KEARNEY — As rich of a tradition as Scottsbluff has in boys cross country, more than 50 years had gone by since a Bearcat runner crossed the finish line in first place in a state meet.
That streak came to an end Friday, thanks to a smooth, spirited effort from Matthew Barraza. The talented sophomore distance runner took the gold after completing the Class B race with a stellar time of 16 minutes, 22.1 seconds.
“I figured it was a long enough gap and that it was time for someone [from Scottsbluff High School] to win again,” Barraza said. “A lot of great runners have come through this program, so it shows how much competition there is at state. It’s hard to win it there. I’m glad I could be the one to do it.”
Barraza ended about 6 seconds ahead of the runner-up finisher, Mount Michael Benedictine junior Kalil Thomas. Barraza’s teammate, junior Anthony Parra, actually recorded the same time (16:28.4) as Kalil; however, Kalil was awarded second place by the slimmest of margins. Parra placed third.
Barraza and Parra’s efforts led another strong showing at state for the Bearcats, who had all six of their runners finish in the top 23. Unfortunately for Scottsbluff, it wasn’t quite enough to win its third straight title, as Mount Michael’s top four runners placed in the top nine, propelling the Knights to the championship with 25 points. It was Mount Michael’s first state title since 1986.
Scottsbluff earned the runner-up finish with 32 points, well ahead of third-place Seward, which scored 85 points. Plattsmouth finished fourth with 111 points, and Omaha Gross ended fifth with 111.
Highlighting Scottsbluff’s performance, of course, was the hard running of Barraza, who was one of only two non-juniors or seniors to crack the top 15 in the Class B boys race. The other was Elkhorn freshman Austin Yardley, who took 10th place.
Barraza’s effort improved on his performance from last year’s state meet, when as a freshman he recorded a fourth-place finish with a time of 16:31.9.
Barraza became just the third boy from Scottsbluff High School to win a cross country state championship and the first since 1961, when Allen Russell won the Class A title. Scottsbluff’s other state champion is Joe Perez, who won the Class A state title in 1960.
“It’s just kind of hitting me now that I won,” Barraza said late Friday evening. “It feels really good. It’s a relief to have won it, considering last year I didn’t do as well as I wanted to do.”
Though Barrara was in just his first year of high school cross country last year, he said getting fourth at state made him determined to come back even stronger this year.
“It was a motivator,” he said. “It really kind of set a fire in my stomach. I was pretty upset last year, and it made me want to work that much harder this summer and throughout the season.”
For about the first mile of Friday’s race, Barraza said he intentionally ran behind a runner from Gretna, who had taken the lead after a fast start.
“It was really windy, so I wanted to stay back a little in the first mile, and I did,” Barraza said. “I ran behind the kid from Gretna; I kind of let him take the wind from me. Then after we hit the mile marker, I passed him and from then on I tried to keep the lead.”
Barraza said he’s glad he had enough energy to hold on at the end.
“When I was going around the last turn, I was kind of skeptical about what I had left. I wasn’t really sure if I had anything, so I was kind of worried,” he said. “But I found something, and I took it. As I started approaching the finish line [and saw how much of a lead he had], I couldn’t stop smiling. I was so happy and relieved that I had finally done it.”
Barraza said he knew it wouldn’t be easy finishing ahead of his own teammate, Parra, and Barraza also knew he would face a big challenge from Kalil, who had finished ahead of Barraza at the UNK Invite earlier this season. But with a chance to become SHS’s first state champion since 1961, Barraza said it was easy for him to stay highly driven.
“I had that in my mind the whole time – that I wanted to be the first one since then,” he said. “That really pushed me.”
Scottsbluff, which holds the state record for most boys cross country team titles with 12 – Mount Michael ranks fourth now with eight, also received big-time performances from its other runners, including Parra, who earned his second straight third-place finish.
The Bearcats also were bolstered by the performance of junior Brendan Taedter, who claimed 11th place in 17:02.8. Also for Scottsbluff, senior Tayler James placed 18th in 17:21.6; junior Ben Willis-Teff was 21st in 17:29.7; and senior Justin Pritchard was 23rd in 17:34.3.
Barraza said he’s proud of all of his teammates’ effort.
“Mount Michael came out hard, but we gave it a great effort,” he said. “We gave it everything we had. I couldn’t ask for anything more out of my teammates.”
Although the Bearcats were aiming for first place, Barraza said placing second feels good, too.
“It’s nice. A lot of teams would die to get into the top three,” he said. “We were really hoping for first, but we were right there. So that second place isn’t anything to be ashamed of.”
In other local results in the Class B boys state race, Gering sophomore Michael Mapes placed 34th in 17:44.6, and Sidney sophomore Jachob Wiedeburg was 35th in 17:45.1. Gering junior Aaron Pierce was 63rd in 18:16.3.