KEARNEY — For a second straight year, Norfolk's Isaac Ochoa finished in the top 10 to lead the Panthers in the Class A state cross country meet on Friday at the Kearney Country Club.

Ochoa, who had finished fifth a year ago as a freshman, settled for sixth on Friday, with a time of 16 minutes, 18 seconds, which was 18 seconds slower than his 2020 finish.

"Today wasn't my day," Ochoa said. "At the beginning, I was going to stick around third place, but they went out too fast, so they kind of ended up dropping me."

Norfolk coach Aaron Bradley said Ochoa struggled at the start. "We were in box seven and (Isaac) got cut off a little bit at the beginning, so that was kind of the difference in being sixth place versus second or third," Bradley said.

"But he'll learn. He's a sophomore. I thought he ran a really good second half of the race, and he'll be exciting to watch improve for the next couple of years."

Ochoa was the Panthers' only medalist (top 15). Seniors Cole Uzzell and Tristen Kittelson were the next Norfolk runners to finish and did so in 50th and 51st place, respectively, among the 98-runner field.

"My goal was to go out there and try to break 17 minutes and stay with Cole," said Kittelson, who missed meeting the goal by finishing in 17:27, less than a second behind Uzzell.

"It's been 50-50 all season," Kittelson said. "I beat him and he beats me."

For his part, Uzzell described the field as fast. "You go and you train all year, and I don't think you can ever be absolutely prepared for this kind of competition," he said.

Uzzell was sad to think that the state meet was his last chance to compete with Kittelson, his friend and running partner, in cross country.  

"It's always great when I run with with Tristen," Uzzell said. "I love the guy to death. If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be where I am. He's the only reason that I can do what I can do and I help him do what he does. We work together. We're like brothers."

Norfolk finished 11th out of the 12 qualified teams. The Panthers finished ahead of only Lincoln North Star, which did not post a team score because three of its runners failed to finish.

Still, Bradley said his team performed up to expectations. "They ran hard. They ran smart, and we got better from two weeks ago at the HAC meet. That's all you can ask for," Bradley said.

Rounding out the Norfolk lineup were Billy Reynolds (81st), Wyatt Mead (84th), Isaac Guenther (89th) and Daniel Weitzman (90th).

All but Ochoa and Reynolds are seniors, and Bradley said they've helped to lay the foundation for the Panther cross country program to build on for years to come.

"On and off the course, those guys have been exemplary," Bradley said. "They're great leaders. They do things right in the classroom. They come to practice every day to get better and they're going to be hard to replace. But hopefully, our younger kids have watched what they've forwarded to them and they'll walk in their footsteps."

Younger kids like Ochoa and Reynolds. Bradley said he's confident the pair will have success in leading the next generation of Panthers. "We tried to perform our best so they can teach others how to perform their best," Bradley said. "We just hope the program continues to strive for greatness."

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