Point/Counter-point: Can Baxter win 3rd straight? Will Cranny or Efraimson pull the upset?

This year at the Nike Cross Nationals Sarah Baxter will face her stiffest challengers to the individual title.  An individual title that would be her third straight to cap an undefeated high school career.  Too good to be true?  Can Elise Cranny or Alexa Efraimson upset Baxter for the title.  Well, MileSplit National Editor Aaron Rich makes the case for Baxter and Efraimson, while Colorado webmaster Alan Versaw makes the case for Cranny.  Stay tuned on Saturday to watch this epic battle play out!

Will Sarah Baxter (pictured above) win a 3rd straight NXN national title?  Is the sky blue? Will there be mud at Portland Meadows?

Of course two of these questions are rhetorical, but boy oh boy the first question is darn close!

Sarah Baxter is undefeated as a high school athlete in cross country and seems to race better the greater the pressure on her to win.  And I am sure that pressure is mounting with each finish line crossed.

Baxter has had quite the year, winning at each meet she competed at and coming close to a few course records, ahem, her own course records that is.  She ran 16:11 at Mt. SAC in very hot conditions to record the second fastest time ever on the layout.  She also owns the top time of 16:00, set as a Junior in perfect conditions for cross country, in perhaps one of the most perfect cross country races ever run.  

Baxter also just won her 4th straight California state title this past weekend, and has been the fastest girl on the course with each of those titles.  If you know California and how competitive it is each year you can appreciate the magnitude of her accomplishment.  And again, she was just off her own course record, while running solo from the gun.  

Baxter has also owned the Portland Meadows layout over the past two years, each time making a break about half way and never letting anyone seriously challenge her.

If I were a betting man I would count on history repeating itself and Baxter walking away from high school cross country a three time national champion and undefeated against high school challengers.  

Can Elise Cranny (pictured above) win at Portland Meadows on Saturday? Don't try telling anyone from Colorado that she can't.
Like Alexa Efraimson, and with all the same caveats as apply to Efraimson's win, Cranny owns a meet title over college competition this season. She won the 5.8K womens race at the Rocky Mountain Shootout in a time of 20:39. Colorado's Carrie Verdon was 16 seconds in arrears. It is a demanding course at 5300 feet of altitude.
One of the advantages Cranny brings to Portland from Colorado is her altitude training. The worse the conditions get, the more strength plays into the equation, meaning the greater advantage that her altitude training becomes.
But, you reply, "Conditions were terrible last year at Portland Meadows and Sarah Baxter won--rather easily, in fact." Neither Baxter nor Efraimson will be easy to beat under any conditions, but the 2013 Elise Cranny is a far different beast than the 2012 Elise Cranny. 
To wit, Cranny ran in the 16:40s twice at altitude this fall. Last year, her best 5K time in Colorado was 17:53. I am not necessarily suggesting that Cranny is a full minute faster over 5K this year than last, but she is definitely faster--a lot faster. 
Last year, Cranny was seventh at NXN. This year, she has publicly stated her aspiration to improve on her NXN finish from last year. Between the lines, though, you read the determination to either win it all or spend absolutely everything in the effort.
Cranny's season has been a carefully choreographed affair. She has run all of six races this fall (winning them all), and at least a couple of those came as measured efforts. The smiles that broke across her face while making the circuit of the brutal Colorado state meet course revealed that she wasn't spending one of her big efforts on that course. We presume that effort was reserved for Portland.
Will Cranny be one of the horses in the race? You'd better believe it.

Can Alexa Efraimson (pictured above in yellow) pose a serious threat to Sarah Baxter’s cross country dominance and dethrone the queen of NXN?  If any athlete has stood a chance over the past several years it would be Efraimson.

Alexa had a great year as a Sophomore by anyone’s standards, winning a state title in Washington by over 30 seconds.  She also finished 4th at NXN behind Baxter, Mary Cain and Katie Knight.  Only one of those runners stands in her way this year.  

In 2013 Alexa has certainly stepped up her game, which makes her a legit threat to win the NXN title.  

Allow me to refresh your memory.  She won the Nike Pre-Nationals meet over a talented Ella Donaghu by 42 seconds early in the season.  She then stunned everyone, and maybe even herself, by winning the Bill Dellinger Invite over many talented collegians with a time of 16:35 for 5k.  

Of course college athletes train through early October, but one of the runners she beat was Emma Bates from Boise State.  Yes, the NCAA Division 1 runner-up, who only finished 3 seconds arrears of Abbey D’Agostino in Terre Haute.  That’s some impressive running for a high schooler!

Efraimson then dominated at her state meet, winning her 2nd straight title by 56 seconds.  But she wasn’t done as she won the Nike Northwest regional with a quick 17:27 clocking, turning away the challenge of another very talented harrier, junior Makena Morley from MT.  

Is Alexa up for the challenge of winning an NXN title?  The answer is absolutely.  Despite the dominance of Sarah Baxter over the past three years there is finally a challenger worthy of the title of contender.