Anything less than a state basketball championship this year just was not going to do.
Senior guard Maddie Simon helped that dream come true, leading Lincoln Pius X to the Class B title. She averaged almost 19 points per game as the Thunderbolts captured their third state championship and first since 1992.
Simon, a Nebraska basketball recruit, followed that up with a pair of Class A titles and an all-class gold medal at the state track meet.
She was able to achieve those goals despite battling injuries that might have sidetracked others. Simon was hobbled by an ankle injury during basketball season and a back injury in track.
For her performance in both sports, Simon is honored today as the World-Herald Nebraska high school girls athlete of the year. She is the first girl from Pius to win the award, which was first given in 1976.
Other finalists were Allison Arens of Crofton, Chloe Akin-Otiko of Bellevue West, Haley Thiele of Wahoo Neumann, Kylie Hohlen of Norris and Tiani Reeves of Gothenburg.
Simon began her sports season on an inauspicious note, having to sit out the fall golf season. She was nursing a back injury suffered during a club basketball game, and doctors advised against golf if she hoped to play basketball.
“I played golf my first three years and I was close to those coaches and players,” she said. “It was hard not to play, but in the end I felt it was the right decision.”
Simon wanted to make certain she was ready for her final varsity year of basketball. The Thunderbolts returned three other starters — Kennedy Sander, Briahtia Sebek and Becky Brokaw — and Simon said all of them were motivated by falling to Grand Island Northwest in the 2014 Class B title game.
“That loss in the final was something we talked about all this season,” Simon said. “We were really driven by that, and we weren’t going to let it happen again.”
But in February, Simon sprained an ankle in practice and had to sit out a double-overtime loss to unranked Class A Columbus. The senior battled through the injury — despite the need for a walking boot when she wasn’t playing — and the Thunderbolts went on to reach state.
In the Class B final against Norris, Simon scored a game-high 18 points in a 41-33 championship win. She scored eight in the fourth quarter as Norris threatened to make the Thunderbolts the state runners-up for the second straight year.
“Even though she was playing on two sprained ankles, she never let adversity stop her,” Pius girls basketball coach Bill Rice said. “Maddie always kept it positive, and nothing got her down.”
Simon said there was no way she wasn’t going to push through the pain.
“We had come so far,” she said. “Finishing second again just wasn’t an option.”
While others might have bypassed running track in the spring after that emotional basketball finish, Simon once again found motivation from last year. She had finished second at state in both the 100- and 300-meter hurdles.
Unfortunately, the back injury flared up as she prepared for the season.
“She already had her basketball scholarship, and a lot of other athletes would have quit,” Rice said. “But that’s not Maddie. I’m proud of the way she stayed with it.”
Despite the ongoing back pain during the season, Simon managed to qualify for both events at state. She won the 100-meter Class A hurdles in 14.94 seconds — tying for the all-class gold — and the 300-meter hurdles in 45.33.
“She could have easily walked away from track, but she didn’t,” Thunderbolts track coach George O’Boyle said. “That says a lot about her character.”
O’Boyle added that Simon’s ability to battle through injuries served as motivation for the rest of the team.
“When the other girls saw what Maddie was dealing with, they weren’t going to quit,” he said. “She really helped us be better as a team.”
For Simon, it was another case of sweet redemption. And a great way to finish her varsity career.
“Last year it was silvers and this year it was golds,” she said. “I can still hardly believe the way this whole season played out.”
Maddie is the daughter of Doug and Nicole Simon. She has two older brothers, Ben and Zach.
No sisters, although she does have a 3-year-old niece.
“I think coaches will be waiting for her,” Maddie said. “I just know she’ll be a player.”
Simon’s father, who played basketball in high school, worked extensively with Maddie over the years to improve her game.
“He practiced with me every day,” she said. “I owe so much to my dad, and to the coaches at Pius.”
She also followed her mother as a track athlete. The former Nicole Ali was a four-time All-American at NU.
Simon, who finished her career with 1,404 points, already is working hard at Nebraska. She has class until 1 p.m., followed by practice, lifting and study hall.
She’s busy, but she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“My goal here is to work as hard as I can and be a great teammate,” Simon said. “I’ll do everything I can to make those things happen.”
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