Contributors: Nerd the Third and Nerd Senior
Top teams in 2022:
2. Millard West
4. Lincoln Southwest
5. Lincoln Pius
Top individual returners:
1) Juan Gonzalez, Fremont (1st)
2) Max Myers, LSW (2nd)
3) Jack Witte, MW (3rd)
4) Isaac Ochoa, Norfolk (5th)
5) Wes Pleskac, Fremont (6th)
6) Dennis Chapman, Creighton Prep (8th)
7) Braden Lofquest, Gretna (10th) - Class B in 2023
8) Sergio Martinez, Omaha South (13th)
9) Porter Bickley, MW (14th)
10) Jayden Wall, Westside (17th)
Apart from a few big names that have graduated, the class A boys cross country scene will look very similar to last fall, with 5 of the top 6 medalists returning. It’s not often that we see a sophomore win, as Juan Gonzalez (Fremont) did last year, although Liem Chot also accomplished that in 2018. Time will tell if he can match Chot’s 3 straight titles. Gonzalez comes off a great track campaign, running 1:57, 4:15, and 9:11. His foot speed continues to surprise us. He’s been a force since his first XC season, and he has gained strength and avoided injuries, setting him up well for a title defense. Last fall, Juan came into the season extremely sharp, running 15:19 at the notoriously-fast Augustana Twilight meet. Many Nebraska teams open their seasons here, so we may get a good feel for how his early-season fitness compares to several of the other top competitors.
Last May Jack Witte (Millard West) further cemented himself as one of the region’s best milers. He only lost 4 races this spring: an irrelevant district qualifier, two 800 races, and a 4x800 race at State that Burke’s Reed Emsick really seemed to enjoy. He ran 4:13 on two separate occasions this spring, snatching the school record away from Millard West legend Seth Hirsch. His 800 PR is also better than Hirsch’s (2:03). Matching a theme that seemed to impact nearly all areas of Nebraska distance running in 2022/2023, Witte helped raise the bar. Consider this: the 15th best 1600m time in Spring 2023 was 4:24. We have not been keeping comprehensive lists in the past, but that stat is bonkers.
We were mildly surprised to see Max Myers (LSW) finish second last fall with so many strong competitors in the field, but we shouldn’t have been. Myers has been extremely consistent and competitive every time out. He took 4th in both the 1600/3200 at state (4:21/9:28) and his strengths may be more suited for the 5K. He's an aggressive racer and led the 2022 State race until the last 300 meters, so look for more of that.
It almost seems like Isaac Ochoa (Norfolk) should have graduated by now – haven’t we been talking about him since 2012? - but that just speaks to how long he’s been at the front of races. In fact, he placed 5th as a freshman, 6th as a sophomore and 5th last year after breaking from the pack before the 1K mark (pictured above). Isaac ran well this spring, notching PRs of 1:59, 4:16 and 9:25 over a three-week span, but his 1600/3200 times at State Track were not reflective of how fit he was three weeks prior. Our prediction: Isaac he will become just the 7th class A boy to medal four times in the last 30 years, and the first since North Platte’s Wyatt McGuire in 2013, so Ochoa is in good company.
There is something to be said about athletes that can simply perform on the big day. If anybody has got the ‘IT’ factor on State day, it is Denny Chapman (Creighton Prep). He left State track with bests of 1:54 (2nd), 4:20 (3rd) and nearly PRed with a 9:23 (3rd) in a warm and tactical 3200. (In fact, if you’re discussing distance MVPs of the Class A meet based on points, Witte led the pack with 22 points followed by Chapman with 20 and Gonzalez with 18.) In terms of progression, Chapman had arguably largest the improvement since last cross country season. He played soccer instead of track his first two years of high school, so the 2023 indoor season was the first time he’d raced the 1600 since junior high. Like many of these top athletes, Chapman’s goal is to run in college, and the results he’s throwing down will certainly give him some option.
Wes Pleskac (Fremont), despite a quiet track season where he set PRs of 4:29 and 9:46, should have a chance to improve on last year’s placing. He finishing a surprising 6th last fall, and it will be no surprise if he is at the front this year. Braden Loftquest, who in May repeated Frank Shue’s 2016 achievement of winning the Class A 800 out of the slow heat, will not be competing for Gretna. Due to some fairly rigid geographic divisions between Gretna High and Gretna East, Braden will join the Griffins in Class B. More about him later. Sergio Martinez (Omaha South) was one of the few individual OPS qualifiers last fall and aims to capitalize on his previous success. He has no track results for his first three years of high school - he’s likely a soccer player – so our last gauge of his fitness is from nine months ago. Jayden Wall looks to lead Omaha Westside to one of their most successful seasons in recent memory. Add Wall to a training group that includes juniors Conor Gross (1:57/4:23, 42nd in 2022 XC) and Ryan Kugler (4:34/9:54, 61st in XC), and that triple threat just needs two more boys to be a top-5 team. If we recall correctly, Porter Bickley (Millard West) was recuperating from injury when the 2022 XC season began, and he steadily improved through the season. He followed that up with a solid track season, setting PRs of 4:24 and 9:30, and medaling in State at both races. He couldn’t ask for a better racing partner than Witte, so he’s a solid bet to finish his HS XC career with a career-best finish. Absent injury, male athletes typically improve year-over-year, and that bodes well for Lincoln Pius’ Joseph Majerus and David Krier. They were the top two freshman last fall, finishing 21st and 23rd respectively. Majerus ran PRs of 4:29/9:42 in the spring while Krier dipped under 10:00 at the State meet to finish 11th. Josiah Bitker of Lincoln North Star was a rock star in junior high and had a solid freshman season, finishing 12th at Districts XC and running 4:29/9:55 on the track. Speaking of Lincoln, Lincoln East’s Hudson Davy ran 4:30/9:50 this spring after finishing 18th at State XC. Easton Zastrow, a junior at Lincoln North Star, was right behind him in 19th, and Zastrow registered PRs of 1:57/4:25 in the spring. Zastrow also finished third in the Rising Stars section of the NXR in Sioux Falls last fall, earning a coveted podium spot with his 16:06. John Fiedler of Papio South finished 22nd last fall and is definitely a medal threat; he ran a season-best 9:59 in the spring. He won the low-key Shawn Gray 5k a few weeks ago against some solid competition. Most notably, John was rocking a mustache at the Shawn Gray 5K; if he keeps that throughout the season, he’ll be a fan favorite and could be in the mix for a spot in the 2024 Olympics. Freshman boys are rarely a factor in Class A (although Isaac Ochoa and Juan Gonzalez are two recent exceptions). Additionally, it’s a bit difficult to assess the prospects when OPS doesn’t post junior high track results and most Omaha schools don’t send athletes to the Junior High State track meet in Gothenburg. However, there a few boys that crossed our radar, in part because a whopping nine 8th graders ran sub-5:00 1600s this spring: · Hutton Rettig, son of the Lincoln High coach, ran a 4:55 1600 this spring. He finished 2nd in the very competitive LPS XC meet behind… · Trey Crabtree, who is also expected to run at Lincoln High, won the LPS XC race in 2022 and has a 5:04 in his only 1600 recorded on athletic.net. We’re guessing his PR is better than that. · Jack Knapp joins the North Platte team after finishing 3rd at JH State XC and posting a 4:54 1600 in the spring. Our predictions: Nerd the Third: Gonzalez repeats with Chapman and Witte on his tail. Nerd Senior: A toss-up between Gonzalez, Witte, Chapman and Myers. Ochoa has a strong chance to break into the top three if he resumes the hot streak he was from mid-April through early May. Team race: Class A now has 33 boys and girls teams due to Omaha Westview, Omaha Buena Vista and Lincoln Pius opting up again this year. In Class B there are 26 girls teams and just 24 boys teams. It's an interesting imbalance that we haven't seen recently.
Fremont has won four of the last five State titles, with LSW winning in 2019. We had Millard as slight favorites in 2021 and heavy favorites in 2022, but in both years Fremont had role players deliver clutch performances. They return their top three State finishers in 2023 – Juan Gonzalez, Wes Pleskac and Noah Miller (24th in 2022, junior, 9:52 PR). While they’ll have to fill out the rest of their squad with new varsity runners, depth has never been an issue for the Tigers. Millard West was 2nd in 2021 and 2022, and they return seniors Jack Witte, Porter Bickley and Tommy McMullen from the 2022 team. Millard West traditionally fields a huge squad, and the following boys are among those who will be looking for a spot on varsity: senior Keegan Sutphen, juniors Henry Hansen and Michael Jones, sophomores Logan Dobkins, Levi Riedel and Knox Killham, and freshmen Eli Bickley, Cale Frazier and Paul McMullen. Gretna finished third last year but graduation and the new Gretna East school will limit their returners. Gavin Luthi (33rd at 2022 State, now a junior) and Caleb Larsen (50th, sophomore) are the only varsity returners. Nolan Ienn and Brady Donahue will also be contributors after strong summer training. LSW returns runner-up Max Myers and two boys from notable running families. Jacob Rinn (36th, senior) ran 1:58/4:41 this spring while Connor Boyle (55th, sophomore) had PRs of 2:09 and 4:43 during track season. They typically have a huge squad, so they should round out their varsity in due time. While Lincoln Pius had no 2022 medalists, it does return its top five finishers from last fall. In addition to Majerus and Krier (mentioned above), they return Maceo Nielson (32nd, senior, 2:06), George Ivanov (46th, junior, 10:20) and b (47th, senior, 4:42). Lincoln East finished 6th last year and returns three boys: Hudson Davy (18th, senior, 4:30/9:50), Caleb Ruch (59th, junior, 4:37) and Ben Schlegelmilch (75th, sophomore, 10:11). Sophomore Chanh Tran had only limited summer miles before his freshman year, and both he and Darin Linscott have had solid summers. Juniors Krithik Pondicherry (prior varsity experience and a humorous Strava follow), Henry Bright, Luke Overbeek and Nicholas Holloway will make a play for a varsity spot along with seniors William McConnell and Tyler Hogg as well as sophomore Joshua Schulte. Creighton Prep returns 6 of their 7 finishers from a 7th place team. In addition to Chapman, they return Paul Youell (27th, senior, 4:39/10:04, sub-16:00 at Augustana Twilight), Jacob Finney (40th, senior, 4:34/10:06), Owen Jensen (58th, senior), Aidan McGarry (77th, senior) and Eli Jones (85th, senior, 4:39/10:03). Based on what I’ve seen on Strava, most of these guys have been running consistently all summer. Chapman stands above them in terms of pure talent, and he’ll likely need to take on a significant leadership role to get the most out of the team. Among other 2022 team qualifiers, Papio South only lost Quin Karas to graduation while Westside returns its top three and 7th finisher. Elkhorn South returns its #3, 4, 5 and 7 runners, but it will be hard to replace Luke Johnson and Grant Dixon. Both Burke and Lincoln Southeast return four of their seven State competitors. While they will all be tough to replace, all four teams have a common denominator: great coaches. Our predictions: Nerd the Third: The team title seems completely wide open, and any prediction would be a blatant guess. Millard West, Fremont, and Creighton Prep seem the strongest. Nerd Senior: I think Fremont is the favorite due to the track record of their top three returners and their uncanny ability to fill gaps caused by graduation. Lincoln Pius and Creighton Prep have a strong potential if their returning athletes continue to improve. A number of the traditional powers – Millard West, Lincoln Southwest, Papio South – could challenge for the top 2 spots if their #3-5 spots are strong. I don’t recall another year where we didn’t have a solid co-favorite, but I don’t think we’ll have a good feel for team strength until we see results from the Platte River Rumble and UNK meet.
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Finally, if you think runners, jumpers and throwers are the best things on earth, you'll enjoy our two most popular articles. In 2018 we published "The Runner with the Broken Heart" about a high school boy who finished last in nearly every race he ran. In 2022 we published, "The Fall and Rise of Emmett Hassenstab," a story about a high school triple jumper who became a quadrapalegic after a swimming accident.