Champs Sports Boys Preview: Nation's Best Set For XC Finale

* Rocky Hansen (left), Hunter Jones (center) and Drew Griffith won their regionals and enter the Champs Sports Cross Country Championships as some of the top contenders.

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SAN DIEGO, Calif. -- We're less than 48 hours out from the final national championship of the season -- the Champs Sports Cross Country Championships.

The boys field in 2022 may go down as one of the deepest races in recent memory. 

A slew of nationally-ranked boys will have a shot at winning a title and All-American status, but with the caliber of the competition and the challenges of the historic course, who comes out on top may be anyone's guess.

Below, we analyze the top title contenders to watch and the biggest storylines to follow heading into the 2022 cross country season finale at Champs Sports on Saturday.

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List Of Champs Sports XC Qualifiers

Individuals To Watch:

The Frontrunners:

Hunter Jones, Benzie Central (MI); Rocky Hansen, Christ School (NC); Drew Griffith, Butler (PA); Kole Mathison, Carmel (IN); Noah Breker, Robbinsdale Armstrong (MN); Simeon Birnbaum, Rapid City Stevens (SD); Brian DiCola, Hatboro Horsham (PA); Benne Anderson, Grand Rapids Ottawa Hills (MI); Kevin Sanchez, Austin Vandegrift (TX), Connor Ackley, Hilliard Davidson (OH).

The Elite Packers:

Samuel Burgess, Framingham (MA); Sam Hansen, Woods Cross (UT); Connell Alford, Chelsea (MI); Seth Norder, Grand Haven (MI); Angel Sanchez, Forth Worth Diamond Hill-Jarvis (TX); Nathan Atchue, Franklin County (VA); Maxwell Hardin, Auburn (AL); David Mora, Lubbock Monterey (TX).

Don't Sleep On These Guys:

Ayden Granados, McAllen Memorial (TX); Landon Heemeyer, Rocky Mountain (ID); Riley Novak, Montverde Academy (FL); Marcelo Parra, San Antonio TMI (TX); Paul Bergeron, Westford Academy (MA); Cameron Todd, Brebeuf Jesuit Prep (IN).

Regional Champions:

Northeast: Drew Griffith, Butler (PA)

South: Rocky Hansen, Christ School (NC)

Midwest: Hunter Jones, Benzie Central (MI)

West: Sam Hansen, Woods Cross (UT)


Which boys athlete will win the Champs Sports Nationals race?

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Where The Meet Will Be Won:

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The Final Hill

The final ascent up the hill past the 2.5 mile mark typically earns recognition as the deciding marker in the race at Balboa Park.

In a deep boys field on Saturday, that last climb will likely serve as the game-changing point in the race.

The last hill -- which gets tackled twice -- can be looked at two ways. Either someone could attack the hill and put a gap on the field going up the incline, or others could take advantage of the downhill and surge into the lead -- Reed Brown scored a win with this strategy in 2016.

Perhaps it will depend on the day and how the frontrunners handle the ebbs and flows of Balboa.

It could also serve as the point that makes or breaks some of the early frontrunners.

An aggressive start, and the leaders could begin to come back to the field sooner rather than later. Certainly, it will depend on the overall field's race tactics.

A Last Shot For A National Title:

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It's been quite the shocking national championship season on the boys side, to say the least. 

What better way to cap off a cross country postseason full of upsets, records and elite performance with one final national race at Champs Sports?

On Saturday, a similar narrative to those from Garmin RunningLane and Team Nationals could certainly unfold. A deep, elite-level field featuring 10 athletes from the MileSplit50 boys individual rankings list and plenty other honorable mention talents could make for a tightly-contested race.

Begin with the nation's season leader for 5K on the grass. He enters the field as the South regional champion -- Christ School's (NC) Rocky Hansen.

Hansen's 14:20.90 5k performance from the Alexander/Asics Invitational in September leads the country, and he's undefeated through nine races this season. 

Hansen may have the fastest time of anyone in the country, but the field also includes the MileSplit50 top-ranked runner Hunter Jones, who may just enter as the title favorite. Jones has dipped well under 15 minutes in the 5K eight times this season, and the Michigan state champion from Benzie Central is coming off of his first Team Nationals performance where he placed 10th.

Historically, Michigan athletes have performed well in more recent years at the event, grabbing three of the boys titles in the past 10 years.

Perhaps Jones could follow up Hartland (MI) alum Riley Hough's championship performance from last year to keep the state win streak alive.

But beyond Michigan alone, the Midwest region as a whole has produced the past four boys champions, and five of the last 10. This year's Midwest contenders include six members of the MileSplit50 top 25 list -- No. 1 Jones, No. 10 Simeon Birnbaum, No. 12 Kole Mathison, No. 16 Benne Anderson, No. 17 Connor Ackley, and No. 24 Noah Breker -- all of whom just finished among the top 10 finishers at Team Nationals last weekend.

The Midwest region could certainly take home the "team race" at Champs Sports with such a deep roster.

Don't sleep, though, on athletes outside of the Midwest. There are plenty of state champions in the field, including UIL Texas 5A and 4A champions David Mora and Angel Sanchez, among many others -- the state's Class 6A champion, Kevin Sanchez, will be held out due to an injury picked up at a race last week. 

We'll also be treated to the final matchup of the season between Pennsylvania's Brian DiCola and Drew Griffith. DiCola came out on top at the Pennsylvania Class 3A State Championships, but it was Griffith who took home the title at the Champs Sports Northeast Regional Championships in the most recent showdown between the two.

Griffith enters the meet with fresh legs having not competed this past weekend, and DiCola is coming off of a fourth-place finish at Garmin RunningLane.

Frankly, it's hard to pinpoint an overall favorite, especially considering the Balboa course layout and the sheer number of talented runners toeing the line. It's also worth noting that some athletes enter having just ran at Team Nationals, RunningLane or the Champs Sports West regional last weekend, which could play a factor.

There's also the question of how fast the winner and All-Americans behind him will go.

Only two champions in the past 10 years have dipped under 15 minutes on the 5K course -- Edward Cheserek in 2012 and Drew Hunter in 2015. However, with a slew of sub-15-minute talents in the field -- and considering it's been a competitive fall season that has seen over 100 boys break the barrier -- a winning time under that mark shouldn't be out of the question. If nothing, earning the overall win is what will matter. 

All of the factors aside, there's no question the boys field at Champs Sports could produce one of the most entertaining races of the season.

And there's no better time for that to come than in the season finale.

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