Contributor: The Nerd
This wasn't supposed to be a full-blown article but the State junior meet is too awesome to not share a few thoughts on it. While not every middle school competes at this meet, it has a history of launching the careers of some pretty spectacular high school athletes. Here is a partial list of past JH champs who later won HS State titles: Aidan Wheelock (Minden), Rylee Rice (Ainsworth), Ryan Zavadil (Skutt), Jordyn Arens (Crofton) and Carson Noecker (Hartington).
Top-15 performers from last year are already making a impact at high school, with many ranked or on our watch list this season: Delani Runnels (Niobrara Valley), Mallory Robbins (Plattsmouth), Jaelyn Witter (Kearney Catholic), Libby Frazier (Millard West), Isac Portillo-Munoz (Lexington), Tyler Hetz (Gothenburg), Elijah Goodell (Perkins County) and Ethan Smith (Northwest), to name a few.
Complete results of all four races are available at https://www.athletic.net/CrossCountry/meet/225364/results/all.
Girls Championship race
Scout Bell (above) of Gothenburg won the 2022 title as a 7th grader in 11:28, but I'm sure she knew the 2023 title wouldn't be handed to her. However, she ran the like the pre-race favorite, taking a five-meter lead at 400 meters.
Emily Hegge, a 7th grader at Papillion Middle School, took a more conservative approach and was not in the top 20 after 400 meters. While this was her first State meet, she came into the race with a strong resume: at least three victories this fall, including the 2k race at the Platte River Rumble, and she ran with Papio South athletes this summer. If I had been Emily's coach, I would have suggested the race plan that she executed to perfection: start conservatively, pick off runners until she's on Scout's heels, and then let the more experienced racer pull her to the finish line. At 2700 meters (the two photos above), Scout was a few meters ahead of Emily, and that lead shrunk even further by the finish line. Scout won her second title in 11:05.00, with Emily in second in 11:05.27.
Mabel Henningsen, an 8th grader at St. Pius St. Leo, was third in 11:19. Mabel won all of her races this season except the Platte River Rumble where she finished 2nd behind Hegge. Mabel has yet to decide where she'll attend high school.
Michaela O'Flynn, 7th grader at Millard North Middle School, finished 4th in 11:24. She was just behind Scout at 400 meters and remained near the front throughout the race. Race results for Millard junior high races generally aren't published, so her only athletic.net race coming into State was her victory in the junior high race hosted by Millard West last week. Michaela was a consistent performer on the track this summer while running for the 402 Track Club, and she donned the 402 shorts in this race.
In the team race, LaVista Middle School won with 83 points followed by Seward (125) and Minden CL Jones (154). LaVista was led by 7th-graders Avery and Aubrey Skradski (one of them is pictured above, but your guess as to which one it is will be as good as mine), who finished 10th and 13th respectively. (Interestingly, Nebraska athletes represent 7 of just 8 Skradski's in the entire athletic.net database.) The Seward coach told me before the race that he thought his team had a shot at 2nd place, and they were led by Hayden Holliday (28th) and Jordyn Samuels (39th). We believe Hayden is the daughter of the Seward high school coach, Kurt Holliday. Minden consistently does well at the junior high and high school level but that didn't stop Coach Wheelock from asking me before the race, "I'm not supposed to be nervous before a junior high race, am I?"
Boys Championship race
On Thursday, two days before the State meet, I inadvertently scouted top junior high talent when I attended the Trailblazer Conference meet in Nebraska City. While I'm a big fan of all runners, the main reason I picked the Nebraska City meet was so I could share a post-race dinner with Grandma Nerd. At that meet, Tyler Scott of Beatrice coasted to the conference title. After the race, I asked a Beatrice fan about Tyler, and the response was: "Tyler was a short, pudgy kid as a 7th grader. And then he grew. He's a different kid this year."
Indeed he is. On Saturday Tyler was in roughly 10th place at 400 meters, one of the few boys in the field who was running tangents on the first long curve. We'll have to watch the race video (more on that later) to see when he took control of the race, but by 2700 meters (photo above) he had a significant gap on 2nd place. He finished in 10:10; it's a course record since this is the first State meet held on the revised course. It was at least Tyler's fifth victory of the season and we're guessing he'll be a factor on the Beatrice high school team next fall.
A friend had tipped me off that Bryson Neels of Gothenburg was going to be in the title hunt on Saturday, and that proved to be true. After finishing 16th as a 7th grader, he was in the lead pack at 400 meters on Saturday. He stayed ahead of everyone except Tyler, finishing 2nd in 10:25. He's the son of Gothenburg XC coach Tony Neels and he also has a choice to make next August: somehow he finished 2nd in State despite splitting his time this fall between football and cross country. Gothenburg has an outstanding high school program; while they'll lose three varsity boys to graduation, their top runner this fall has been freshman Tyler Hetz. Choose wisely, Bryson.
Sam McQuistan is listed as unattached in the race results but he was wearing a Holdrege Duster racing kit on Saturday. He's won at least three races this fall and ran with the leaders from the start of this race. He finished in 10:27, a huge PR for him.
Buffet Middle School wasn't planning to have a team at the State meet until a week ago, but Nerd Dawg is a Buffet parent and he was able to enter the team. Good thing, too, because Buffet 7th-grader Joon Gilson finished in 4th place in 10:28. Joon had a 15-meter lead on the field at 400 meters, a racing strategy we don't recommend, but he hung in there. Joon won all of the OPS races listed on athletic.net but this was a huge PR for him as well. We place zero confidence in the actual distance of junior high races until the State meet, but a 63-second PR is significant. Joon's season isn't over because OPS holds its championship meet this Wednesday.
In the team race, Lexington was the surprise winner (at least to the Lexington middle school teacher I was hanging with) with 138 points, followed by Norfolk with 167 points. At the high school level, only Class A scores five runners for team points (Class B and C scores four, Class D scores three), and that's the scoring protocol for the junior high State meet. By my rough calculations, Gothenburg would have won the title if four scorers were used; they had 58 points to Lexington's 91.
However, I'm guessing the five-scorer rule is in place so that mid-packers have an impact on the State title, and that was certainly the case yesterday: Lexington's 5th scorer finished 90th place but, after eliminating runners who didn't contribute to team scores, he counted for 57 points. Gothenburg did not have a fifth finisher. Lexington was led by Christopher Moro (12th place) and will be the title favorite in 2024 since their top four finishers were all 7th graders. Norfolk's 2nd-place finish was powered by two top-ten finishes from Ismael Aguilar (7th) and Jassiel Aguirre (9th).
Girls Open race
There is no lower age limit in the Open race, and we remember when current Gretna sophomore Caleb Larsen ran this meet as a third grader. Madison Scott, a 6th grader listed as an Elkhorn Ridge athlete but running without the gear, won the girls' title by 33 seconds in 11:38. She's had a solid USATF career with Club 402 dating back to 1st grade, so she's already an experienced racer. She was a co-leader at 400 meters and cruised to the win.
Grace Scheer, an 8th grader at Arlington, was at least 40 meters behind Scott at the 400-meter mark in roughly 15th place, but she closed well to finish in 12:11. She finished behind Maya Wagner of Fremont (8th on Saturday) in an early September race but recorded wins for the rest of her races this season per athletic.net.
At 400 meters, Emma Oliver of Louisville was with the lead pack situated about 20 meters behind Scott, and she moved up from 4th to 3rd over the final 300 meters to finish in 12:28. Her athletic.net profile shows no wins this year, so 3rd at State is an impressive finish.
Addison Hauxwell, a 7th grader at Chase County, was right with Scheer and Oliver at 400 meters and was a mere seven-hundreths of a second behind Oliver to finish in 4th place. We're guessing she's the younger sister of Chase County sophomore Haven Hauxwell, who just finished 4th at the SPVA Conference meet.
Auburn won the team title with a measly 45 points, and all five of their scorers were in the top 32. Cory Neumeister and Macy DeBuhr led the Bulldogs. Auburn's athletic.net profiles don't list grade levels for their athletes but these girls should have an impact in the next few years for a high school team that is currently ranked #2 in Class C. Wayne finished 2nd with 68 points and was led by Tayla Hurner (7th place, 7th grade) and Elizbeth Hix (10th place, 7th grade).
Boys open race
Homer didn't have a high school or junior high cross country program five years ago but Coach Aaron Sasges is building a program that hits new milestones every year. He can now add State winner to Homer's list of the achievements. Triston Owens, an 8th grader at Homer, was in the lead at 400 meters and won the race in 10:46. He had won all of his races this year and the Homer coaches felt he had a good chance at the Open title.
Mahkailli Jefferson of Bellevue Mission finished second in 10:52. Mahkalli was roughly in 40th place at 400 meters, at least 40 meters behind the leader, so he traded a conservative start for a very strong finish. Makhalli finished 7th at 2022 State and had a very active summer track season with the USATF Faith Family Track Club.
Levi Bowen, listed an unattached 5th grader, finished third in 11:05. The only 'Levi Bowen' on athletic.net is a 15 year old in Washington State, which doesn't seems to match the age or location of the boy in the picture above. His mom read this article and let me know that Levi attends Ft. Calhoun and will likely not be on a team until he joins the Ft. Calhoun JH team in 7th grade. He did win the 9/10 division at USATF Nebraska State meet last November but that didn't result didn't result in an athletic.net profile. If you're just reading this for the first time, you missed my rambling paragraph about this mystery man.
Nolan Steiner of Wahoo is another one of the boys I inadvertently scouted at the Nebraska City meet on Thursday. He was 6th at 400 meters and closed hard to finish in 4th in 11:12. When I shot the meet in Nebraska City, it was pretty obvious that Nolan had no idea who the creepy bald guy in the Nerd shirt was. Hopefully his high school teammates will fill him in that Nerds take cool pictures.
Homer, that little ol' team from Class D, won the Open title with 55 points, edging the mythical 'Unattached team," with all five Homer scorers in the top 32 finishers. Wahoo grabbed the 2nd place trophy with 158 points. The Lexington B team finished third with 189 points, which tells you pretty much all you need to know about the ridiculous depth of the Lexington boys team.
A family affair
One of the many reasons I love the junior high State meet is that I can look at the results sheet and find siblings of current and past high school studs. Consider these:
Avery Arens, a 7th grader at Crofton, finished 6th in the championship race after dominating Northeast Nebraska races this season. Her older sister Jordyn, the top-ranked runner in Class D, will be competing for a 4th State XC title on October 20. Jordyn won the junior high State title in 2019 while sister Rylie was 3rd. Jordyn and Rylie were also part of the 2021 Crofton State HS championship team.
Greichaly Hohlen (blue jersey above) of Lincoln Christian finished 18th in the championship race. She's the sister of Carter Hohlen, who is currently ranked 4th in Class C.
Noah Wooten (red shorts above) of Plattsmouth finished 5th in the championship race. His older brother Kaleb finished 10th at Class B State in 2020 and currently competes for Bellevue University.
Nash Crotty of Auburn finished 7th in the open race. He's the little brother of Liston Crotty, who finished 6th at Class C State XC last year and led Auburn to a 2022 team title. Liston is currently ranked 4th in Class C.
Smartest thing I saw
I regret not taking a picture of this, but yesterday I saw a coach get her girls in a pre-race circle, and then she made them kneel down and double knot all of their shoes. I'm guessing as many as 10% of high school kids end a race with untied shoe laces. I just got back from a walk with my dogs and Mrs. Nerd, and the missus had her shoelaces become untied twice on the walk. Why? Because she refuses to double-knot her laces.
Photos and videos
Nerd Dawg and I were on photo duty yesterday. If not for this article, I'd probably be halfway through editing the 6,000 pictures I took. However, my next tasks are to update high school rankings and then write a Nerdsletter (plus spend time with Mrs. Nerd), so you probably won't see JH State photos on our Facebook page until later in the week.
As for the race videos, Nauj Nerd will start working on those today. He's also got college classes and probably dozens of girlfriends because he's a Nerd, so we don't put a deadline on his brilliance. We'll post photos later this week.
Just. Keep. Running.
Perhaps you achieved your goals at the junior high State meet and had a successful season. Or maybe you didn't. Once the high school season is over on October 20, we'll post our semi-annual article, The Season is Over. You Won. Most of our long-time followers have read it at least once, but here's the summary: you're a better person because you're a distance runner, and it doesn't matter how well you ran this season. Whether you're fast or slow, our message will always be this: just keep running.
Consider Tyler Scott. Short and pudgy as a 7th grader, he was not on the State roster for Beatrice's title team in 2022. As an 8th grader, he's a State champ. He just kept running.
If you're a late bloomer, consider Nerd Junior. As an 8th grader, he had the 98th-fastest time at junior high State. Four years, 50 pounds, 10 inches and 6000 miles later, he was a Class A state medalist in cross country and the 1600. He ran a lot.
If you were a girl who was fast as a 7th grader but then puberty hit you like a ton of bricks, be patient. Berlyn Schutz's (Lincoln East, UNL) best two years of track were in 8th and 12th grade; between those two peaks, her times suffered as she went through the maturation process. A few weeks ago she was the Big 10 Runner of the Week.
Consider Jake Ralston (Papio South), who had a standout junior high career in both track and cross country but chose to play football as a freshman. By the end of 9th grade, he realized his talents were more suited for distance running than catching passes. He was the Class A State champ in cross country as a senior and competed collegiately for both Kansas and Nebraska. (Bryson Neels, this example is especially for you.)
Just keep running.
A few thank you's
Jeremy Haselhort and Shannon Stenger, the head girls and boys coaches at Papillion South High School, started the junior high State meet in 2012 to shine a light on great athletes and help grow the sport. They seem to have accomplished their goal: the 2023 edition featured over 1200 athletes and over 100 teams, and it's one of the best XC meets in the state at any level. It also takes a lot of work; I was trading texts with Jeremy over the summer and he was already preparing for Saturday's meet. Coach Stenger and Coach Haselhorst have been among the biggest supporters of Prep Running Nerd, and it's a pleasure to help cover the gem they've created.
Saturday may be the last appearance of the Nerd video team this fall, so those Nerds deserve a few compliments. Rick Campos (the beast in the yellow vest) became a Nerd last spring after we kept asking him to share his pictures from the national meets that he was attending with daughter Kate, a State champion hurdler who now competes for Wichita State. Last April, while Rick and I were shooting the Harold Scott meet, he told me that he was a FAA-licensed drone pilot. Even though Rick has never run cross country or had a child run cross country, he gave up a big chunk of five days this fall to serve as a drone pilot at the Class of Metro, Platte River Rumble, Greeno/Dirksen, UNK and JH State meets. By the way, those are the only five cross country meets he's ever attended in his life. He's a fast learner.
Christian Naujokaitis was a 9:58 3200 guy at Millard West but arguably his biggest achievement in running has been his photojournalism work the past fourteen months. After doing his own stuff last year, he joined the Nerds this year and has just been knocking it out of the park with his video and photography work. Christian has compiled over half of our videos this season, and the rest of us anxiously anticipate the videos that he produces. He posts his best work on Instagram; you can follow him at cnauj.prod. He's a UNL journalism major so someone needs to give him a good sports journalism job when he graduates in 2026.
Jaden Gebeke was the first non-family Nerd member, helping us cover District and State track meets in May 2021, and the formation of the Nerd video team allowed him to get back to the medium that he loves to do. Jaden couldn't be at the JH State meet but has ridden in the back of a very bumpy Gator for 15 or 16 races this season to provide lead cart video footage. As Nerd Junior will attest to after performing this role for four races on Saturday, it's not an easy job.
If you missed our videos from the first four meets, they're posted at our YouTube video channel at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCSmuQk8jKSXT_FVJcBP4hJg. We'll eventually post the JH State videos at that channel.
The JH State meet also marked the second time this year that I've gotten to shoot alongside Nerd Junior and Nerd the Third. I started Prep Running Nerd back in 2017 because I thought that distance athletes like my sons should have the same sort of media attention that football and basketball players receive. I'd like to think we're getting closer to achieving that goal because those two guys, along with 18 other volunteers, have bought into the same vision.
We love running, but you know that by now.
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 and and the Results tab for every Nebraska high school race we can find. Once the season starts, we'll also rank the top 15 athletes in each Class at the Rankings tab. If you want to see meet photos or just need to kill a few hours on social media, follow us on Twitter and Instagram @PrepRunningNerd or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/preprunningnerd.
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.