* Webb School freshman Abby Faith Cheeseman won the Southern Showcase on Saturday in Alabama
Photo Credit: Chris Wells/MileSplit
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HUNTSVILLE, ALABAMA -- Just before the two mile mark on Saturday, Abby Faith Cheeseman began to surge.
It was subtle, the kind of move you wouldn't notice if not for the highly-touted seniors she was beginning to gap.
And surely, it was the kind of timing that most national-level runners would use to break away for good. But Reagan Riley wouldn't let Cheeseman go, either.
In fact, the Mountain Brook (AL) junior made an even bigger bet, striding ahead of the freshman just a few minutes later at the 4K mark, forcing Cheeseman to buck up in a critical moment, perhaps forcing the young Tennessee standout to ask of herself, Do I have enough left?
A moment of clear thinking prevailed, though, because The Webb School (TN) starlet answered the challenge, rolling through the final 800 meters of The Southern Showcase's premier race, claiming the win in a time of 17:19.43 at John Hunt Park. It was her second straight performance under 17:20 for 5K.
Riley followed in second in 17:27.71, while Vestavia Hills senior Crawford West, a returning outdoor state champion in Alabama who led early on, was third in 17:53.81. Central Magnet's Samantha Oulette was fourth in 17:56.84.
All four athletes, among the early favorites to contend for a Southern Showcase title, certainly showed why each were among the best in their state.
But Cheeseman's performance was ever so interesting, too.
* The Southern Showcase championship girls race
Even on a course that played fast, Cheeseman didn't clock her fastest 5K. Her strategy was one big reason why. It was tactics-over-PRs.
"I was following the instructions of my coach, who's also my mom," Cheeseman told MileSplit afterward. "She told me to be patient. I knew I should be because there were just so many good girls in this race. I was sticking on to Crawford, who was a really good runner. And then halfway, I wanted to see how I felt and then just gave it what I had."
On the flip side, the boys championship was a tale of three converging storylines culminating at the finish.
A national-class athlete making good on his promise, a first-year runner setting an all-time mark at 5K for freshmen and a third breaking 15 minutes for the first time.
Each secured their own personal history on Saturday, with Rich, the Catawba Ridge (SC) senior, winning the overall boys race in a new U.S. No. 1 time of 14:38.71. It was a performance that certainly confirmed what most already believed of Rich, that he was among the country's top talents.
"It was first race jitters before the race, just getting ready to run," Rich said. "I knew my training was really good throughout the summer. I just executed my plan and I felt really good about the race."
While the field stuck with him early, Rich showed a composure throughout the 5K distance that few others could match. And when the two-mile marker hit, he blew it open.
But then the unexpected happened. As others fell off, Knoxville Catholic freshman Keegan Smith only grew stronger.
The first-year athlete had run 9:18.12 for 3,200m the previous June at the Music City Track Carnival, indicating some true potential. It was the fourth-fastest effort for the distance all-time.
On Saturday, the Knoxville teenager announced himself on a big stage.
"My expectations were just to go out hard and to stay with that front pack," Smith said. "This is only my second race this season, so a lot more to come."
Meanwhile, Bartlett (TN) senior Landen McNair found his own personal history, breaking 15 minutes for the first time of his career. He finished in 14:59.90.
After feeling like the race was getting out of hand early -- it was out to 2:17 pace for 800 meters -- he backed off before reeling his competitors back in down the stretch.
"I was like, 'Yeah, that's fast, faster than I wanted to go out," McNair said. "But from there, it felt like everyone was coming back to me. I started to move up and felt better as it went on."
* The Southern Showcase Championship boys race
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And yet, the surprises wouldn't stop there.
While perhaps no one in Louisiana would have batted an eyebrow, the New Orleans Jesuit (LA) boys certainly made a case for their supremacy both inside the state, and potentially outside of it, winning the elite race with 106 points.
While no Jesuit athlete finished inside the top 10, the entire scoring five finished inside the top 60 places and the team compiled a 44-second spread, averaging 15:43 for the 5K distance.
Satellite once again found itself looking on the outside of a win -- the third-ranked team in Florida had finished second in all three of its previous meets to begin the season. On Saturday, with a 16:00 minute average and a 43-second spread, the program did so again, finishing with 169 points.
The girls team standings weren't so close.
Brentwood (TN) had its top four girls finish inside the top 15 and saw two freshmen -- Lydia Cromwell and Rachel Haws -- go 11th and 12th as the team produced a dominating win with 62 points.
On the girls side, Riley came away as one of the big winners.
The Mountain Brook runner was poised throughout, even as the pace ebbed and flowed on a rolling course like John Hunt Park.
But Riley had opened her season with a time of 17:56 at the Chickasaw Invitational, so was confident in her abilities to compete. No surprise, she also put in her homework beforehand.
"I had already looked at the virtual race before and I had known there would be four girls under 18, so I wanted to go out with them and hold on as long as I could," she said.
"Just to hang on, really, was my main goal."
Cheeseman, meanwhile, knew this result was only one of many to come. The freshman's season continues, as do her aspirations.
"I mean, it's always hard to come from a different course and this is my second race," she said. "Other than that, I felt pretty good. Really, I'm just trying to do my best and keep improving and we'll just see good I can get this season."
For Rich, his final cross country campaign will continue at the Great American Festival on October 2 in North Carolina.
Beyond his personal goals, he also has high hopes for Catawba Ridge.
"We have a good shot to win state," he said. "And then hopefully [for me] top five at Foot Locker."