Contributor: The Nerd
With apologies to the youngsters who have never seen the best film ever made, "Smokey and the Bandit," my Monday seemed a lot like the theme song (with a few modifications):
West bound and down, loaded up and truckin',
a'we gonna do what they say can't be done,
We've got a long way to go and a short time to get there,
I'm west bound just watch ol'Bandit run,
Keep your foot hard on the peddle...son, never mind those brakes,
let it all hang out cause we've got a run to make.
With semi-pro gravel racer Paul Kramper as my sidekick and a golf cart courtesy of UNK's Todd Gottula and Brady Bonsall, we flew through eight races on a blazing hot day. In past years I might have been a little in the dark about the subplots of Class B through D races, but the the bonus of doing five weeks of rankings is that I can pick out most of the top runners in each race. Very nerdy and very cool. With that in mind, here are my 5:00 a.m. musings:
Has UNK turned into a State preview?
This has always been a preview of the State course, but in years past I never had the feeling that it was a preview of the State field. With the exception of Class A, I would say 'yes'. Class A featured 12 of the 30 or 31 A teams, and was arguably a tougher field on the girls side with #1 Lincoln East, #2 Fremont, #4 Elkhorn South and #6 Westside in the field. We were missing four ranked girls teams: Millard West, Papio South, LSW and Norfolk. For the boys, we were missing top-ranked Millard West as well as LNS, Prep, Papio South, Norfolk and LSW. Still the girls' A race featured at least 10 of the 15 ranked runners, and Class A boys had 8 of 15.
For Classes B and C, UNK should definitely be a good predictor of the State field. The Class B girls race featured every ranked runner except Gering's Madison Seiler, who is limiting her races as she works back from a major injury in July. On the boys' side in Class B, I believe we were only missing Mesuidi Ejerso (South Sioux) and Hans Bastron (Scottsbluff) from last week's rankings. For Class C girls, I was expecting 13 of 15 ranked runners, although some late events changed that a bit, and the boys race was expected to have the same number of ranked runners.
Class D was a bit spottier; for girls we were missing Crofton and Ainsworth, while the boys race didn't have Ainsworth, Norfolk Catholic, Stanton and a few other teams that had ranked runners.
On the whole, though, this was absolutely the best pre-State field I can ever remember.
Fun or no fun?
It's easy to overthink cross country meets, and the Kearney Country Club course can be heartbreaking for athletes who are too focused on the outcome. A few schools are good enough to treat it like a 'business trip' and actually succeed, but I'm guessing the majority of teams need to keep things light-hearted in order for the runners to compete well.
Thus, I was pleased to hear the Norris girls pre-race huddle involve some kind of short and irreverent song about rocking the world or something to that effect. They came out of the huddle laughing, and that's totally what was a top-ranked team should be doing. It reminded me that when my son was a freshman at Creighton Prep, their state championship team had the same huddle routine every week: sing about sixty seconds of 'Party in the USA' by Miley Cyrus before saying a quick 'Hail Mary'. The Millard West boys team do a fun take on some Spartan movie that is also a great icebreaker.
The weather outside is delightful
This is my eighth year of coming to meets at Kearney. I love the meet set-up, love the course, love the hosts - but I can't remember one day where it was 55 degrees, sunny and no wind. When you come to Kearney, be prepared for whatever Mother Nature decides to give you.
Class D girls
While top-ranked Jordyn Arens was not in the field, plenty of studs were, including #2 Hannah Swanson of Nebraska Christian, #3 Alayna Vargas of Hasting SC, #4 Payton Paxton of Mullen and #5 Julianna Maxfield of Fullerton. Vargas and Swanson took it out hard the first 400 meters, and they were in that order with slight separation at 900 meters. At 1600 meters Vargas had a 6-second lead over Swanson, with the of the field already strung out. Vargas had a 10-meter lead at 2600 meters, but Swanson was firmly in the lead by the 3000 mark. Vargas dropped out shortly after that, likely due to the high temps and limited shade. Swanson won by a comfortable margin in 20:57.
In their wake, Callie Coble and Peyton Paxton of Mullen staked out solid positions by 2600 meters, switching places a few times before Coble finished 2nd in 21:24 and Paxton in 21:30. Fullerton's Maxfield was 4th in 21:35, NP St. Pat's Kate Stienike was 5th in 21:57 followed by Daisy Frick of North Central in 21:59, Chaney Nelson of Oakland Craig in 22:05 and Braelyn Gifford of NPSP in 22:10. In the three-running scoring system, Fullerton squeaked out a 36 to 39 win over NP St. Pats.
Class D boys
This was arguably the most competitive race of the day. Jarrett Miles of NP St Pat's went out hard at the gun, followed closely by Braden Orton of North Central and Trevor Kuncl of Mullen. Orton went though 1600 at 5:16 and had a 15-meter lead over Kuncl at 2600 meters, with Miles about 10 meters further back. Within 400 meters, the order had changed to Kuncl, Grant Lander of Homer, Miles and Orton. Lander joined Kuncl in the lead shortly after that, the two boys separated, and Lander had a 5-meter lead with 400 to go. He held that lead until the last 5 meters of the race, when Kuncl clipped him for a 0.4 second win in 17:09.1. That was just off Kuncl's best of 17:03 for the season, but it was a season-best for Lander.
After the race, Kuncl noted that he purposely started slow due to the heat and his desire to get a feel for the field. He picked it up after one mile and was with just Lander for most of the last mile. He was happy with the results and thrilled that he had a sprint left in him in the last 100 meters; he left with a new PR for that course. Lander was similarly enthusiastic after the race, and he's put himself in solid contention for a top-5 medal in a month. He enjoyed the atmosphere and the deep field, and was also pleased with his team's finish. Despite losing the lead late, his coach noted that he stayed at the finish line and congratulated all 240 finishers behind him. This is the only time that Kuncl and Lander will face off before State.
Miles finished in 3rd in17:54, Orton held on for 4th in 18:06 despite the hard early pace, Coulton Pouk of Perkins County was 5th in 18:11, and Elijah Schroeder of Ravenna was 6th in 18:12. NP St. Pat's won the team title with 66 points followed by Nebraska Christian with 76.
Class C girls
It was 85 degrees at the start of this race, and I told my sidekick just before the gun that going out fast seemed to be a questionable strategy given the DNFs we saw in the Class D race. Fortunately, Keeli Green of Arlington didn't hear me. She had a 5-meter lead by 200 meters with Danie Parriott of Conestoga in 2nd. At 900 meters (see picture) she had a 75-meter lead and the race for the title was effectively over. At 3000 meters she had a 60 -second lead over Talissa Tanquary of Sidney, and she finished in an incredible 19:00 despite running alone for 4800 meters. Keep in mind that this was Keeli's 5th XC race ever and that her time was only nine seconds slower than the Class A winning time two hours later when Elli Dahl and Jaci Sievers were stride-for-stride the entire race.
After the race, Keeli said that she planned to go out hard because she's used to that approach due to her sprint background in track. She went through 1600 at 5:37, faster than she expected, but her main goal was to gap the field as quickly as possible so they didn't come back to her.
We had expected a great battle in this race between undefeated Green, Lindee Henning of Ogallala and Lilly Kenning of Milford. Unfortunately, Henning sat out the race with a minor sprained ankle and Kenning had an off day, finishing in 37th.
The top 5 finishers were sorted out by 3000 meters. Tanquary looked strong in second in 20:27, Sadye Daniell of Lincoln Christian was 3rd in 20:49, followed by Olivia Malousek of DC West in 21:03 and Ella Buhlke of Central City in 21:09. The top 10 only included one girl who hasn't been ranked this year: Hailey O'Daniel of Arlington ran a 21:28 to finish in 7th. Lincoln Christian won the title with 60 points followed by DC West with 75 and Arlington with 101.
Class C boys
They don't give an all-class medal at the UNK meet, but Hartington Newcastle's Carson Noecker fell just short of that achievement with a 15:59, just 0.7 seconds slower than Gabe Hinrichs' Class A time. I spoke briefly with Carson after the race, and he apologized for the slow time, surmising is was likely the heat and perhaps a bit of asthma that kept him at the finish line for longer than normal.
As is often the case in a Carson Noecker race, the real drama is who gets 2nd. Luke Bonifas of Adams Central backed up his #2 ranking and was firmly in 2nd by 3000 meters before finishing in 16:54. The rest of the field didn't get sorted out until the last mile. Nolan May of Arlington, who enters the rankings today based on his strong race last week, was 3rd in 17:36, followed by Sidney's #3 Cameron Brauer in 17:42 and #9 Daniel Bashtovoi in 17:48. This race was loaded with ranked runners so there are likely some disappointed boys today, but there's a lot of lessons to take away from a brutal day like Monday. Sidney captured the team title with 48 points, followed by Milford (75), Fort Calhoun (80) and Lincoln Christian (86). We're not sure that Sidney can be caught, but Fort Calhoun's performances have been improving every week.
Class B girls
With 14 ranked girls in this race, and one of the few chances for the McCook girls to race Eastern Nebraska foes, this was a highly-anticipated race among the Nerd family. Most of the key contenders were in the lead pack at 200 meters (above), and there was a nine-girl pack at 900 meters. By 3000 meters, McCook's #1 Samantha Rodewald and York #3 Kassidy Stuckey had separated from the field and would stay in close contact for the remainder of the race. Kendall Zavala of Norris was alone in 3rd at 3000, followed by the duo of Duchesne's Mary Kramper and Norris' Ellie Thomas.
Rodewald was impressive in her 20:03 win, with Stuckey close behind in 20:09. Zavala was running alone in no-man's land for the second half of the race but still finished 3rd in 20:34. Gabriela Calderon moved from 7th to 4th in the last 400, finishing in 20:37. Kramper of Duchesne held her 5th place spot over the last mile, coming in at 20:42, and she seems to picking up some great racing knowledge after not competing last year. Chloe Schrick of Blair made the biggest move over the last 400 meters, improving from 11th to 6th (20:53).
Norris ran away with the title with 33 points and I'm hard pressed to think of who could beat them. Ellie Thomas didn't have her best day and yet the Norris team still had placers in 3rd, 7th, 9th, 14th, 21st and 22nd. The next four teams at UNK are all assigned to the same Districts, and it seems likely that a top-5 team in the State is going to stay home this year. Bennington took 2nd with 67 points while Blair, Elkhorn North and Duchesne were within three points.
Class B boys
This was one of the few races at UNK where the leaders didn't separate by 1K, and the early leaders seemed to be boys who finished outside the top 10. Five years ago, the most successful strategy at State was to cool your heels for the first mile and then push hard, but this was perhaps the only race at on Monday where that strategy played out.
By the halfway mark, #4 Riley Boonstra of Norris and #2 Colin Pinneo of York had gapped the field. You may recall that Boonstra didn't race the first three weeks of the season as he rehabbed from a few knicks caused by weak hips, but he's been on a roll since then. Two weeks ago he lost to Pinneo by a few seconds at Waverly, last week he edged Pinneo, and the two boys were stride for stride at 3000 meters. Boonstra surged after that point, dropping Pinneo, and Seward's #13 Nathan Nottingham moved into 2nd at 4600 meters. Boonstra won the title in 16:59, Nottingham was 2nd in 17:11, and Pinneo was 3rd in 17:22. Jayden Ureste of Lexington, unranked last week but moving up to 10th in today's rankings, improved from approximately 15th place at 3000 meters to finish 4th in 17:33. Caden Keller of Northwest was 5th in 17:34.
Lexington won the prestigious Rim Rock Crimson race on Saturday, so this was a quick turnaround for the boys. It didn't seem to matter. Their top six placed 4th, 6th, 7th, 10th, 16th and 17th compared to Skutt's 8, 15, 19, 20, 29 and 45. Lexington will surely be #1 in the next coaches' poll with its 27 points. Skutt was 2nd with 74, and the entire Norris team has stepped up its game since Boonstra returned, finishing 3rd with 79.
Class A girls
After neck-and-neck races between Fremont's Elli Dahl and Elkhorn South's Jaci Sievers at Fremont, Harold Scott and UNK, the two girls know each so well they should probably be college roommates. Like those first two races, Sievers was Dahl's shadow for the entire race, with Dahl winning in 18:51 to Siever's 18:53. Dahl has won all three match ups this year but the margin has been three seconds, six seconds and now just two seconds. They are clearly the best two Class A girls in the State right now.
Dahl told me after the race that she scaled back her race plan a bit based on the heat, but she wanted to keep the pace honest and test how fast she could run on a difficult day. She had hoped to pull away at 4000 meters but Sievers held tough, so Dahl started amping up the pace every 200 meters beginning with about 600 to go. Sievers told us later that she also planned to run conservatively, but her goal was to match Dahl's surges in the latter half of the race. I have yet to see Dahl run a bad race when she's healthy, but the margin between these two girls is so slim that Sievers has a chance to win every time they race.
The surge Dahl and Sievers put down after 1600 cause the lead group to splinter. Mia Murray (3rd, 19:08) of Lincoln East ran along for the last 2500 meters, as did Claire White (4th, 19:11) of Westside. They're both exceptional runners and the four top girls ran incredibly fast on a rotten day.
North Platte's Marissa Holm led at 900 meters with an exceptionally aggressive pace given that the temps were close to 90 degree by race time, but she gutted through to a fifth-place finish in 19:51 followed by teammate Zarah Blaesi in 20:04.
As expected, Lincoln East took the team title with 58 points. Gretna was a surprising 2nd with 95, followed by Fremont with 98. Fremont rarely has an off day, and I expect they'll bounce back during championship season.
Class A boys
The Class A boys' race had the least number of ranked runners on the day, although Fremont's presence always ensures a deep field. Gabe Hinrichs is the clear #1 runner in Class A, and he went out conservatively due to the heat. The top finishers in the race were already in a lead pack at 900 meters, joined by a few Millard North runners. After Hinrichs went through 1600 at 5:15, he picked up the pace and no one chose to join him. At 2600 meters, Hinrichs had a 15-second lead and Juan Garcia of GI was 10 seconds ahead of pack that included Evan Caudy, Evan Liewer, Luke Johnson, Joe Volkmer and three Fremont boys. By 3000 meters, the pack had strung out with Caudy alone in third place and Fremont's Carter Waters in 7th. Carter was solidly in 3rd by 4600 meters, Caudy 4th, Liewer 5th and Braden Taylor in 6th.
Hinrichs picked up his pace at 4000 and cruised to a 15:58.3 win, just ahead of Noecker's winning time in Class C. Hinrichs had hoped that Noecker would opt into the Class C race so they could push each other, and he feels that this race left plenty of room for improvement on a cooler day. Garcia ran impressively to finish 2nd in 16:19, followed Waters (16:30), Caudy (16:37) and Taylor (16:41).
Fremont easily won the meet with 36 points, while Lincoln East continues to surprise with its 2nd place finish with 87 points. Gretna was 3rd with 98 points despite not having Colby Erdkamp, who sat out due to a sprained ankle.
Time to work
That's three hours of writing folks. It's 8:00 a.m. and time for my real job. Keep checking our website for race results. Nothing this week will match the competition we saw at UNK, but we're aware of 10 races being held on Thursday.