A stronger, faster Nick Ryan won't be able to surprise the field this year. (Photo by Pat Bendzick)
NXN Boys Individual Preview: Several could claim title, but don’t let Ryan go
If you see Nick Ryan going out hard Saturday during the Nike Cross Nationals Boys Championship race at Portland Meadows, perhaps grabbing a sizable lead in the first mile, you best not let him go this time.
You might not ever catch him.
One of the strongest memories of the 2011 boys’ battle here is the Fayetteville-Manlius (Manlius, N.Y.) standout, then a junior, hammering it out there in the first half of the race. Ryan wasn’t well-known outside of the Empire State then, and eventual winner Futsum Zienasellassie pretty much let him go. There were a few moments, as mile one turned into mile two, that you really began to believe that Ryan might steal the race. But then Futsum turned on the accelerators, reeled in the New Yorker, and others followed.
But not too many others. Ryan still finished fifth in 15:31. Twelve months later, now with track creds of 4:05.24 1,600 and 9:03.81 3,200, the senior is the top returnee, currently US#2, and the favorite to win on what will likely be a muddy, flooded layout Saturday.
Ryan finished off his track season with his PRs, comprising a state meet double, and bypassed the post-season. Then Coach Bill Aris held both of his teams out of major meets for the first month of the XC season, to allow for college visits and otherwise clear training. So from early June until the Eastern States at Manhattan in mid-October, Ryan’s form and fitness was a bit of a mystery outside of Manlius.
Well, Coach Aris let the proverbial horse out of the barn on Van Cordlandt Oct. 13 and the result was nothing less than a 12:05 for 2.5 miles that trailed only course record-holder and winner Ed Cheserek, the US#1 harrier who has gone the Foot Locker route again. “I felt that Nick was prepared and ready to take a legitimate shot at 12 minutes, and he did just that in running 12:05,” said Coach Aris. “Quite humbly and comically, Nick noted that he ‘is the fastest loser of all time at Manhattan!’”
Since then, no one in New York has been able to challenge Ryan, who cruised Class A state and NXN NE titles. “Obviously things have been coming together nicely with Nick, in accordance with our plan all along,” said Coach Aris. “He ran a very strong race last weekend, yet controlled and without strain, and I believe he still has more within him. I can’t predict how the rest of the front runners will run, but I know Nick will give it all he’s got in his last high school XC race. Wherever he finishes, I will know that he gave it all he had without any regrets.”
Should things get extremely swampy, as they are predicted to do, Ryan should also be well-suited to handle it. Last year, he conveyed strength and talent, but was a bit gangly, with a bit too much reckless abandon. This year, he is the picture of the powerful, confident senior, who can dominate and withstand almost any kind of pressure.
Ah, but there’s the rub. “Almost any kind of pressure.” Because there are many other harriers in the field that would like to feel the joy of crossing the line first, and a hearty handful that are hungry, talented and fit enough to pull it off. Let’s look at eight of them:
US#4 Bernie Montoya – When the Cibola star took 12th here last fall, he was barely known outside of Arizona. Six months later, many would view him as the most talented prep distance runner in the country, especially when it came to four laps around an outdoor track. Such was the feeling after Montoya’s devastating 4:01.32 to win the deepest mile in prep history in the adidas Dream event in New York. And in April, he had been nearly as impressive with an 8:48.25 3,200 that was second only to Zeinasellassie. By comparison, Montoya’s senior XC season has seemed relatively quiet. Yes, he’s been unbeaten and run some fast times, capped by a 14:48.5 to take the NXN SW title. But when he had a chance to really make national headlines at Mt. SAC, he was on a college visit instead. Montoya’s a strong kid, too, though there isn’t much rain and mud to run in while in the desert. How he will perform is one of the meet’s most intriguing questions.
US#6 Jake Leingang – On the heels of the most popular video in YouTube history, it’s fun to twist the title around a little and subsequently tag any big victory by this Bismarck (N.D) senior dynamo as doing it “Leingang Style.” You have to be good to truly merit funky headlines and, of course, Leingang is just that: Unbeaten, in fact, with both NXN Heartland and Foot Locker Midwest titles to his credit. That all follows a junior year that saw him also attempt the nationals double, finishing 8th in Portland and 4th in San Diego, then a track campaign including an 8:51.23 3,200 at Arcadia and a New Balance Nationals Outdoor 5,000 title in 14:27.16. Coach Dave Zittleman said his superstar has risen to the challenge with increases in mileage and pace, and “has developed an unbelievable sense for pace in races and more importantly in practice. He has been able to nail almost every workout session this year ... One of Jake’s big goals for the season was to help get his teammates to NXN. Obviously, that goal was achieved ... he was able to run relaxed and controlled in both regional qualifier meets. He knew that this would be a very challenging five week championship season and it has gone as planned.”
US#8 Jacob Burcham – If you can’t wait to see what this super talented Cabell Midland (Ona, W.V.) senior will do as he finally toes the line at a national XC meet for the first time as an upperclassmen, then join the crowd. After a soph track season in 2011 that ended in the World Youth 1,500 final in July, Burcham and Coach Chris Parsons decided to conclude the subsequent fall of his junior year with no NXN or Foot Locker (he made NXN in 2010 and was 16th). Then last spring in track, Burcham ran 4:02.73 in the Dream Mile behind Montoya, had a stunning state triple, and won the NBNO mile. This fall, he lost early to Jacob Thomson at the Trinity/Valkyrie meet, but has been unbeaten since. “Jacob is a totally different runner than he was in Louisville,” said Parsons. “He had only been training for five weeks to that point in his season. Since then, he’s won five races and set meet and course records in four of them (including 14:58 at state). At NXN SE, he ran to win and secure his spot in Portland ... his goal is to move up to first-team All-American.”
US#10 Sam Wharton – It was a nice and somewhat unexpected surprise for Ohio XC fans last fall when this Tippecanoe (Tipp City, Ohio) senior (then a junior) claimed the fifth spot at NXN Midwest, then was a very respectable 21st in Portland – beating a lot of bigger “names.” Twelve months later, Wharton still isn’t a big “name” – he’s just quietly risen to become one of the top 10 runners in the country. Spring 2012 had seen a progression down to 9:10, then 9:01.24 (D1 runnerup) in the 3,200, then a 14:46.31 in the NBNO 5,000 (5th). This fall, cruised through the state-meet season, venturing to Indiana for an impressive win at Culver, then setting a CR at state with a 15:09.95 win. Easy-going and self-effacing, Wharton said he went too soon in trying to win NXN MW, where he was outkicked by Alex Riba, then quipped that he’d take second to Leingang any day when he was nipped by him at FL Midwest. The 14:56 on the North Dakotan’s heels, though, proved that Wharton should be ready for anything and in firm contention for top five or better.
US#12 Bryan Fernandez – Rarely do you have a major state like California with as wide-open a scene as you had for individual boys this fall. Seniors ruled last fall – and this season super track talents like Blake Haney and Cody Brazeal started out injured while there were no high NXN or Foot Locker returnees from the Golden State. So it’s been a surprise that someone has risen up to complete an invitational trifecta with Woodbridge, Clovis and Mt. SAC (Individual Sweeps), and followed with a D2 state title. But that’s exactly what this Dos Pueblos senior has done. Fernandez came into this fall with no national creds, but has come on like gangbusters under veteran coach Len Miller. “Bryan has been on a 4-year program which would guarantee his improvement, but as the same time leave room clearly for his continued growth as a runner in college,” he said. Fernandez formerly struggled with fast, sometimes suicidal starts, Coach Miller continued, but learned from former national class teammate Sergey Sushchinkh and others to rein it in early. He’s now become a consummate finisher.”Bryan has the confidence that he can take control of a race when he wants to, even if it means waiting patiently ... He knows he can't run away from the runners in the field Saturday. He always has a race plan.”
US#17 Joe Hardy – This Seattle Prep harrier was definitely a sophomore to take notice of last fall when he fourth at 3A state, fifth at NXN NW, then 43rd in Portland. But no one was really prepared for what Hardy did last spring as he ran 4:09.29 for 1,600, then made jaws drop at state with a 8:55.32 3,200(1st) / 4:09.89 1,600(3rd) double. That put him in the territory of the best 10th-graders during any year and, given the presence of fellow soph Kai Wilmot in-state at North Central, huge things were expected this fall. The two impressively traded victories at Firman and Richland before Wilmot was sidelined with injury. Hardy went on win state and then dispatched the field at NXN NW. “Joe had an excellent fall, he clearly rises to a challenge when pressed,” said Coach Ben Sauvage. “His loss to Kai at Richland fired him up and he was very motivated to race him again at State. When Kai got hurt, he ran just to win. NXN NW was the same ... He prefers not to go deep into his well unless something is at stake.” NXN will be interesting, he adds. “Joe’s best XC races are always when there is a team aspect to the race, without our team there, I will be curious to see how hard he wants to go.”
US#19 Robert Domanic – Not too many runners have risen more stealthily to contention than the Hebron (Lewisville, Texas) senior. Last fall, Domanic was seventh at NXN South, 10th at Foot Locker South, then elected to compete only in San Diego -- and netted a very respectable 20th. That earned him some preseason notice this fall, but he had some early losses. “We thought that Robert had a chance to make it to both nationals this year, so we structured his year a little different than in the past,” explained Coach Jason Grennier. “We did a much slower buildup of the base part of his training so he could handle a season that lasted into mid-December ... He understood that he would have to give up some success early to be ready at the end.” With a second at Nike South, then 5A state and NXN South titles, Domanic has clearly come on as hoped. “I think that his key to success (at both nationals) will be for him to be patient and let the race develop,” Coach Grennier added. “I think that has been his biggest growth this year. He used to try and dominate every race from the start, but he has learned that each race is different and he has to run them that way.”
US#22 Juan Gonzalez – Like the above-mentioned Fernandez, this El Toro senior has helped fill the void left by the departed Class of 2012 in the Golden State – though his emergence has been even more recent. By Mt. SAC, Fernandez had already taken Woodbridge and Clovis, and would go on to claim the D1/2 Individual Sweeps in Walnut. But the previously unknown (outside of Cali) Gonzalez rambled to the finish of the Team Sweeps first, with a very fast 14:38 and topping Arcadia’s duo of Mitchell Pratt and Estevan De La Rosa. Fans had to take notice and Gonzalez has since backed it up, winning the Southern Section Final and then the D1 state title last Saturday at Woodward in 15:05. No one in any class was faster. This Saturday, the senior will wade into national championship territory for the first time, as will Hernandez, and fans will finally see how these California newcomers compare.
27 more to watch: Maybe not quite as talented or proven as those mentioned above, but athletes who could get top 10-15, or even better on a good day (in order of ranking, then alpha by first name).
US#15 Alex Riba, 12, O’Fallon HS, IL
1st NXN MW, 43rd FL MW, 4th 3A State, 3rd Forest Park
Best kick gave him surprising regional win in tactical race.
US#18 Tony Russell, 11, West Chester Henderson HS, PA
1st NXN NE, 1st AAA State, 1st District 1, 4th Eastern States, 2nd Briarwood.
Big Eastern States helped launch emergence as arguably best runner in PA.
US#20 Luis Martinez, 12, Sue Cleveland HS, NM
2nd NXN SW, 1st 5A state, 1st 2011 NXN SW, 30th 2011 NXN Finals
Topped 2011 PR, but settled for 3rd in tough NXN SW; previously unbeaten.
US#23 Estevan De La Rosa, 11, Arcadia HS, CA
2nd D1 State, 2nd SS Finals, 3rd Mt.SAC Team Sweeps, 1st Stanford, 7th Firman, 35th 2011 NXN Finals.
Shares team leadership with Pratt; huge win at Stanford tops resume.
US HM Brayden McLelland, 12, American Fork HS, UT
6th NXN SW, 2nd 5A State, 7th BYU Classic, 28th 2011 NXN Finals
One of best races was here in ’11, just :01 behind teammate Clayton Young.
US HM Brigham Hedges, 12, The Woodlands HS, TX
15th NXN South, 2nd 5A State, 1st Nike South, 1st Kingwood/Wells, 81st 2011 NXN Finals.
Was off form at NXN South, but at his best, can beat anyone in the region.
US HM Colin Bennie, 12, Wachusett Reg. HS. MA
3rd NXN NE, 3rd D1 State, 3rd Bay State, 1st Wachusett Inv
Beat state champ Green early; has 9:07.44 2M talent.
US HM Danny Aldaba, 12, Fremont HS, NE
2nd NXN HL, 11th FL MW, 2nd Class A State,
First male runner ever from Nebraska at NXN.
US HM Jack Boyle, 12, Christian Bros. Acad., NJ
4th NXN NE, 5th Eastern States, 2nd Shore Conf., 6th Great AM ROC
Usual #1 for defending champs capable of scoring high individually.
US HM Jack Keelan, 12, Chicago St. Ignatius HS, IL
5th NXN MW, 84th FL MW, 1st 3A State, 2nd Palatine
Trying now to salvage a disappointing post-season.
US HM Jake Heslington, 12, Timpanogos HS, UT
5th NXN SW, 1st 4A State, 4th Bob Firman, 1st BYU Classic
Utah’s #1 entry now that Saarel’s deferred his spot.
US HM Joe Sansone, 12, Southlake Carroll HS, TX
2nd NXN South, 4th 5A State, 1st Chile Pepper, 9th Nike South
As with Boyle, capable of scoring very low for title contender.
US HM Jordan Cross, 12, Ogden HS, UT
4th NXN SW, 2nd 3A State, 9th Bob Firman, 2nd BYU Classic, 55th 2011 NXN Finals
Capable of moving up significantly after first NXN experience last year.
US HM Kai Wilmot, 11, North Central HS, WA
2nd Bob Firman, 1st Richland, 1st Tracy Walters, 49th 2011 NXN Finals
At “75 percent,” injured standout hopes to help team.
US HM Logan Miller, 12, Chantilly HS, VA
2nd NXN SE, 3rd AAA State, 5th Glory Days, 12th Great Am ROC
Out from teammate McGorty’s (Foot Locker) shadow with fine regional run.
US HM Mickey Burke, 11, Rush Henrietta HS, NY
2nd NXN NY, 2nd Class A State, 1st Manhattan ‘F’
Progress late this fall makes him one of better juniors in field.
US HM Mitchell Pratt, 12, Arcadia HS, CA
3rd D1 State, 2nd MtSAC Team Sweeps, 14th Stanford, 8th Firman, 103rd 2011 NXN Finals
This fall’s improvement most evident in great Mt. SAC race.
US HM Nate Sullivan, 12, Southlake Carroll HS, TX
3rd NXN South, 3rd 5A State, 2nd Chile Pepper, 6th Nike South, 45th 2011 NXN Finals
Big part of almost interchangeable top 3 for Carroll.
US HM Obsa Ali, 11, Richfield HS, MN
3rd NXN HL, 2nd AA State, 1st Victoria Lions, 1st Roy Griak (Maroon).
Has hurdled and thrown discus for school, but XC improvement this fall has been key.
US HM Quentin Shaffer, 12, Prospect HS, IL
4th NXN MW, 3rd Mid-East Champs, 2nd 3A State
Amazing year for second-year harrier who never ran before 2011.
US HM Ryan Kromer, 12, Hudson HS, WI
5th NXN HL, 7th FL MW, 1st D1 State, 3rd Roy Griak
Wisconsin’s first nationals doubler is coming on strong late.
US HM Ryan Teel, 12, Friendswood HS, TX
5th NXN South, 1st 4A State, 3rd Nike South, 2nd Kingwood/Wells, 16th 2011 NXN Finals
Untested outside TX, but NXN #4 returnee has come on strong at season’s end.
US HM Scott Milling, 12, York HS, IL
9th NXN MW, 9th FL MW, 6th 3A State, 64th 2011 NXN Finals
Getting stronger each week as leader of Long Green Line.
US HM Sumner Goodwin, 12, Lewis and Clark HS, WA
4th NXN NW, 4th 4A State, 4th Nike BorderClash, 3rd Richland, 2nd Stanford
Great, consistent set of 2nd’s, 3rd’s and 4th’s against stiff NW competition this fall.
US HM TJ Carey, 12, Lake Orion HS, MI
3rd NXN MW, 3rd D1 State, 5th Spartan Inv, 4th Oakland Co.
Unheralded beyond Mich. before strong finish in Terre Haute.
US HM TJ Hornberger, 11, Lake Shore HS, NY
4th NXN NY, 2nd Class B State, 3rd Eastern States, 2nd McQuaid AA
This junior was one of the biggest surprises at Manhattan and has continued strong.
US HM Zach Langston, 11, Lexington HS, SC
3rd NXN SE, 2nd 4A State, 8th Great Am ROC, 2nd Coaches Classic
Junior is first boy from Palmetto State to make NXN Final.
Top 15 Predictions:
1. Nick Ryan NY/NY
2. Jake Leingang HL/ND
3. Jacob Burcham SE/WV
4. Bernie Montoya SW/AZ
5. Sam Wharton MW/OH
6. Robert Domanic SO/TX
7. Juan Gonzalez CA/CA
8. Joe Hardy NW/WA
9. Bryan Fernandez CA/CA
10. Tony Russell NE/PA
11. Danny Aldaba HL/NE
12. Luis Martinez SW/NM
13. Scott Milling MW/IL
14. Joe Sansone SO/TX
15. Jack Boyle NE/NJ
2011 Top Returnees (top 25)
5. Nick Ryan, NY/NY, 12, 15:31
8. Jake Leingang, HL/SD, 12, 15:35
12. Bernie Montoya, SW/AZ, 12, 15:39
16. Ryan Teel, SO/TX, 12, 15:42
21. Samuel Wharton, MW/OH, 12, 15:44
22. Joseph Sansone, SO/TX, 12, 15:47
28. Brayden McLelland, SW/UT, 12, 15:51
29. Jack Boyle, NE/NJ, 12, 15:53
30. Luis Martinez, SW/NM, 12, 15:53
35. Estevan De La Rosa, CA/CA, 11, 15:55
43. Joseph Hardy, NW/WA, 11, 15:59
45. Herbert Sullivan, SO/TX, 12, 15:59
46. Brayden Cromar, SW/UT, 12, 15:59
49. Taylor Wilmot, NW/WA 11, 16:01
55. Jordan Cross, SW/UT, 12, 16:04
58. Connor Hendrickson, SO/TX, 11, 16:06
61. Mike McClemens, NE/NJ, 11, 16:06
64. Scott Milling, MW/IL, 12, 16:08
65. Preston Johnson, SW/UT, 12, 16:09
72. Will Bragg, NE/NJ, 12, 16:14
79. Keith Williams, NW/WA, 12, 16:17
81. Brigham Hedges, SO/TX, 12, 16:19
86. Christian Stafford, NE/MA, 11, 16:22
89. Eric Colvin, HL/MN 12, 16:24
93. Trevor Gilley, SO/TX, 12, 16:26
MileSplit US Top 25 Entries
US#2 Nick Ryan, 12, NY
US#4 Bernie Montoya, 12, AZ
US#6 Jake Leingang, 12, ND
US#8 Jacob Burcham, 12, WV
US#10 Sam Wharton, 12, OH
US#12 Bryan Fernandez, 12, CA
US#15 Alex Riba, 12, IL
US#17 Joe Hardy, 11, WA
US#18 Tony Russell, 11, PA
US#19 Robert Domanic, 12, TX
US#20 Luis Martinez, 12, NM
US#22 Juan Gonzalez, 12, CA
US#23 Estevan DeLaRosa, 11, CA