Next year, the Norfolk Catholic cross country team will be in an unfamiliar position after the retirement of longtime coach Doug Zoucha.
Zoucha said he considered retiring a few years ago, but he decided he wanted to make it to the age of 65 so he could then focus on spending time with his family and friends.
"I felt like it was time," Zoucha said. "I'm ready to spend a little more time with family."
Zoucha went to Columbus Lakeview High School and graduated in 1973. He then went to South Dakota State on a football scholarship but later ended up at Wayne State College and graduated in December 1976.
Zoucha had a few job offers coming out of college, but he thought it was a good opportunity to teach and coach at Norfolk Catholic.
"Norfolk Catholic was known for good education, discipline and athletics," Zoucha said. "My intention was to go to Norfolk Catholic for a year or two and then move on because I thought Norfolk would be a little too big for me. But 43 years later I was still at the same place."
Zoucha started at Norfolk Catholic in 1977 and has taught junior high school history classes for 43 years and also high school history classes for 27 of those years.
On the athletics side, Zoucha went to Norfolk Catholic with the intentions of becoming the football and basketball coach. Zoucha coached football for eight years, five as an assistant for the varsity team and three as the junior high head football coach.
He had little interest in cross country but when the school’s program started in 1983, Zoucha had interest in being the head coach because he wanted to get into running. He didn't get the job. Two years later, even though he had no background in the sport, he took over as head coach.
"I had never even seen a cross country meet. The first cross country meet I was ever at, I was coaching," Zoucha said. "We had four boys and one girl. Academically we were good, but athletically we were not."
Throughout his coaching career, the Norfolk Catholic cross country team added more kids to the program and soon grew into a well-oiled machine, leading to plenty of success.
"I've always had a good group of kids with one or two really good runners. But the main athletes went toward football," Zoucha said. "We were able to bring in a few more athletes each year. When you get two or three that pull a couple more with them, the talent level gets better."
During his time as coach, the Norfolk Catholic boys and girls cross county teams combined to win 13 conference championships, nine district championships, three state runner-ups finishes and five state championships. They had 164 state qualifiers, 33 state medalists, three individual state champions and one two-time all-class state champion.
"Due to the great work ethic and achievements of hundreds of Norfolk Catholic cross country runners over the last 35 years, I believe our program became very well-respected throughout not only Northeast Nebraska but also the state of Nebraska," Zoucha said. "Our runners always represented Norfolk Catholic in a positive, Christian manner. I was always proud to be their coach. I was always grateful to play a small role in their personal and team successes.
“As a Christian I know where all of our abilities come from. It was my vocation to try to get each runner to be the best version of themselves they could be."
Zoucha slowly learned how important it was to build relationships with everyone involved in the program, he said.
"Cross country is a totally different sport. Relationship is very important with how close you get with the kids and their families; it's a whole different sport I had ever been involved in," Zoucha said. "I have the phone numbers of 175 former cross country runners that I have some contact with at least once a year. I have pretty close bonds with a lot of former runners and their families."
From 2003 to 2005, Norfolk Catholic started bringing in more talent, which led to a boys state runner-up finish in 2005. Those teams helped bring in a string of state championships later as the boys went onto win four Class C state championships in a row.
"I didn't have any expectations of winning a state championship; I knew we were going to be pretty good and then it kind of snowballed," Zoucha said.
During the four-year span, Jarren Heng won the Class C individual state titles in 2008 and 2009, and he was also an all-class champion both years as well.
Years later, in 2016, the boys team again won a state title, this time in Class D with Jonah Heng leading the way as individual state champion.
"Hanging medals around your kids’ necks doesn't get old; it's a cool deal for everybody," Zoucha said.
Two years later, the boys team finished as Class D state runner-up while the girls team had its best finish in 2013, as the Class C runner-up.
Zoucha ends his career as a 13-time Mid-State Conference coach of the year, and he was named the Nebraska cross country coach of the year in 2007. In addition, he was given the Level IV cross country award (the highest achievable level in the Nebraska Coaches Association) and the Nebraska Coaches Association’s 40-year milestone award in 2017/ He also was the a track coach on the junior high and high school levels for 40 years.
"Doug has been an outstanding cross country coach for Norfolk Catholic for many, many years," said Jeff Bellar, Norfolk Catholic’s activities director. "His runners competed at a very high level for him year in and year out. When he was blessed with some very talented runners, he was able to win state championships. Our student athletes enjoyed him very much as their coach. He will be dearly missed as a teacher and coach for Norfolk Catholic Schools."