At the 2015 NSAA State Track and Field Championships in Omaha last weekend, I watched the final event from the west hill at Burke Stadium. My vantage point for the race was perfect for watching, and Sidney High's Donna Wiedeburg had us covered for photos.
The race was close from start-to-finish, but when Hunter Secrest passed the leader down the stretch in the third leg, I began to think Sidney could win a state championship.
Over the final 400 meters, Alex Linneman had the lead on the final turn when a Crete runner made a strong move for the lead. Crete closed on Linneman finishing on the turn and the pair were very close for much of the stretch.
I've seen a lot of track meets and been a fan of horse racing my whole life. But I don't think I've ever seen man nor beast ever so determined to stay in front. There was no catching Linneman that day – he refused to let the runners from Columbus Scotus or Crete get by him.
Like Sidney head coach John Ganser said shortly afterward, it was a team effort. The first two set it up and the final two laid it out on the track. The first two, by the way, were seniors Michael Banaszak and Hayden Lienemann. Lienemann won three state medals in his final year at Sidney High and Banaszak earned two.
After Linneman crossed the finish line, I rushed down to the fence near the finish line still trying to process if I'd seen what I thought I'd seen. After all, there was an earlier heat of the 4x400 that I didn't pay much attention to. But the first heat was what is called the "slow heat." It wasn't likely any of those teams could match the time put up by the winner of the "fast heat."
It was Matthew Barraza of Scottsbluff's track team who confirmed out loud just what I had thought. As I moved down the hill, I heard Barraza say to someone nearby that Sidney had just won the state championship.
I learned Wednesday that Barraza had taken issue with me quoting him in the story that appeared in Tuesday's edition of The Sidney Sun-Telegraph. In a post on his Facebook page, Barraza wrote, "The Sidney Sun-Telegraph has me quoted saying something they (sic) never came out of my mouth. I was never interviewed by anyone after the 4x4. So how could they possibly quote me saying anything?? Is this some sort of crime??"
I had never met Barraza, but as someone who has covered the Sidney track team for most of three springs, I've seen him run on a number of occasions. He is the reigning Class B state champion at 1,600 meters – and very recognizable.
While I know who he is, I can understand that he would not know me. I cover Sidney, not Scottsbluff. When the race was over and I was scrambling back toward the track, I heard Barazza say to someone else that Sidney had won the state championship.
When I heard this, I turned around and asked Barraza a direct question – without introducing myself. I wanted to know if he was sure.
He confirmed what I already believed to be true, but was still trying to process – that is, that Sidney had just won the state title.
So Matthew, no crime was committed. And while it wasn't in a true interview setting, I know what I heard was said out loud and among other fans on the hill at the meet. It's actually kind of a fluke that we crossed paths at that moment.
I then finished my journey toward the fence near the finish line to interview the four members of the Sidney 4x400-relay team. Onward, I rushed to the fence to quickly get the thoughts of Lienemann, Linneman, Secrest and Banaszak between hugs, shouts of joy and the general euphoria that comes with winning a state championship.
So it's been quite a year for Sidney High School sports, hasn't it. The football team qualified for the Class B state tournament, the boys' basketball team was runner-up at state, Derek Robb won an individual state wrestling championship and the boys' track team won it all. A nice grand slam for Sidney.
I don't know how long it's been since a Sidney High athlete was a state champion twice in one school year, but Robb was also a member of the boys' track team. Jake Heeren's year hasn't been too bad either. He went to state tournaments in three sports with football, basketball and now track – and was a huge part of the success in all three.
Since I've been covering sports in the Nebraska Panhandle, I learned early on that there is a big rivalry between Scottsbluff and Sidney. In most all sports, boys and girls, there always seems to be a little more excitement when Sidney plays Scottsbluff.
In Sidney, I saw the Red Raiders beat the Bearcats out of the district championship in football in 2013. Both qualified for the state tournament. I read this past season about how Scottsbluff paid Sidney back. In the 2013-14 season, the Bearcats came from behind to win the boys' district title in basketball with a clutch final quarter.
The Raiders and Bearcats had another amazing duel in hoops this past season. Each won two games with Sidney getting the better of Scottsbluff at state. It was an incredible game. The Lady Bearcats had a little payback for Sidney. They defeated the Lady Raiders to win the girls' district championship on Sidney's home court.
The match before Robb won his state wrestling championship, the Bearcats' Ben Rodriguez took to the mat to try to win his own state title. I don't know Ben Rodriguez either, but I was quietly rooting for him. He's from the Panhandle, and I always like it when Western Nebraska does well out east.
It was pretty exciting, too, to watch Rodriguez battle his way from behind in the third period to win his gold medal in overtime.
His reaction was priceless.
As for the next school year, the prospects for more exciting Scottsbluff-Sidney games are high. As always, we'll all be excited when Scottsbluff meets Sidney in any sport. The best part about it is, both should be very strong in a number of sports.
I wish both Sidney and Scottsbluff the best of luck for success and most of all good health.
When the individual battles are over, I'm sure the players on both sides will look each other in the eye and say, "well done" – just as they've always done.