Panther teams both place fourth at districts
LINCOLN — The fourth-place finishes by the Norfolk High boys and girls at the Class A-2 district cross country invite on a postcard-worthy fall day at Pioneers Park here carried few similarities beyond the “wouldas, couldas and shouldas” thrown around by a strong majority of teams that — like both Panther teams did Thursday — finish the season one spot away from state.
The Norfolk boys had their aspirations for a trip to state for the first time since 2015 dashed by a trio of teams — Omaha Central, Gretna and Grand Island — that laid claim to 12 of the 15 state-qualifying spots.
Central had four of the top eight runners and won with 36 points, with Gretna’s Kellen McLaughlin and Colby Erdkamp placing in the top five to lead the Dragons to second place with 57 points. Led by medalist Jacob Kosmicki — who finished in 16 minutes, 38.65 seconds — Grand Island earned its trip to state with 58 points.
“I believe we have one of the toughest schedules in Class A, and that’s helped prepare us for districts and state,” Norfolk coach Aaron Bradley said. “We watched some film of other races, and they knew exactly what they needed to do — pace early and run smart, and then finish with your heart.”
And that paid off mightily for the Panthers.
The three remaining state-meet berths all went to Norfolk runners, with senior Jonathon Kittelson remaining at or near the seventh spot for much of the race before a late kick helped him keep that spot.
It also kept him from becoming another victim of Matthew Protzman — who picked off and passed runners on his way to an extra week of practice and a chance to wear his Panther uniform next Friday at the Kearney Country Club. Protzman worked his way from the middle of the pack to finish two spots behind Kittelson in 17:31.63.
“We all did it today. We worked really hard. It felt pretty good, but I pushed myself harder than I’ve ever pushed before,” said Kittelson, whose time was 17:16.83.
“All in all, it just felt really good. I stayed up with guys I didn’t expect to stay up with, and I just wanted to push my teammates behind me because they know to pace off me,” he added. “I know the harder I push myself, the harder my teammates will push themselves.”
Two spots behind Protzman, who is a junior, was Panther senior Guillermo Mendez. Jockeying for position with a group of between six and 10 runners for much of the race, Mendez positioned himself correctly for the final stretch as his time of 17:39.42 was less than five second faster than the 15th-place time of Grand Island’s Jedrek Walford.
“Those three have been our top three all year — John, Matt and Guillermo. And that’s part of our plan, for them to run together,” Bradley said. “John tends to go out too fast, Matt tends to go out too slow and Guillermo’s kind of in between. If I can have them pack each other, run smart and go out fast and relaxed, it helps all of them. They followed the plan today.”
Protzman becomes a two-time qualifier after ending his sophomore season as Norfolk’s only state qualifier last year with Kittelson and Mendez both reaching state for the first time.
For the Panther girls, the fourth-place finish was essentially drama-free as it accompanied a 34-point deficit to third-place finisher Gretna — which landed runners in the 10th, 11th and 12th spots as the Dragons tallied 71 points.
Lincoln East sophomore Jenna Muma finished 21 seconds ahead of the field for the district championship individually while five of her teammates joined her in the top 15 as the Spartans erased any upset hopes runner-up Lincoln Southwest might have had by positioning all seven of its runners into the top 20 in the first 1,000 meters.
They never let up and ran away with a 27-point district title win with 31 points.
“I’m not disappointed at all. We were at the same course we were last year, and a number of girls ran at this course last year,” Norfolk coach Angie Means said.” Their times are 30 seconds faster than last year, but this is just crazy tough competition.”
Runner-up Hannah Ray of Lincoln Northeast was one of only three individual state qualifiers who didn’t also qualify with her team. The other two were Ray’s teammate, ninth-place finisher Kate Schoening, and Norfolk freshman Melorie Summers.
Challenged by a trio of Lincoln East runners as she weaved her way around the slow-but-constant inclines that build to a grassy plateau at the state/finish line, the Norfolk freshman ran nearly stride-for-stride with Lincoln East sophomore Eve Weber as the two made an early surge for the finish line that left East’s Ella Laessig and Carly Bredthauer (21:28.5) momentarily battling for 15th.
“Melorie will do the best she can, and this will give her a great chance to see what’s to come in the future as a freshman,” Means said. “This is a great start for her as far as what’s to come, and I think this team has some really great opportunities in the future as far as young as we are.”
The fourth-place finish also means the Norfolk girls miss the state meet for the second time in three years after a nine-year presence at state that included Class A championships in 2008 and 2009.
But while trophies and medals may not have added up this season at the same pace they did when 14 individual state medals, two individual gold medals and two team championships returned to Norfolk over an 11-year stretch — a stretch that began when this year’s state-qualifying Panther had not yet begun kindergarten.
“These girls love each other. They have great chemistry, and they’re an awesome team. That’s what keeps kids out, and that’s what keeps kids coming back. They’re working for each other as much as they are themselves,” Means said. “Today was about the team, and we knew the possibility was there. These are just great kids, and when you’re not fighting for the top spot you have to have a reason to be here. They love the sport. I think they love to run, but they love each other and that’s what they’re here for.”