THE FINAL TRIP DOWN HIGHWAY 92 — There are very few turns down Nebraska Highway 92 if you are traveling from Loup City to Omaha Burke.
A few slowdowns so you pay attention. Ashton, St. Paul, Clarks, Osceola and Shelby and Rising City, then Wahoo and Yutan. Before the “left” up 204th Street and then the right on to Dodge. I am sure I missed some.
It’s a trip that Arcadia-Loup City “throws” coach Paul Henry has made a few times. Probably too many to count. On the back end — the way home — it’s usually filled with a good story and some gold medals for his throwers. He’ll make that final trip this week, state track week, with one of his best: Michigan State pledge Jessica Stieb. Henry is retiring at the completion of the meet.
Stieb is the Class C leader in both the shot put and discus again this year. The last of the “Covid” class that lost their freshman year to a cancelled 2020 season, she could close her career as a six-time medalist in the throws this weekend at the Nebraska State Track and Field Meet. She is the two-time defending all-class champion in the shot put.
The storyteller readily admits that this one is a few weeks late. Mostly, because, well, graduation and, he was chasing his own daughter around the track this spring as well.
I caught up with Stieb and Henry at the Central Nebraska Track Championships on April 24th in Grand Island. It was a decent day for both coach and thrower. Henry was awarded the meet’s coach of the year award and Stieb won both the shot put and discus that day. Her shot put of 45-2.25 was her season best and a meet record.
Sometimes, I like to wait out a jinx, too. The writer has been known to do it. And Stieb, had to fight some jitters at districts last week after fouling on her first two preliminary attempts. She advanced to Burke with a throw of 41-6, four feet short of her season best, which is third all-class heading into the state meet.
But this last ride will have a happy ending. A final chapter in Omaha, where it should be.
“Having someone like Jessica come along, didn’t make my decision to retire very difficult,” Henry said. “It’s made this season so much better. She’s so easy to coach, we just step back and try not to coach her down.”
The only girl in the middle of three brothers, Stieb credits most of her competitiveness to trying to “keep up” at home when she was growing up.
“I wouldn’t be as dedicated to track if it weren’t for my older brothers,” Stieb said. “Going to their meets in fifth and sixth grade, I knew I wanted to do that, too. They have always pushed me to do my absolute best.”
Older brothers Zach and Chase wrestle and compete in track and field at Doane, while freshman brother Wyatt competed in throws for the Rebels this year.
Stieb has been throwing since she was in sixth grade. It’s been natural for her, but it’s been fun, too. Her parents have toted her around the state to camps as well in the summer.
“I have always just loved to do this,” she says.
In short, she just loves it. So much that she won the state title last year on a torn ACL suffered in the middle of the basketball season. Doctors said she could rest it the remainder of the basketball season and hold off surgery until the track season was over.
“Obviously, I was going to choose to compete,” she said with a competitive smile. “I am really glad I did that. It really opened up some opportunities for me and had surgery in June. I didn’t know if I would make it all the way back, but I just kept pushing and made sure I got in all my workouts.
“It’s really rewarding to be able to throw this year.”
The son of a coach, Paul Henry grew up going to track meets with his dad in Beatrice. Basketball was his coaching love, however, when he landed in Dodge in the early 1990s. But track was also part of the gig and he learned to love those annual trips to Burke Stadium.
The PRs. The medals — expected and unexpected.
Eight years with the Pirates, parlayed in to a 25-year run in Loup City for Henry. In the end, the numbers are almost a little mind boggling: 39 state qualifiers, 23 medalists, eight gold medals and, remarkedly, four all-class gold medals.
Loup City, population 1,059.
Henry’s son Kaleb won the Class C discus three times from 2007-2009 and classmate Ryan Elsner also brought home a medal from the 2009 meet at Burke. From there, it seemed like the flood gates opened for Loup City, and later Arcadia-Loup City.
“That kind of set the stage for everyone coming and wanting to throw,” he said. “And now, kids just want to come throw because we have had success. It’s been an easy sell for us. I have had a great assistant (Deb Habe) and we know what each other are thinking most of the time.”
Kaleb was an all-class gold medalist in 2008. His sister, Addison, who threw for Wyoming was an all-class gold medalist in 2016, with Stieb winning her shot put golds the past two years.
For her part, Stieb knows she’s been blessed with a coach who has pushed her, but cared for her — and many other Rebels and Raiders — all at the same time.
“It’s sure sad that he is done after this year,” she said. “He’s done such an amazing job with all of our throwers for so many years.”
So, the final ride to Burke comes this week. Not just for Stieb and Henry, but for a load of other athletes who have dreamed of just getting to Burke and others who have their sights set on their own all-class gold medals.
If my math is right, it’s 2,496 individual entries and 384 4-person relay teams. Mix in the always awesome Unified Track for good measure. That’s a lot of dreaming and even more hard work.
So, when you step in the ring or your shoes fill with sand or you toe that line, know that if you are there you already won. Just go do your best. The lessons this spring have given you will last forever.
Just ask a thrower and her coach.