KEARNEY — Daniel Romary is probably the second-best cross country runner in Class A.
But with about 600 meters to go Thursday in the Heartland Athletic Conference championship, the Lincoln Northeast senior was in third place.
By that point in many races, the winner is running in first. Maybe it wasn’t Romary’s day.
Maybe it was.
Romary used a big finish, passing two great runners, to win the race in a time of 16 minutes, 2 seconds in the 5,000-meter race at Kearney Country Club. That’s 5 seconds faster than Liem Chot ran at this meet last year.
Romary finished about 1 second ahead of Isaac Ochoa of Norfolk. Juan Garcia of Grand Island was third in 16:17.
Romary’s win gave Northeast its first individual champion at the conference meet in at least 30 years. And winning at conference means even more now after the conference expanded to 12 teams. Five of the top 10 boys teams in the state were here.
“Daniel winning it in this big of a conference, with this many talented athletes, is way bigger an accomplishment than the old-day runners,” said Northeast coach John Snoozy. “I’m not taking anything from those guys, but the front-end competition, there is a bunch of them in the low 17 (minutes), where back in the ’90s you might get six.”
Romary won for the fifth time in seven races. That’s pretty impressive considering he had an Achilles injury that limited his training to about 30 miles per week at the start of the season. One of his losses is to the best runner in Class A, Gabe Hinrichs of Elkhorn South.
Romary said passing two runners at the end of the race was “a blur.”
“I was tired,” Romary said. “But because my stride is just bigger than theirs, I was able to stride out on the downhill and catch Isaac Ochoa.”
Even when Romary was running third late in the race, Snoozy thought he could win because of his track speed.
“I can only think of one other guy that has the same speed, and that’s (Hinrichs),” Snoozy said. “Those two guys are track guys, and when you put track guys with endurance on a 5K, they’re almost impossible to beat.”
Fremont won the boys title with 33 points, giving them the conference team title for the 20th time in the past 21 years. Fremont didn’t have a runner in the top three but dominated by keeping each of its runners close to each other.
The Lincoln East girls stayed undefeated this season with their sixth win. East finished with 33 points, and runner-up Fremont had 51. East had six runners in the top 15.
East won the team title for the fifth time in six years and 15th overall.
Based on the season-best times for the teams in the meet, East was projected to win by about 10 points, so the Spartans were excited to run well and win by a larger margin, coach Brian Kabourek said.
Fremont senior Elli Dahl won the girls race in 18:32. Mia Murray from East was second in 18:46.
Dahl has won every meet since the first meet of the season in South Dakota, when she finished fourth. She's unbeaten against Nebraska competition.
On Thursday she felt the strongest on the back side of the course, where there aren’t as many spectators.
“I feel like that’s when everyone starts to settle in, and that’s when I can keep the pressure on,” Dahl said.