Preseason CC Coverage: Top 10 Boys Returnees

With the track and field season coming to an end, and teams across the land getting coming into the heart of their summer cross country training, we take a look forward towards the fall and what lies ahead. To kick-off our 2008-2009 cross country coverage we take a look at the top ten male returnees, which includes a trio of Colorado athletes, all of whom are Foot Locker National returnees as well. While athletes like German Fernandez, Mike Fout, Chris Derrick, Colby Lowe and Luke Puskedra have all moved on, a new class of distance talent is ready to take over and create their own legacy.

Boys Top Ten Watchlist

(In Alphabetical Order)

Evan Appel (Sr., Dakota Ridge, CO) - Appel tops the list alphabetically and may top the list out at Foot Locker Nationals as well. Last fall Appel qualified for his second Foot Locker Nationals, finishing 21st overall and earning the second best junior performance, just behind in-state rival Bobby Nicolls and right ahead of another in-state junior rival in Joseph Manilafasha. Experience tends to bode well at Foot Locker Nationals and Appel now has plenty of it.

This spring Appel turned some heads as well, including a 9:09.68 3200m performance at the Arcadia Invitational. His best 1600m/3200m performance came at the Colorado State Championships, where he ran 4:16.31 and 9:17.84, both good enough for victories over very strong fields. Appel has a gritty determination that is a rare trait in the sport. He likes to grind it out and isn't afraid to take the lead. The list of amazing Colorado athletes continues to grow each year and this year Appel could very well put himself near the top of that list.

C.J. Brown (Southlake Carroll, TX) - Colby Lowe wins, teammate C.J. Brown finishes second. That was the trend last fall time and again in Texas. Running in the footsteps of Lowe, Brown accomplished some incredible things, including a Foot Locker South top three finish and placing 24th at Foot Locker Nationals. While Brown's spring wasn't as stellar as many expected, he still ran a 3:03 1200m leg at the Texas Relays and helped his team win the Nike Outdoor National Distance Medley Relay.

Brown also has an advantage in that he's apart of an exceptional distance program, one that really seems to know how to get the most out of their athletes. Having someone to learn from like Lowe is an invaluable resource and being a returning Foot Locker National finalist will be something he can turn too during the season as well. Brown will have plenty of challengers in Texas this season, but heads into the season as the favorite. Haile (Sr., Sherwood, MD) - He doesn't have the most leg speed out of the bunch, and he doesn't have the most experience either, but Haile (pictured left) is a major threat when it comes to cross country. Since arriving in the United States early last fall from Ethiopia, Haile has been a major force. He wasn't able to compete last fall for his school, but during the track season he really showed what he can do by winning the Nike Indoor National and Nike Outdoor National 5k races.

He also bounced back at Nike Outdoor Nationals by placing 13th at two miles in 9:07.66, top junior finisher distinction. This soft-spoken senior tends to get overlooked nationally, but don't let that fool you...he is a major threat to win nationals. At Nike Outdoor Nationals Haile stated, "I am really excited to start training for cross country. It's my favorite."

Brett Johnson (Sr., Ocean City, NJ) - Initially, Johnson wasn't on this list. He was a contender heading into the cross country season to make the Foot Locker Northeast squad and perhaps earn a top fifteen finish, but the last few weeks of his track season showed he's taken another step and could make another big jump this fall.

The turning point in Johnson's season came at the New Jersey Meet of Champions, which saw him drop five seconds off his personal best to dip under 4:10 for the first time in the 1600m run, finishing in 4:09.03. One week later Johnson broke 4:10 for the full-mile, running one of the top times in the country with his 4:08.51 finish. Six days later Johnson ran 4:11.22 in the Nike Outdoor National mile, the second fastest non-senior time of the weekend.

After finishing 25th last fall at Foot Locker Northeast, Johnson returns as the third returnee in the field, but should have the confidence in himself now to try and prove he's the best in the Northeast and one of the best in the country. His proven leg-speed will be something to contend with, and with in-state rival Doug Smith to key off of, Johnson may turn a few heads this fall.

Joseph Manilafasha (Sr., Denver North, CO) - Along with in-state rival Evan Appel, Manilafasha is the most experienced individual coming back when it comes to cross country national competition. The two-time qualifier for Foot Locker seems to understand the course at the Midwest Regional, and performed very well last fall in San Diego. Manilafasha placed 22nd overall in 15:49, only five seconds behind top junior finisher Bobby Nicolls.

This spring, as in years past it seems, Manilafasha didn't seem to perform quite like many expected. His best track performance of the season came at his state meet where he ran 9:29.15 for 3200m and 4:26.47 for 1600m, all at altitude mind you. Even with the altitude conversions, Manilafasha showed that the longer the race the better, and the fall will be his chance to shine once again. Nicolls (Sr., Regis, CO) - Running at altitude is a bit deceiving. As fellow Colorado runners Evan Appel and Joseph Manilafasha can atest, athletes from the Rocky Mountain state tend to get overlooked nationally during the track season due to competing at altitude. This seemed to happen to Nicolls (pictured right) this spring, despite the fact that he was the top junior at Foot Locker Nationals.

However, similar to Appel, Nicolls had his shot to prove just how good he can be when coming down to sea-level, winning the Midwest Distance Gala two-mile in 9:03.04 and beating a field of contenders that included such notable athletes as Bobby Aprill and Graham Bazell. While Nicolls didn't finish his season the way he would have liked at Nike Outdoor Nationals, finishing in 9:23.42 for 20th overall, he has shown that he peaks very well at the end of the season and should do so once again this fall.

And as noted earlier...Nicolls is the top Foot Locker National returnee after placing 18th last fall in California.

Thomas Porter (Mountain View, VA) - Similar to C.J. Brown, Porter may be overlooked early in the season due to his track times not necessarily matching up to some of the other top athletes. However, similar to last fall, this doesn't seem to deter him on the cross country course. Last school year Porter qualified for Foot Locker Nationals, finishing a very disappointing 40th in 16:22, over a minute and a half behind the leaders.

Despite that disappointment, Porter seemed to bounce back well during the spring, ultimately helping his squad finish eleventh overall in the 4x1 mile relay at Nike Outdoor Nationals. While his track credentials don't stand out, Porter continues to show time and again that he is a strength runner and the fall, running over hill-n-dale, seems to be his favorite time to shine.

Chris Schwartz (Sr., Foothill, CA) - Running in the shadows of German Fernandez is never easy, but that is what Schwartz did all season out in California. During the fall it was a bit surprising when Schwartz qualified for Foot Locker Nationals. While he was certainly a contender going in, he seemed a little surprised himself to qualify. "Happy to be there" expectations seemed to show at Foot Locker Nationals, where Schwartz finished 37th overall, but he bounced back this spring to run incredibly well.

Perhaps his best performance of his entire junior season came at the California State T&F Championships, where Schwartz became the first and only junior to break nine minutes in a 3200m race. His 8:58.50 effort was his personal best on the season and sets him up well this fall as the top returning California athlete. Every year California has someone contending for the Foot Locker National title and this year Schwartz seems to be that person.

Drew Shields (Sr., Fishers, IN) - Missing Foot Locker Nationals by seven seconds, winning two state track championships, helping his team earn U.S. top five relay finishes and being apart of one of the more successful programs in Indiana are all things Shields has going for him.  Last fall Shields finished sixteenth at Foot Locker Midwest, missing out on Foot Locker Nationals by only seven seconds, which is quite an accomplishment considering how strong the Midwest squad was in '07.

This spring Shields became one of the only Indiana athletes to ever accomplish the 800m/1600m double, taking home both titles.  Not only did he win two state titles, but he also helped guide his team to some impressive finishes at Nike Outdoor Nationals, placing well individually during the post-season as well at the Midwest Distance Gala by finishing third in the mile in 4:09.64.  Shields will perhaps get overlooked early on in the season, but always seems to peak well and should have high expectations heading into his senior season.

Doug Smith (Sr., Gill-St. Bernard's, NJ) - Bad luck has haunted Smith at the Foot Locker Northeast Regional for the past two years. A standout since freshman year, Smith has shown consistency when healthy. Last fall he was competing with the likes of Foot Locker finalists Brandon Jarrett and Brian Leung, showing he was equally as talented as both of them, but at the Northeast Regional he faltered, fading to fifteenth overall.

With his senior season now here, the time is now for Smith to prove himself on a national level. As if he needs any inspiration, the Midwest's Rob Finnerty and Kevin Havel, both of who were superstar standouts as freshman, wrapped up their talented careers by putting it all together during their senior seasons, both earning Foot Locker National top ten finishes. Smith showed the consistency and talent on the track this spring, placing top three at the Arcadia Invitational 5k in 14:35.32, while also running under 9:10 no less than five times.