Contributors: Nerd the Third and The Nerd
Track season has just wrapped up and our slight bias towards distance runners can begin to show again. Runners across the state have finished their long summer of base training: logging the tedious miles day after day, or maybe throwing in the occasional workout. Whatever it may be, the Nerd Crew patiently awaits those same runners to reap the benefits of training this fall.
The top distance spots at Class A State XC and T&F in 2021-22 were dominated by the senior class; the Class of 2022 represented 7 of the top 9 XC finishers, as well as 6 of the top 8 finishers in the 800, 1600 and 3200. Many of those boys are now on college rosters - Fremont (Tulsa, Alabama, UNL) and Millard West (Nebraska, Creighton, South Dakota) each sent three boys to D1 squads, while other seniors headed to Notre Dame (Hinrichs), Iowa State (Romary), Nebraska (Wasserman, Volkmer, Griesen, Erdkamp) and the Naval Academy (Dunaski). In addition, more than two dozen more boys are now on D2, D3 and NAIA rosters. The Class of 2023 is going to have work hard to live up to the depth and the excellence of the Class of 2022.
Despite the massive amount of talent that has graduated, there are plenty of stars left and even more future stars in the making. This is our final preview article; be sure to check out the previews we've already published for Classes B, C and D. Here are the Class A top 10 returners from 2021 State XC:
1) Piercze Marshall (5th), Millard West, Senior
2) Isaac Ochoa (6th), Norfolk, Junior
3) Dennis Chapman (10th), Creighton Prep, Junior
4) Juan Gonzalez (11th), Fremont, Sophomore
5) Luke Johnson (13th), Elkhorn South, Senior
6) Max Myers (14th), Lincoln Southwest, Junior
7) Jack Witte (15th), Millard West, Junior
8) Dalton Heller (16th), Millard South, Junior
9) Noah Lawrence (18th), Columbus, Senior
10) Isaac Graff (19th), Lincoln East, Senior
We think as many as a dozen boys have a shot at this year's title. Piercze Marshall, a senior at Millard West, has been consistently strong since his sophomore year and had a breakout race last year in Kearney. Marshall is also vying to become a three-time State XC medalist. (Think that happens routinely in Class A? Umm, not so much. It's only been accomplished 44 times out of the last 26 senior classes.) Piercze enters this year as one of the top dogs, with PRs of 4:30 and 9:28 in the spring.
We're also high on Isaac Ochoa, the Norfolk star, who looked especially strong this track season, running 4:22 and 9:28. Just a junior, Ochoa is also looking for his third State XC medal, and he still has a chance to be the first Class A athlete since Wyatt McGuire (North Platte, 2010-2013) to win four Statte XC medals.
While just a sophomore, Juan Gonzalez looks to build on Fremont's distance running legacy, and his PRs of 16:16, 4:27, and 9:29 made him a legitimate contender. He's also on a quest for four State XC medals and he's already knocked off the hardest step - medaling as a freshman. Four medals would be quite an accomplishment - and one better than his brother Jose, who won medals in 2016-2018.
Max Myers, a junior at Lincoln Southwest, ran 4:27 and 9:27 this spring, and he may just be the grittiest runner in the state. Another junior, Jack Witte of Millard West, has a knack for peaking at State, as evidenced by his 4th place medals at Burke with a 1:55 in the 800 and 4:20 in the 1600. If he can extend that excellence to the 5k, the rest of the field will have their hands full. Dalton Heller, a junior at Millard South, had made some consistent gains, posting a 4:28 this spring after running 9:57 as a sophomore. Noah Lawrence from Columbus ran his best times of the year at the Junior Olympics national meet in late July, so he appears to have good momentum.
There are a few guys on the top 10 list that we consider to have exceptional potential this fall: Denny Chapman (Creighton Prep), Luke Johnson (Elkhorn South), and Isaac Graff (Lincoln East). All three have made consistent and significant improvements after relatively quiet starts to the their careers. Chapman plays soccer in the spring and may consider that his favorite sport, but he's had a solid summer of running and his best performances seem to be ahead of him. In fact, he reminds us a lot of Ethan Goldner, who won three State XC medals for Westside while juggling a busy club soccer schedule. Luke Johnson is a grinder who has learned at the knee of Gabe Hinrichs, and his times (2:00, 4:28, 9:28 this spring) have improved through training with Gabe. Isaac Graff has been consistently good in big races, running 4:27 twice and 9:29 twice this spring. After learning the ropes from the great Joe Volkmer, Isaac is the ideal guy to lead a strong Lincoln East team this fall.
All 10 of these returners are incredible athletes, but these are three guys that we can see surprising some people. As always, there will surprises outside of these top 10 returners.
One contender who didn't compete at State last year is Zack Schultz of Millard North. He was diagnosed with a stress fracture just as the 2021 season was starting and only competed at the Metro meet, running 17:33. He bounced back for the track season, running 1:58, 4:28 and 9:59 during the spring and then improving his PR to 1:57.67 during an abbreviated USATF season. Barring another injury, we think he's a medal contender.
The top 5 teams in 2021 were:
1) Fremont - 66 points (1 returner)
2) Millard West - 69 points (4 returners)
3) Creighton Prep - 111 points (1 returners)
4) Lincoln East - 125 points (4 returners)
5) Elkhorn South - 147 points (6 returners)
The Class A coaches' pre-season has already been released and reflects:
1) Millard West
3) Lincoln East
4) Lincoln Southwest
5) Creighton Prep
6) Elkhorn South
7) Papio South
9) Lincoln Pius X
10) North Platte
Graduation has put a number of historically strong teams into rebuilding/reloading mode. After two consecutive titles - including a surprising win over nationally-ranked Millard West last October - Fremont must replace 6 of 7 runners from 2021 State. Creighton Prep (3rd in 2021) lost five State runners to graduation plus a sixth to a medical retirement, Lincoln Star (12th) lost five State runners to graduation, and Gretna (6th) lost four graduates plus Abdal Malik Rahmanzai, who is expected to miss his senior XC season due to a stress fracture.
So with all of this carnage, who is left? A few teams stand out in our view. First, Millard West returns its top four finishers from State XC: seniors Pierzce Marshall and Joey Hartnett, plus juniors Jack Witte and Porter Bickley. Jack Witte had the most impressive spring of the MWest boys, but Piercze Marshall has the most credentials on the XC course. Bickley competed in the summer USATF season after an abbreviated spring track season, and Hartnett has been a steady performer since his freshman year. The rest of the varsity squad is unsettled, but Coach Johnston usually has a deep bench.
Lincoln Southwest is also in a good position, returning all seven boys from its 8th place team. Max Myers gets the top billing on the team as a returning medalist, but he is surrounded by a solid squad. Jacob Rinn, Drew Bonnie and Evan Brown all finished between 17:20 and 17:30 at 2021 State XC; during the spring Bonnie broke 10:00, Brown ran 2:00 at the State meet, and Rinn went 2:03/4:42. Freshman Connor Boyle joins the team after a successful junior high career, including the 2021 LPS XC title and a 2nd place finish at Junior High State XC, and he should be in the mix for a varsity spot. LSW always has a large team, so Coach Salem will have plenty of candidates to fill out the top seven.
The Lincoln East boys have been living in the shadow of the four-peat girls team, but they have a solid chance at improving on their 4th-place finish in 2021. Isaac Graf is the top returner, but the Spartans have plenty of talent. Hudson Davy (10:19), Drew Arduser (2:00/4:36) and Luke Schlegelmilch are also returners who have had strong summers. The squad's depth will be bolstered by a strong group of freshmen, including Ben Schlegelmilch (10th at XC State, 3rd at LPS XC), Chanh Tran (4th at LPS) and Daren Linscott (6th at LPS). It's unclear who will round out the varsity seven, but East also boasts a good group of three- and four-year runners who may be ready to step up.
Elkhorn South loses just one boy from its 5th place team - but he was sorta good. Gabe Hinrichs is now at Notre Dame, but he's left behind a solid core. Luke Johnson's 2:00, 4:28 and 9:28 this spring put him among the State's top runners, and Grant Dixon kept the momentum from his 23rd-place finish at State XC to run 1:58, 4:26 and 9:46. Elkhorn South will need a few of its sophomores and juniors to step up, but having two high-sticks is a great start.
Papio South placed 7th last fall with just one senior - the magnificently mustachioed Connor Hadaway - and six boys who return in 2022. Four of those returners ran between 17:14 and 17:30 at State. Among the top returnees, this spring Quin Karas ran 2:01/4:34, Bo Crews ran 10:03, and John Fiedler posted a 10:10.
Although Fremont only returns one State qualifier, he's a doozy. Juan Gonzalez exhibited incredible consistency throughout his freshman year, and his clutch performance in Kearney is one of the major reasons why Fremont won the 2021 State title. While we're not sure who will join him on varsity, we don't question Coach McMahon's ability to develop the next batch of Fremont runners. Two years ago he had up to six boys fighting for his last two District/State spots, and we suspect Fremont will be solidly in the top 5 by the end of the year.
Other potential State qualifiers include Gretna (led by Connor Reeson and Cole Dobberstein), Creighton Prep (Denny Chapman is the sole returner, but Prep should field a competitive varsity squad with its 120+ runners), Lincoln Pius, North Platte and Omaha Westside.
The Omaha Westside boys haven't qualified as a team since 2016 when Milo Greder and Ethan Goldner were both medalists, but they've got a legitimate shot this year. Jayden Wall and Jack Gerard qualified individually for the 2021 State meet, and sophomore Conor Gross (4:32 this spring) should be running alongside them. Matthew Willis is an Omaha Central transfer who should vie for a varsity spot once he's healthy, and Coach Preister is pleased at the depth this team has this year.
Finally, we'd absolutely love to see an OPS school qualify for State this year after only two runners (Tommy Vasquez of Burke and Sergio Martinez-Cruz of Omaha South) qualified among both genders last year. Unfortunately, the addition of Buena Vista and Westview high schools (both will be Class A for XC) will dilute the drawing area for Omaha South and Burke, respectively, so it's an uphill battle. In addition, in a sport where consistency is king, the OPS programs continue to struggle with the absolutely horrendous decision to cancel all Fall 2020 sports seasons.
Of the nine OPS schools, Burke seems the best positioned for a run at a State berth. Burke add former football player Reed Emsick to the squad this year; Reed is a sub-52, sub-1:56 guy who doesn't appear to have run XC since 6th grade but should see success. Blake Cerveny, who was in the national spotlight when Brandon Schutt (Bellevue East) helped him across the line at 2021 Districts, has had a good summer of training. We believe Sergio Martinez-Cruz, a junior, will run again for Omaha South this fall; he did not run track in the spring. I rarely cheer for runners when I'm taking race photos, but I'll definitely be rooting for the OPS schools to make a comeback.
Freshmen impact runners
In contrast to the girls, freshman boys typically don't make much of a splash in Class A, although Isaac Ochoa (Norfolk) and Juan Gonzalez (Fremont) are two recent exceptions. In the last 26 graduating classes, only six Class A boys have medaled all four years, but Ochoa and Gonzalez have a chance to join that exclusive list. Here are a few Class A freshman who may make an impact:
Josiah Bitker - Lincoln North Star - Josiah finished 4th at the JH State meet and then really put on the heat during track season. He ran 2:07/4:48 during the spring, and then improved on that with converted PRs of 4:42/10:14 during the USATF season.
Caleb Larsen - Gretna - We know him as Mazie Larsen's (Gretna/Baylor) little brother, but he made quite a name for himself in junior high. He ran 2:21 and 4:58 this spring, and may help a roster depleted by graduation and injury.
Connor Boyle - LSW - Connor finished 2nd behind Eli Murillo at the State XC meet, and we would not be surprised if he follows the footsteps of older brother Tyler (LSW/Emporia State) and runs varsity all four years.
Ben Schlegelmilch - Lincoln East - 10th at JH State XC, and he ran 1:05, 2:27 and 5:08 at the LPS City meet. Throw in his 4x400 leg, and that's quite a bit of work over about four hours.
One freshman we won't see is Eli Murillo, who won the the JH State XC championship and the JH State 1600 (4:40) over the past year. He won't be attending Omaha South as he had planned. His family moved to Texas a few weeks ago.
Do you see any errors, typos or key omissions? Send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll do our best to correct the article.
Originally written for and posted at www.preprunningnerd.com by Jay Slagle. Did you love reading about Nebraska high school running? Visit www.preprunningnerd.com for rankings, results, photos, long-form articles, frequent updates on our blog page, Nerd gear, 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 @PrepRunningNerd on Twitter and Instagram, or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/preprunningnerd.