The Story Of The Oval


AROUND NEBRASKA’S OVALS — Forgive me. This one is about ten days late; the author trying to wrap his head around a spring on the track.

How is it one falls in love with the stories of track? I never considered it. Rarely even thought about the late May circus at Omaha Burke when I was in high school. Never even went out for track, surely wasn’t going to go watch a meet if a tee time was near.

This all changed, for better or worse, in the fall of 2019. I guess if we were watching, we would have known Olivia enjoyed running. Always had a unique passion for it. More on the fall of 2019 later.

For now, we scour athletic.net a few times a week. I learn about Emily Cole and Katelyn Touhy’s latest times. We chat about running, watch old races on YouTube. Dad even took to reading The Perfect Mile early in the season.

So, in all of that, there are stories I loved from the spring that needed to be shared, but maybe weren’t. Or I took a picture that had a different story. All in a season of enjoying so many athletes — those that made it to Burke and those that didn’t.

There are lessons in that oval.

Trojan Horse

Look, you all know the Carson Noecker story. Count the gold medals.

Four in purple (for Hartington-Newcastle) for cross country. Three 3,200-meter run golds (remember, he couldn’t win four). Two more 1,600-meter golds. And this year a 4×800 meter relay gold with his Cedar Catholic buddies.

I always wanted to spend a day with Carson in his element on the farm. Just to see what made him tick. I’ll never get the chance and that’s fine. Certainly, I’ll be a South Dakota State follower in the fall. What I always admired about Carson Noecker was he didn’t care about any of the attention we all gave him.

At state cross country last fall, I likened him to The Beatles. Everyone chased him around Kearney Country Club. After his 3,200 meter crown at Burke, I snuck in behind the television cameras and I learned all I needed to know about Carson Noecker.

His message? Simple.

“I have been given a gift and a talent from God and I feel like it’s my responsibility to go out and compete to the best of my ability.”

LEAGUE OF HER OWN: Omaha Westside’s Lademi Davis won four gold medals at the Class A state track meet. But she’s way more than a track star. (nebpreps photo / Tony Chapman)

Sweet Music

If I have it all correct, Lademi Davis from Omaha Westside — yes, she of the four state individual gold medals — is a winner in more than just track.

A perfect 36 on her ACT. At the top of her class at Omaha Westside. And, an even more talented musician than she is student and athlete. She will be heading to the University of Texas to continue pursuing her world class talent of performing with the oboe.

I have no words. So, I asked Westside Superintendent Mike Lucas for a few to describe Davis.

“She’s a better student, person, and humble leader than she is an athlete,” Lucas told me. “An extremely talented musician. Super nice person. She is everything you hope for. There’s nothing she can’t do. ‘Bright future’ doesn’t even begin to describe what’s ahead for her.

“I’m in awe of her.”

Sweet music indeed.

HEARTBREAK: Osceola’s Isaiah Zelasney with a medical trainer after his final race — the Class D 400-meter dash. (nebpreps photo / Tony Chapman

Bulldog Tough

The tears meant a few things for Osceola star Isaiah Zelasney.

They meant one chapter was over (IZ will continue his track career at Northwest Missouri State). They meant that his body had given all it could and it was injured. Knowing what I knew about what Isaiah went through after suffering a leg injury near the end of his final basketball season it’s amazing he even competed this spring.

He pulled up short in his 100 prelim when no one else could have handled the pain to even start. He somehow had the fastest Class D prelim time in the 400 but fell short in the “long” race final, too.

Sure, it wasn’t the ending he wanted. No ninth gold medal. But it was a fitting ending to toughness and hard work. And, for my money, that’s all Isaiah Zelasney ever knew.

CHAMPION COUGAR: Sandy Creek freshman Emma Fisher brought home three medals from the Class D state track meet, including a state title in the 1,600-meter run. (nebpreps photo / Tony Chapman)

Where It All Started

I was first allowed to write stories during the 1998-99 school year for the Clay County News in Sutton. So, anytime, I see a Clay County kid or school have success it always grabs my attention.

So, hello there Emma Fisher.

The Sandy Creek freshman went for PRs in the 800, 1,600 and 3,200 meter runs at Burke finishing fourth in the 800, winning the mile in 5:28 and getting second in the two-mile at 12:02. A decent weekend.

I asked old college buddy and current SC head man Matt Schwartzendruber about the surprise weekend. He said they came up on Thursday so their freshman could see Burke. “Emma wanted to throw up and go home,” he chuckled.

“Cross country,” I inquired, not remembering her name from the fall.

“No,” said coach. “One of our best volleyball players, too.”

We’ll see you around Emma. I am always up for a good story about the hard work and dedication of a Clay County athlete.

PURE JOY: Lincoln East’s Berlyn Schutz takes a moment after winning the Class A, 1600-meter run at the state track championships. (nebpreps photo / Tony Chapman)

That Very First Race

I promised you a bit more from 2019 at the beginning of this rambling. Liv was a seventh grader and had finished her first year of cross country, so on a chilly October morning dad decides to yank her out of school and take her to Kearney.

It was the first state cross country meet for both of us. Heck, I hadn’t even heard of Prep Running Nerd yet. I followed high school cross country, just enough to be dangerous. So, we planned our day around a couple races — Liam Chot in Class A and a possible fourth gold for Ainsworth standout Rylee Rice in the Class D girl’s race. I only knew them from track.

We didn’t know about Carson Noecker, but he was there. We didn’t know about Maddie Seiler, but the Bulldogs won a team title that day and she won the next three Class B titles.

All the way home, we couldn’t stop talking about two races.

The Class A girls finish with a freshman phenom named Berlyn Schutz getting caught at the finish by Fremont’s Elli Dahl. (Notice that I couldn’t even spell their names right) And, then in that Class D race we saw another freshman — St. Cecilia’s Alayna Vargas — leaving Rice in the dust in a shocking twist of events.

“It will sure be fun to watch them win a few more golds over the next few years,” we thought.

Schutz’s gold in cross country, never came, and she openly shared her battles with puberty and distance running over her high school career. Her happy ending came at Burke, before she heads off to Nebraska to run in the fall; state titles in the 800 and 1,600 as well as a spot on two winning relay teams.

Vargas’ battle was different. She met a racing — or sparring partner, if you will — as a sophomore when Crofton’s Jordyn Arens came on the scene.

Arens defeated Vargas at the 2020 cross country meet and then at the 2021 state track meet Arens won the 1,600 and 3,200 with Vargas placing 3rd and 2nd, respectively. Then, Vargas battled a knee injury she couldn’t shake that was never fully diagnosed.

As a junior, she went down for the first time at the UNK Invite, managed to qualify for state, but went down again in the final meet. She recovered enough to place 2nd — behind Arens — in the 3,200-meter run at state last spring but did not place in the 1,600 or 800 like she did as a sophomore.

Last fall, in the lead, she had to walk off the course at the Aurora cross country meet. I saw it. Broke my heart. It was her last cross country race.

But she figured out a way to work herself back to the track this spring. You won’t find a load of “regular season” races on her profile, but she had done enough to qualify for state in the 4×800 relay, 1,600 and 3,200.

Could Alayna Vargas even medal after working her way back? Being there was an accomplishment. But, as I watched that weekend with Liv after she was all done, there was Alayna Vargas, three medals around her neck. Oh, sure not gold or even silver, but they put a smile on my face: 2nd in the 3,200 relay, 8th in the 3,200 on Friday and 5th in the 1,600 on Saturday.

And, you know, Jordyn Arens won those individual races like she has in each of her high school years. But, when she was all done racing at the 2023 state track championships, someone was there to hold her up. A familiar foe, or, maybe now, a friend.

And that’s why I fell in love with track and field. That’s the story of the oval.

COMPETITORS, FRIENDS: St. Cecilia’s Alayna Vargas and Crofton’s Jordyn Arens at the conclusion of the Class C girls 1,600-meter run. (nebpreps photo / Tony Chapman)

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