Foot Locker Nationals Boys Race Preview

(Starting 8 AM PST on Saturday)

The 2014 Foot Locker Nationals will be held this Saturday, December 13th once again at Balboa Park in San Diego, California with the top 40 boys and top 40 girls high school cross country runners in the nation coming together for two highly anticipated races.

Let’s preview and breakdown the favorites, contenders, dark horses, and top stories coming into the meet for the boys' race. Girls' race preview to follow.

The Champ Is Back & Everyone Wants To Beat Fisher

Michigan state champ Grant Fisher is the reigning boys champ and was highly celebrated last year as a rare boys winner as a junior, but this year will be different in how his fellow competitors will receive him if he repeats. 

They are sick of him winning everything, they want to enjoy first place too. Part of the territory that comes with being the current "golden boy" in the sport is that those ranked below you are going to do everything they can to knock you off. The cool and well-spoken Fisher may never come out and say it, but inside you gotta believe that he is saying "Bring It!" to his many challengers this weekend.

Fisher has been a championship gamer over the last year when it comes to elite post-season events against the nation’s best. He is clutch when it matters. He knows how to position himself in relation to his competition to kick away from them at the end of every race. All he does is win. 

After winning the 2013 Foot Locker Nationals title in a thrilling finish with himself and John Dressel, Fisher went onto win national title indoors in the mile before taking first in the spring in the adidas Dream Mile and Brooks PR Invitational 2 mile. 

Fisher also qualified and represented the United States for the second straight summer as a member of the World Junior Championship team. Fisher, who ran a 5K PR of 14:43 earlier in the season, typically runs hard enough to win when it comes to XC and two weeks ago at the Foot Locker Midwest Regional ran a controlled race for the first two miles before pulling away for a 9 second win in Kenosha. Fisher is the top returning miler in the country with a 4:02 best.

Pack Attack - All Challengers from the West

The bull’s eye is certainly on the Stanford recruit Fisher. Many of the top guys in the country are anxious to see if the work they put in over the summer and their record breaking performances thrown down this fall were enough to catch up with the sometimes perceived unbeatable Grand Blanc High School (MI) senior Fisher.

No region has more guys that have that confidence that Saturday could be their day to become champions and dethrone Fisher than the West Region. Last year, the region had 6 juniors qualify for nationals and nearly all earned All-American honors with the exception of Alaska state champ Levi Thomet just missing the cut-off in 16th place.

The biggest question is who will end up being the top dog and first finisher from the West to be running alonside Fisher at the end. The region is just so competitive and over-loaded with a good chunk of the nation's top tier cross country runners.

Last year, it was John Dressel who nearly came out as the winner as the 2014 Washington state runner-up and Fisher were bumping each other and kicking to the line in the final quarter mile. The University of Colorado signee Dressel finished 4th at last week’s Foot Locker West Regional, but appeared to be running only hard enough to qualify along with Oregon state champ and course record holder Matthew Maton. The disappointment of just missing out on a national title 12 months ago still motivates Dressel to this day.

Maton is another runner who has found himself finishing just behind Fisher in past races and would like to change that. The University of Oregon recruit was third to Fisher and Dressel in last year’s national race after winning the West Regional, took second to Fisher at the adidas Dream Mile in June, and also finished just behind him at USATF Junior Nationals 1500 meter race as a qualifier for World Juniors. Earlier this season, Maton took down Galen Rupp’s Oregon state cross country meet course record by 10 seconds with a 14:45 season best 5K performance.

One can’t overlook when talking about West Regional challengers is this year's regional race champion in 4-time Idaho state champion Elijah Armstrong. A 6th place finisher in the 2013 Foot Locker Finals, Armstrong decided to run his best race at season’s end and assert himself again as one of the guys to be considered among the best in the nation as he was projected to be coming into the fall as a past national champion on the track in the 5K. The Boise State recruit always puts himself up with the lead pack in every national race for past two years and running 17 seconds faster than his 2013 Foot Locker West Regional race has to build a lot of confidence for Armstrong in his ability to finish strong at Balboa. 

Conner Mantz and Trevor Reinhart also are returning All-American from the West Region. Both could surprise as the West’s top finisher, but it would not be a surprise in reality. One coming off and dealing with an injury, while the other not having received enough prior national exposure are the reasons to label any high finish from both as a surprise. 

Mantz had been ranked inside the top 3 earlier this season and had been on a tear for a long stretch including a big win at the Bob Firman Invite over eventual NXN champ Tanner Anderson and West Regional champ Armstrong. However, a stress reaction femur injury leading into his early Utah state meet saw him collapse and lose that race to another West Region qualifier in Josh Collins. He took some time off and cross trained the following month since a month and half gap existed between the Utah State Championships and Foot Locker West Regional to miraculously comeback to take 5th last weekend at Mt. SAC to qualify for nationals again.

Reinhart is probably the lone returning All-American in the meet that essentially no one knows anything about. No track times on him (plays lacrosse in the spring). He did not run in many races in the first 2 months of the season (taking college visits/competes at smaller school in California). But as his runner-up finish showed at Foot Locker West ahead of the likes of more nationally known names Maton, Dressel, and Tamagno, the kid is legit and should be taken seriously as a race contender.

Could Stanford’s Incoming XC Studs Go 1-2?

The Stanford program annually strikes gold with some of the very best recruits joining their program every fall, but this year’s NCAA national runners-up in cross country could feel really good about what kind of additions that they will bringing if their two top male recruits in Fisher and Foot Locker Northeast Regional champion Alex Ostberg go 1-2 in San Diego.

Ostberg could very well win the whole thing and find himself battling his future teammate Fisher in the final mile for the title, but a top two sweep of future Cardinal teammates is certainly realistic. Earlier this season, the Connecticut state champ and New England champ Ostberg won the Manhattan Invitational with the second fastest time ever at Van Cortland Park’s 2.5 mile course in 11:57. He returned to Vanny two weeks ago despite having a late season injury scare caused him to miss some training and still throw down a swift sub 15:20 race for a 16 second margin of victory.

He might be one of the few guys in the race who wearing a medium size singlet would be too big for him, but don’t let his small stature fool you. Ostberg can roll. He showed that last June in winning the New Balance Nationals 5K outdoor title in 14:16, which ranks easily as the fastest PR among all in the field. 

Regardless of the outcome, Coach Miltenberg has to be excited to see how his two future stars push each other on Saturday. He will be seeing that in a lot of workouts and races for years to come in Palo Alto.

The Juniors Not Ready To Wait Until 2015

Don’t tell Andrew Hunter of Loudoun Valley High School in Virginia and Austin Tamagno of Brea Olinda High School in California to wait until next year when they will likely be the top two favorites to win Foot Locker Nationals in 2015. These two juniors want to and believe they can win now. How could they not think that way with the way that they have raced this fall?

Tamagno, one of the nation’s top returning milers, who ran 4:05 as a sophomore, won yet another California Division 3 state title two weeks ago at Woodward Park. His signature race and moment of the season came in setting the historic Mt. SAC Invitational course record in mid-October.  Sickness has slowed Tamagno down in the last few weeks and the drain from that ailment appeared to show at the Foot Locker West Regional when after leading for the first 2 miles fell back to a 6th place finish. 

Adding to the difficulty of his week leading into the West Regional was the somewhat negative attention and some backlash directed at Tamagno for his decision to not run at NXN with his qualified Brea Olinda squad. But the challenges of the recent weeks should only add fuel to the fire for the highly competitive individual that Tamagno is. Look for him to bounce back at Balboa Park and mix it up with the top seniors in the race for a finish inside the top 5.

The same goes for the Virginia state meet course record holder Hunter. He has gone undefeated for the entire season and has really not been challenged in any race this season. He won the Foot Locker South Regional with the second fastest 5K time in the nation this fall at 14:36 (ranks only behind NXN champ Tanner Anderson’s 14:31 meet record race at Washington State Meet). Hunter came onto the national scene last April when he won the Penn Relays 3K in a new sophomore national record class time and followed that race up with a national runner-up finish in the New Balance Nationals 2 mile behind Mikey Brannigan.

Hunter does not want to be a national runner-up again on Saturday. Nor does the state of Virginia, who since Charles Alexander of St. Christopher’s School (Richmond, Va.) won the 1981 Kinney Nationals (now Foot Locker), has had several notable runner-up finishers in the boys race including the likes of Sharif Karie, Alan Webb, Bobby Lockhart, and Sean McGorty but no first place finisher in the national championship race in 33 years and counting. 

10th at Regions to 1st at Nationals? Could Hacker hack that many down?

Wisconsin state champ Olin Hacker is part of the first son-father pair of Foot Locker finalists that we are aware of. His father Tim was a two-time Kinney Nationals qualifier and top 5 finisher in the earlier years of the meet in the late 70s. Could Hacker, coming off an outstanding runner-up finish at the Nike Cross Nationals in Portland, make more history in going from 10th place at the Foot Locker Midwest Regional to 1st place at the Foot Locker Nationals? He would be the first to have made such a leap from barely making out of a region to winning the national title. 

The West Region for boys certainly gets a lot of love and attention as arguably the best collection of qualifiers coming into the meet. However, do not dismiss the Midwest Region boys from potentially defeating the West for the state team title led by the likes of Fisher and Hacker. Other key members of the Midwest squad include Illinois state champ Jesse Reiser, Indiana state champ Ben Veatch, and Kansas state champ Stuart McNutt who are all coming off top 10 finishes at NXN. The wildcard members of the region will be Michigan Division 4 state champ Jesse Hersha and 8:50 two miler Thomas Pollard from Iowa. Hersha beat all the aforementioned runners in the region excluding Fisher and could be just be scraping the iceberg of his potential on the national level.  

The depth of this year's boys field is incredible as some runners who would normally be likely top 10-15 finishers at most Foot Locker Nationals will be fighting simply to break into the top 25. MileSplit will be on-site all weekend long from San Diego with comprehensive meet coverage including interviews, stories, photos, race videos, and more!

See how MileSplit ranked the entire boys field from #1 to #40!