It’s been an uphill struggle all season for the Norfolk Catholic boys cross country team to stay healthy.
“From day one, we’ve been battling injury and illness,” Knight coach Doug Zoucha said. “We’re still not 100 percent, but we’ve improved all season.
“But, the whole goal is to get down to Kearney and once we’re down there, we usually perform pretty well.”
That was the case in 2018 when Norfolk Catholic followed up a third-place district finish with a state runner-up trophy.
The Knights’ No. 1 runner for most of this season has been sophomore Ben Hammond.
“Ben ran at state last year, Zoucha said. “As coaches, we looked at Ben and thought he’d be our most improved runner this year and that’s exactly what he’s been.
“He’s been our No. 1 for the last several meets. He’s getting taller and stronger and worked really hard in the weight room.”
Zoucha said another member of last year’s state runner-up team, Dalton Brunsing, goes to state as the team’s No. 2.
“Dalton’s been getting better all season,” Zoucha said. “He actually had a heat stroke this summer while he was running, so he’s been working really hard to get back at the competitive level that he was in last year and he’s gotten better all season long, so we’re looking for him to have a good run at state.”
Junior Travis Kalous also helped the Knights finish second at state last year.
“Travis has been running very consistently for us. He’s been our one, two or three guy all year,” Zoucha said.
“He’s one of our few runners, who has really been injury-free this season, so he’s been able to compete very well in all of our meets.”
Sophomore Trey Foecking did not run on the varsity in 2018, but Zoucha said he’s been a mainstay in the top four for the 2019 season.
“He’s just getting better all the time, so it will be a new experience for him running down in Kearney.”
Another sophomore, Eli Pfeifer, is new to cross country after playing football during previous falls.
“I knew that he would be a varsity runner and he has proved me right,” Zoucha said. “He’s just gotten better all season. This will be a brand new experience for him also.
“He’s been dealing with some hip problems, but we’ll hopefully have him running full-speed on Friday.”
Zoucha expected the Knights’ No. 6 runner, junior Wyatt Ash, to compete for the top spot this season, but he’s spent the entire fall battling an injury.
“It’s the navicular bone in his foot,” Zoucha said. “It’s a type of injury where it’s really hard to get it to heal.
“You have to be really careful, because fracturing that bone can be a career-ending type of injury.
“He’s worked really hard in the summer and the fall, trying to keep his conditioning up.”
Zoucha said the key is to qualify for state and see what happens there.
“We haven’t been 100 percent the entire season and we won’t be when we go to state, either,” Zoucha said, “but, we’ve battled all year long. We were six points from winning our district and we have four guys with state experience, so I think when we get down to state, we’ll perform well.
Lutheran High Northeast’s senior Alison Stineman is making her fourth trip to Kearney. As a freshman and sophomore, she competed for Elkhorn Valley and last year wore the Lutheran High colors.
“Alison started running in June and put in a lot of summertime workouts,” Eagle coach Stephanie Pape said. “She has shown great improvement even over last year.
“It seems like every meet, she gets a little bit better and I can also see that some of the girls that maybe beat her during the beginning of the season, she has gotten closer to them, or even has beaten those girls at the end of the season.”
Pape said two of Stineman’s biggest assets are her work ethic and positive attitude.
“There are days when we’ll have really challenging workouts and she never complains, she never questions, she just goes out and does it 110 percent every time.”
Stineman placed 44th last year, which Pape said, was not as well as she would have liked.
“She didn’t run terrible, but she didn’t run as best as she could have last year and she’s always kind of had that in the back of her mind that she kind of wants to get back and medal — make it in the top 15 — which is definitely possible for her.”
Norfolk High senior Matthew Protzman is the other city runner to qualify for the state cross country meet individually.
Panther coach Aaron Bradley said Protzman is an extremely hard worker. “I’ve really appreciated his time and effort he’s put into his teammates and our program over the last four years,” he said.
“This is his third year of qualifying for the state meet. He’s just been a joy to work with and I believe he’s made the improvements necessary throughout the course of this season to put himself in a position that he can be in that upper pack on Friday.”
After finishing 61st as a sophomore and 63rd last year, Bradley expects Protzman to compete for a medal (top 15) on Friday.
“That’s always a goal of any runner at the state meet. He has prepared to put himself in that position,” Bradley said.
“He’s going to have to be smart and also somewhat aggressive early in the race to put himself in that kind of position.
“It’s going to be a fast race. Class A is going to be a really fun race to watch on Friday.”