Contributor: The Nerd
With apologies to the top runners in other classes, the Class C interviews were the phone calls I was looking forward to the most. I have never seen an interview with Carson Noecker, arguably the most decorated runner in the State the past two years, and our two brief conversations at State T&F made me want to interview him even more. Conversely, top-ranked Keeli Green is so new on the scene that we didn’t even rank her the first two weeks of the season, and what she told me during the interview may be even more surprising than her performances this year. Finally, Lindee Henning and Luke Bonifas have been absolute studs this year, so it was great to hear their backgrounds.
Keeli Green, junior, Arlington
2020 State XC: N/A – softball player
2021 Track: Class B State results: 17th in 200 (26.67, PR), 7th in long jump (16’9.75”, PR 17’5”), 8th in triple jump (35’2.5”, PR 35’6”) and 4th in 4x400 (4:08.35).
2021 XC PR: 18:29, Fort Atkinson/Fort Calhoun C-1 Districts, 10/14
I have written two children’s books and thousands of work documents, so I have typed a lot of ridiculous things. This article on Keeli Green may top them all. A few years ago I wrote a long article on Lincoln Southwest’s Kate Dilsaver, who medaled at State XC as a freshman but as a sophomore convinced her track coach to let her try the 400, then the 200, and finally the 100. Kate earned State gold medals in the 100 and 200 that year. From my perspective, Keeli’s story is even more far-fetched.
Consider this about Keeli:
1. She played softball in Fall 2019 and Fall 2020.
2. Her freshman T&F season was cancelled due to COVID.
3. During the 2021 T&F season, she qualified for the State Class B meet in the 200, 4x400, triple jump and long jump. She medaled in all but the 200.
4. The last time she was a distance runner was in 7th grade track, but she shifted to jumps and sprints in 8th grade. Before mid-June 2021, the longest run in her life was two miles.
5. Once she started distance running this summer, she averaged just 10 miles per week, and she has never run more than 20 miles in a week. Her longest run has been five miles.
6. She has run seven races in her career – all this year – with times of 19:04 (short course), 19:23, 20:30 (hot day), 18:47, 19:00, 18:50 and 18:29. She has never lost. The 19:00 was on the State/UNK course. Her 18:29 PR at a not-flat Fort Atkinson course is the second-fastest time by a Nebraska girl this season, behind only Elli Dahl of Fremont.
How did Keeli get here? Although she played high school softball for two years, she realized pretty quickly that she didn’t have the size or strength to perform well in high school or in college. By the start of the 2021 track season, she had already decided not to play softball this fall, but at the time she had no plans to join the cross country team. Later in the track season, Coach Curran suggested she consider XC rather than being idle after school.
Keeli did most of her distance running alone this summer, and she didn’t think she was very good at it for the first 30 to 45 days. However, she felt the runner’s high after almost every run, so she knew she wanted to stick with it this season. However, she didn’t have any idea of whether she’d be good until she ran 20:15 in an early-season time trial. One of Keeli’s teammates said that Coach Curran cried that day. I don’t blame her.
Keeli’s toughest race this year was her first race; she was incredibly nervous at the starting line, but that’s improved with each race. She has run alone for most of her races, which she admits can get a bit boring, so she talks and sings to herself quite a bit. What does she tell herself? “Attack the hill” and “keep this pace.” What does she sing? “Something by Shania Twain.”
Although Keeli has had almost instant success in distance running, she’s not giving up on her other passions. She’s considering running Nike regionals in early November, she’ll play basketball in the winter, and she’s currently planning on competing in the long jump, triple jump, 400 and 800 next track season. Jumping seems to be in her blood; her dad Goeffrey was a high jumper at Fremont High and UNL, with a PR of 7’2”.
Keeli wishes she would have joined the cross country team as a freshman but she’s making up for lost time. After she walks to the Kearney starting line with her 4th-ranked teammates, she will have her customary handshake with Coach Regier and then give Coach Curran an ‘ice in my veins’ gesture. Once the gun goes off, she’ll do what she’s done every race this year; jump to the lead, attack the hills and see if she has enough time to sing a little Shania Twain before the finish line.
Regardless of her place, we’re pretty sure that Coach Curran will shed a few tears. A talent like Keeli Green doesn’t come around very often, and she’s a joy to behold.
Lindee Henning, sophomore, Ogallala
2020 State XC: 2nd, 19:28
2021 Track: Class B State, 7th in 1600 (5:26), 7th in 3200 (11:53)
2021 XC PR: 18:54, C-5 District meet, 10/14
Compared to Keeli Green, Lindee Henning is a battle-tested veteran. She began competing in XC in 7th grade and gradually improved during her freshman year, dropping her time from a high of 21:04 to a PR of 19:28 at the State meet where she finish 2nd behind Alexus Sindelar of Pierce. She’s been on a roll this season, winning all six meets with times under 20:00 despite having to sitting on the sidelines for three weeks prior to Districts due to an ankle injury. She bounced back brilliantly from the injury, running a PR of 18:54 at Districts to finish ahead of Talissa Tanquary of Sidney.
We had hoped to see a match-up between Lindee and Keeli at the UNK Invite, but Lindee hurt her ankle a few days prior to that meet. Fortunately, Lindee had developed a strong base over the summer running with the boys team, averaging 20-30 miles per week. Prior to her injury, she was running 30 miles per week in-season, and she counts mile repeats (3 at around 5:40 pace) as her most productive workouts. Her winning margins in 5k races this fall have been 14 seconds (Class A #10 Zarah Blaesi), 30 seconds (Kearney’s Abigail Burger), 44 seconds (Class B #1 Samantha Rodewald), 46 seconds (Class D #4 Peyton Paxton) and 46 seconds (Class C #3 Talissa Tanquary). Lindee feels like she hasn’t run her hardest yet, and she’s looking forward to matching up against Keeli.
Lindee has a few distance running genes in her blood. Her late father was Renier Henning, a South African who competed in middle distance races at UNL from 1991-1994. Renier roomed with Brady Bonsall, the current UNK coach, as a freshman and sophomore. Coach Bonsall filled us in regarding Renier’s athletic feats since race results from the early 1990’s aren’t readily available on the Internet. Renier had PRs of 1:47 (800) and 4:03 (mile) before attending UNL. While at UNL, he qualified for NCAA indoors in both the 800 and 4x800, and his UNL cross country team missed qualifying for Nationals by one spot in both 1993 and 1994.
Lindee’s older brother Jaco medaled at State XC as a freshman, sophomore and junior, and he was a member of the 2018 Ogallala 4x800 team that set the Class B record (7:55.3) and won the State title in 7:58.3.
Lindee’s family moved to Ogallala from South Africa when she was young. In both life and cross country, she’s traveled great distances, and we’re thrilled to have three more State meets to watch her shine.
Carson Noecker, junior, Hartington-Newcastle
2020 State XC: 1st, 15:22 (also 1st in 2019, 16:03)
2021 Track: Class C State, 2nd in 1600 (4:23), 1st in 3200 (9:24), 4th in 4x800 (8:21)
2021 XC PR: 14:58, C-3 District meet, 10/14
For a moment, picture a master craftsman toiling away in his workshop, improving his skill every day outside the hustle and bustle of modern life. That seems to be the way of Carson Noecker, the Hartington-Newcastle athlete who continues to run in relative anonymity despite my efforts to tell the Nebraska running community about him.
For reasons I don’t fully understand, Northeast Nebraska is where race results go to die. Only four of Carson’s eight meets this year are posted on www.athletic.net but I believe I’ve found all of them. Here are his times this fall in chronological order: 16:34, 15:37, 15:37, 15:33, 15:58 (UNK), 16:00, 15:34, 14:58.
The guy must be a high-mileage monster, right? Um, not so much. He doesn’t track his mileage but estimates he ran 30-40 miles per week in the summer (supplemented with biking), and in-season mileage is less than 30 miles per week. He doesn’t have any secret workouts that make him great, although he credits core work, hill repeats and short intervals on grass as helping him build strength.
During our interview, I pushed back on Carson when he told me his limited training program. He confirmed that he doesn’t run as much as other top athletes, and he gives most of the credit to his God-given talent.
Carson and I first talked about God last May on the infield at Burke Stadium just minutes after he won the Class C State title in the 3200. Early in the race I had noticed him pulling at his singlet and I assumed it was askew. However, he continued to pull on it throughout the race, and it finally dawned on me. I asked him after the race: “Were you making the Sign of the Cross during the race?” His response: “The 3200 is a hard race so I try to give glory to Him for every lap I am able to run.”
Carson has lost two races during his high school career. While athletic.net doesn’t reflect it, Carson says that his freshman year he lost to Mason Sindelar of Pierce (now excelling at South Dakota) at the Battle Creek cross country invite. This past May he finished second to Payton Davis of Aquinas in the State 1600. After that race, I found Carson on the infield and asked for his thoughts on the race. His face lit up: “That was fun!” That reaction aligns with what he told me on the phone a few weeks ago; he loves distance running because competitors respect each other regardless of their finishing place.
If you surmised that Carson is singularly focused on running, you’d be dead wrong. He plays outfield for Hartington’s Legion team in the summer, he’s active in 4H and FFA, and most evenings he is in charge of milking the cows on his family’s dairy farm. He watched a little Olympics this year but mostly he appreciates simple things like spending time with his three younger siblings, including sister Ava, who qualified for State this year as a sophomore. He just got his first cell phone and he isn’t on social media. His two older brothers Noah and Brody both ran cross country, and he said he was inspired to excel in distance running after watching Hartington’s Brian Santiago, who now competes at Mount Marty.
Carson hasn’t thought much about college, and he’s quite possibly the most under-recruited three-time State champion in Nebraska. He’ll probably pursue a major in the agricultural field. He seems to be in no hurry to begin the recruiting process, but we’re fairly certain that he’ll have more than a few coaches at his doorstep whenever he’s ready to talk.
In the more immediate future, he’d like to win the State XC title for the third time and improve upon his 15:22 from last year. He’s likely to run alone after the first 400 meters, and we expect he’ll establish a time that the Class A boys will be chasing in pursuit of the all-Class gold. Beyond State, Carson is unlikely to run at Nike Regionals, so Nebraska fans aren’t going to get the Hinrichs/Noecker matchup they’ve been wanting.
Once Friday’s race is over, Carson will thank God regardless of how well he runs. I’m equally certain that I will be thankful, along with thousands of other fans in Kearney, that I was able to see greatness from such a talented and humble young man.
Luke Bonifas, senior, Adams Central
2020 State XC: 79th, 18:38
2021 Track: Class B State, 4th in 1600 (4:32), 9th in 3200 (10:10, PR of 9:59), 8th in 4x800 (8:29)
2021 XC PR: 16:20, C-4 District, 10/14
If you’re an athlete who hasn’t had the meteoric rise of the three athletes featured above, you might question whether you should carry on if you don’t have success in your debut season. Luke Bonifas’ experience should convince you otherwise.
Luke played football and ran track in junior high. His 7th-grade 1600 PR was 5:33, but he cut 20 seconds off of that time in 8th grade to qualify for the State Junior High track meet in Gothenburg. At the State meet he ran another 5:13 – and was humbled to finish in 13th place. He realized then that training only in the spring was not going to make him successful in distance running.
He describes himself as a competitor, and he relishes that distance running offers ‘no-one-to-rely-on-but-you’ racing experiences every week, with greater effort usually leading to better outcomes. While his twin brother Drew continued to play football in high school, Luke committed to cross country and track in 9th grade.
Luke saw success as a freshman and sophomore, qualifying individually for State XC in both years, but he finished out of the medals (26th and 17th) both years. In freshman track, he established PRs of 5:02 and 10:44 but did not qualify for Class B State.
Luke’s breakthrough came during last fall’s junior XC campaign after consistent mileage over the COVID spring and summer. He won his first five meets and seemed poised for a high finish at the UNK meet until he got a bad cold. He suffered to a 34th place finish at UNK, had a series of average performances the next three meets, and then ran an 18:38 at State for 79th place. He simply could not recover from his pre-UNK illness, and the hills and bone-chilling weather at State were exactly the opposite of what his lungs needed that day. However, he quickly moved past it. “God has a purpose to everything; just because State was bad doesn’t mean anything; it may eventually be revealed as something that was good for me.”
He really had his first taste of high-level success at the State track meet in May, placing 4th in Class B in the 1600, 9th in the 3200 and 8th in the 4x800. His 1600 PR improved from the 5:02 as a freshman to 4:32 as a junior. That success motivated him to build up to 45 miles per week by the end of the summer, and his consistent mileage has paid dividends this fall. He has averaged 40 miles per week in-season, and credits hill repeats, 400 repeats, progression runs and 800/800/3x1000 workouts for getting him into top form. The results of his hard work are easy to spot. He has won 7 of his 8 races this season, losing only to Carson Noecker at UNK, even though half of the meets featured ranked Class B competitors from Skutt, Lexington, York and Seward.
Luke would like to compete in college but he hasn’t been recruited much since his best performances began last May. He’s looking at UNK, Doane and Concordia as likely destinations. He wants to make sure he’s a good fit for both the school, campus, team and coach, so he hopes to figure that out after he’s made all of his visits this fall.
As Luke looks ahead to State competition, he is realistic: “Carson Noecker’s performances are always insane, so I’m shooting for second.” His toughest competition for that spot is likely going to be the highly-ranked boys on the www.preprunningnerd.com/rankings list: Nolan May of Arlington, Kaleb Eickhoff of Milford, Ethan Olsen of Gothenburg, and a bunch of talented athletes from Sidney and Fort Calhoun.
It’s been an uphill battle for Luke the past four years. Now that he’s fit and healthy, he’s looking forward to competing one last time on those Kearney hills.
Originally written for and posted at www.preprunningnerd.com by Jay Slagle.
Like this coverage of Nebraska high school distance running? There's more of this at www.preprunningnerd.com. Check out the Blog tab for our frequent stories, the Articles tab for long-form articles, the Results tab for every Nebraska high school race we could find this year, and the Rankings tab for team and individual rankings. 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. Finally, if you thinking runners are the best thing on earth, you'll enjoy our article, "The Runner with the Broken Heart," from 2018. Since we wrote it, Noah Lambrecht has been a guest at the State of the Union address, won a national award for perseverance in sports, and been featured in Runners' World.