The North Bend Eagle

 


1980 championship a first for NBC, Nebraska

by Nathan Arneal
Published 11/25/20

Editor’s note: For clarity and continuity’s sake, the athletes in this story are referred to as their names were in high school.

When North Bend Central opened its new athletic wing in 2014, only a handful trophies – those shaped like the state of Nebraska – made the move into the new trophy cases.

Most of them shine with richly stained wood and gleaming gold lettering, but one of them is a little worse for the wear. Its gleam is not as shiny as the rest. The word “Champion” is missing the letter I and the zero in 1980 has been noticeably glued back into place.

A small piece of paper, torn and wrinkled by four decades of passing time, clings to the back of the trophy with the help of brittle, yellowed Scotch tape.

On the piece of paper is a list of 12 names, or more precisely, 12 nicknames. “Bunno” Zeleny. “Roach” Rochford. “Fast” Kloke. “Stickwoman” Bose.

The title at the top reads “1980 Danny Lee’s Girls.” The nicknames were bestowed by Danny Lee – coach Dan Watts. The trophy was won by Danny Lee’s Girls 40 years ago at Nebraska’s first girls cross country state meet. It also represents NBC’s first state championship in any sport.

1980 NBC CC team
The 1980 NBC girls cross country varsity quintet of Deanna Otte, Lauri Rochford, Laurie Kloke, Barb Hynek and Wanda Rochford holds aloft the 1980 NBC Invite trophy. It was the program’s first invitational championship, but there were bigger things to come that season.

Just four years before that trophy was won, in the fall of 1977, North Bend didn’t even have a girls cross country team. No one did, really. NBC had only instituted its boys team in 1975.

A trio of freshman girls became the Founding Mothers of NBC girls cross country when they started practicing with the boys team in ‘77: Barb Hynek, Liz Zeleny and Valerie Limbach. Watts, their junior high track coach that spring, suggested that they give cross country a try.

“Us three girls were like, ‘Yeah, let’s try that,’” Barb Hynek said. “They said, ‘OK, but you have to run on the boys team the first year.’ We kind of felt like we had to prove ourselves, that we could do it.”

The three girls practiced with coach Gary O’Daniels’ boys teams and ran in the JV portion of boys races.

A triangular on Sept. 20, 1977, on the NBC home course – which was localed just south of the Platte River on the east side of the highway – featured a 1.2 mile “exhibition race” for the girls. It is unclear if Valley or Bennington contributed any runners to the girls race.

With the NSAA now sanctioning girls cross country as a sport, North Bend jumped in feet first with its own girls team for 1978, coached by Watts, who had inaugurated the junior high girls track program two years earlier and became the varsity girls track coach in 1977.

Preseason practice opened in the fall of 1978 with four girls, “veterans” Hynek and Zeleny with freshmen Deanne Otte and Teri Uhing. (Limbach had moved away.) Once school started, several mores went out and the team ended up with 11 girls. The NBC yearbook claimed that the 11-girl team was the “largest infancy class in the state.”

Race distances varied in the beginning, but the girls races were usually 1.5 miles long, and finding competition meant going against much bigger schools.

“There weren’t many teams in the state that year,” Watts said. “We ran against (Omaha) Marian a lot because they were one of the few teams around. There just weren’t very many cross country teams period when we started.”

NBC’s first girls race was a dual against Marian won by the Crusaders 31-12. Otte was the Tigers’ top finisher in third, with Hynek, Zeleny and Uhing completing the scoring quartet.

While the varsity team was blazing trails, eighth grader Laurie Kloke was waiting anxiously for her older sister Deb to get home from cross country practice so she could copy the workout.

“I used to be so excited to hear about her training, so I started running when, I think, when she was running,” Laurie Kloke said. “We’d live out in the country so I’d run a section. I guess it was in junior high when I started running, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

In 1979 Kloke joined the cross country team as a freshman. Remember that list of nicknames mentioned earlier? Hers was “Fast.” That’s probably a good sign.

Kloke immediately made an impact, taking turns with Otte as the top runner in ‘79, with Hynek usually not far behind.

The girls were seeing some success, going 8-2 in duals and triangulars in ‘79. Meanwhile, the boys team was making noise on a state level, finishing third in Class C in 1977 and third again in 1979. In 1978, they were the state runners-up, winning the school’s first state trophy since 1926.

The girls didn’t get that chance, however. There was no girls state meet yet. That would change in 1980, and Watts made sure his girls team knew it.

“I think we thought we were a decent team,” Kloke said. “Coach kept telling us, he said, ‘You guys could win this state meet,’ so I guess he planted the seed and we went with it.”

The inauguration of a girls state meet in 1980 was great timing for the NBC girls, who compiled a 6-0 record in duals and triangulars to open the season.

The program then won its first invitational, taking first place at the NBC Invite and following up with another win at the Elkhorn Invite.

In the final regular season meet, the Tigers finished seventh of 12 teams at the Marian Invite, with the six teams ahead of them all in Class A.

There was no district qualifying for that initial girls state meet. Any team that wanted to participate could. Eighteen Class C schools sent runners, including 10 full teams of at least four runners. Many considered North Bend the favorite.

“I thought on paper we could win,” Watts said. “As a coach, you approach it in a pessimistic way. What can we do to screw this up? It’s ours to win if we just run the race. But if we do something stupid, like if Barb takes off and she can’t finish, well then there you are.”

The 1980 state meet was held in the same place it is today at the Kearney Country Club. The North Bend contingent went down the night before and began a tradition of dressing up and going out to dinner the night before the race at the Peppermill Restaurant.


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