
This year we added three boys to the three time list, so there have now been 44 boys since the seniors raced in 1996 that have medal three times in Class A:
Evan Caudy, North Platte, 2019-21, 5th, 4th, 3rd
Gabe Hinrichs, Elkhorn South, 2019-21, 13th, 2nd, 1st
Juan Garcia Grand Island, 2019-21, 8th, 7th, 8th
We have a large list of boys who can make this list: Junior Piercze Marshall and sophomore Issac Ochoa now have two medals, sophomores Denny Chapman, Max Myers and Jack Witte now have one medal, and freshman Juan Gonzalez also earned his first medal.
For the girls, on Friday we added two four-time winners, of which there have been 17 runners since the senior class from the 1996 meet:
Elli Dahl, Fremont, 2018-21, 3rd, 1st, 11th, 1st
Brianna Rinn, Lincoln Southwest, 2018-21, 14th, 12th, 2nd, 4th
There have been an additional 34 runners in that time period who have medaled three times. Heading into next fall, there are eight additional runners who could still possibly reach that distinction: Berlyn Schutz, Claire White, Jaci Sievers, Izzy Apel, and Peyton Svehla already have two medals while sophomores Stella Miner, Mia Murray and Addison Walker each have one.
This is the first year since 2015 that a Class A freshman girl did not medal. Conversely, before Isaac Ochoa medaled last year and Juan Gonzalez (above, right) this year, the last Class A freshman boy to do so was Seth Hirsch in 2013.
Speaking of Caudy and Garcia
Maybe they don't race each six times a year, but it sure seems like it. Evan Caudy of North Platte races in eastern Nebraska a few times each season, but Juan Garcia of Grand Island has probably been his most frequent ranked opponent over the past three years. After Friday's race, Garcia was not doing well in the finish area, and Nerd Junior saw an adult female taking care of Juan - and Evan was with him too. Both boys are class acts. I can't wait to see what they accomplish in college.
Parents are the worst
On Monday I tweeted that a dad had reached out to me via DM, saying "I'm so nervous/excited for State that I can barely work this week." Now that the meet is over, I'll let you know that the dad was Goeffrey Green, the dad of Class C State champ Keeli Green. Goeffrey was a 7'2" high jumper back in the day for Fremont and UNL, and he proves yet again what we've always known: at big races, it's way more stressful to be a parent than the athlete.
Could this race be the springboard your athlete needs?
The State meet is just one race, and I can't overemphasize how one bad race doesn't define an athlete or their career. At 2020 State XC, Drew Snyder of Lincoln Southwest put everything on the line for the chance to win a State title. He couldn't sustain it and faded to 12th. Flash forward to this fall, where's he consistently been the 2nd or 3rd fastest runner on the Baylor University XC team and has been running incredible times.
Conversely, after struggling with Osgood Schlatter's pain for the first three years of high school, as well as growth spurts that left him exhausted before the end of each season, as a senior my son Henry placed 11th at 2020 State XC. That outcome served as a springboard to a more confident training cycle over the winter, plus a renewed focus on doing what he needed to improve. He had an incredible spring and is now running collegiately.
Few athletes run a straight line to success. Two years ago at the UNK meet, Gabe Hinrichs finished 60th at the UNK meet and then 14th at the Metro Conference meet. He struggled so much that he didn't finish a complete workout that year until Districts week, and he was starting to think that "running wasn't my thing." However, he finished 13th at State that year, and then used the COVID spring to become one of the best runners in Nebraska history.
A bad race doesn't define you. It's simply one stop on your journey to success.
Class D girls are coming back strong
With a race every 30 minutes, we don't pay much attention to team scores. I knew the Crofton girls won the Class D title but I didn't realize that the top four teams - including Nebraska Christian, Ainsworth and North Platte St. Pat's - were separated by 7 points. The competition doesn't get any easier next year. Crofton returns sisters Jordyn (1st) and Riley (17th), Nebraska Christian returns their entire team including silver medalist Hannah Swanson, Ainsworth returns its top three including medalists Katherine Kerrigan and Emma Kennedy, and David City Aquinas returns the medal-winning Frasher sisters.
Signs, signs everywhere there are signs
We made a special point to walk along the start line and try to get pictures of the great signs that fans were holding. We missed a lot of them, but we've posted an album at Facebook with some of the best. After all, why should we take pictures of just the athletes? The sign above held by the young girl won the dark humor category, and she was pretty darn excited about it. I later learned that specific phrase is the name of an album from the American death metal band Skinless. I'm not much of an American death metal fan, but perhaps the little girl is.
The most traveled sign at the meet may have come from Jill Bear and her family. Jill's family starting making a sign for her niece, Jaci Sievers, while they were heading east through Colorado. Here's the sign in progress at the Continental Divide, and then again at the finish line with Jaci. Judging by the young age of Jaci's two cousins and the amount of stickers and glitter on that sign, I'm guessing the Bear car may have been uninhabitable by the time it reached Kearney.
Want to love XC even more?
Nerd Junior delegated Class B, C and D ratings to me for this season. Aside from knowing a few standouts like Carson Noecker and Jordyn Arens, my knowledge base was incredibly small after focusing most of my time to Class A the last 7 years. I will tell you this; if you invest the time in getting to know the athletes in the other three classes, then State is an even more awesome experience. Class A doesn't have a monopoly on great stories, triumphs and heartbreaks.
Should we get bigger?
The last nine weeks have been exhausting and incredibly rewarding. Prior to this season, my Nerd work largely involved taking pictures at 9 Class A meets each season plus State and writing a few athlete profiles. With my sons' help, we launched our website in early August and then took on a bunch of new tasks: weekly rankings, publishing results for every race we could find, shooting at multiple races each week, and selling Nerd shirts.
Track and field is an entirely different beast. With 17 events at each track meet and a lot of smaller events, track coverage will take a lot more time. Over the next few months, we'll develop plans for how we can best cover it.
At our Nerd staff meetings (i.e., meal time), we've talked from time to about how we can grow the Nerd coverage. Remember, we're not a business; we're a hobby. That means instead of hiring employees, we just need to find fellow Nerds who have flexible schedules, are good writers, have a good camera/lens and the good judgment to keep us from offending our social media followers. We'd also like to figure out how this can be sustainable so that distance running coverage doesn't fade away once we run out of steam. I guess it's time for another staff meeting.
In the meantime, if you 'have are a very particular set of skills' that would may be a good match for joining the Nerd staff, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org. All we have to offer is some semi-cool swag and a chance to interact with great athletes, coaches and fans. For us, that's been more than enough.
We loved seeing Nerd t-shirts at Kearney and on social media. If you're reading this, you're probably a running nerd too, and you should celebrate that. In hopes of getting shirts to fans before the State meet, a few weeks ago we only opened an online ordering link for 48 hours. We're already working on a new design and hope to have something new for the Christmas season. Since all of the world's electronics and toys are stuck in container ships off of the coast of Long Beach, we might as well help out the common man.
If you like our writing and want to encourage the younger kids in your house to read, I've written two children's chapter books that are available at this link at Amazon. The target audience is ages 7-12, and the books are full of humor, adventure and a little bit of God. My next project, which will have to be a between-seasons hobby, is to start writing a novel about a high school runner. Do you know anyone who might be interested in reading something like that?
Thank you for those precious thirty minutes
The NSAA has adapted the XC meet schedule the past two years to allow for a break after the first four races. While this year's 30-minute break wasn't long enough to take care of all the awards, it was a welcome relief for fans (and photographers) who had just spent two hours chasing athletes.
The season is over. You won.
The State meet has as many heartbreaks as triumphs, but they shouldn't diminish the efforts of every athlete. In that vein, about three years ago I wrote the article, "The Season is Over. You Won." I'm not sure it will ease the pain of not performing well this season, but every cross country runner truly is a winner.
Thank you for the great season
One of the huge upsides of wearing Nerd gear at Districts and State is that hundreds of people said 'hi' to Nerd Junior and me. We love interacting with fans, and y'all are just so dang positive about distance running and what it does for our kids.
I've spent about 200 hours in the last nine weeks on this project, but it's absolutely been worth it to hear the positive feedback from the athletes and their fans. You've been enormously kind in gently correcting our frequent errors. I have learned that the best way to find races (and get results) is to simply ask our followers. For example, every Sunday it took the fans no more than six hours to respond with the entire Nebraska meet schedule for the week.
With the season over, our posts will become much less frequent until track season approaches. We'll continue to share college commitments, info on pre-season indoor meets, and anything else that is nerdy. While we won't post as often, we can't stop being the Nerd.
Originally written for and posted at www.preprunningnerd.com by Jay Slagle.
Do you love reading about Nebraska high school running? Visit www.preprunningnerd.com for rankings, results, photos, long-form articles, frequent updates our blog page, and a bunch of other cool stuff that only running nerds would think to do. If you want to see meet photos or just need to kill a few hours on social media, follow us on Twitter @PrepRunningNerd or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/preprunningnerd.