Photo by Ron Crocker
As the defending Nike Cross National team champions, the Fayetteville-Manlius girls have been in a league of their own against the best of the best for four years running. Ranked US#1 by several running sites, the New York squad saw a group of seniors graduate last spring who were members of four straight national champion squads and will have another senior group in line to enjoy the same accomplishments. Within the state of New York, F-M regularly competes against a team in Saratoga Springs that has annually been competing for top 3 finishes at Portland Meadows since the meet's inception which they won in 2004. Saratoga Springs was a runner-up to Fayetteville-Manlius at the 2009 NXN finals and could find themselves receiving a trophy again despite not having seriously challenged F-M in any meets this season. It is not a sign necessarily that the Saratoga Springs' program is regressing, but instead F-M is simply that much stronger from their past national champion squads.
Courtney Chapman has been a mainstay on the Fayetteville-Manlius squads and one of the team's top runners on the past NXN champion squads, yet she could easily be outside of the team's top five with a strong class of juniors and sophomores making up the varsity lineup on the 2010 F-M squad. Chapman has not been slowing down either as she has a season best 5K time of 17:53 this season. Ahead of Chapman this season to make up the nation's most successful cross country program is sophomore Katie Brislin (17:51), junior Heather Martin (17:48), junior Katie Sischo (17:42), junior Christie Rutledge (17:07), and junior Jillian Fanning (17:04). Fanning, a state runner-up in New York, has the fastest 5K time among all runners on team qualifiers for Saturday's race. The sophomore lead runner was also a solid runner-up finisher at the competitive Manhattan Invitational in early October. She was a runner-up at the state meet to her teammate Rutledge to give F-M possibly the best 1-2 punch in the entire NXN field.
California's Saugus High School has been a runner-up twice in NXN meet history to Fayetteville-Manlius in 2007 and 2008, but looks to 2010 as the year which they can finally give the four-time champs a run for the title. The state of California has always been considered one of the best states in the country for high school cross country, yet never produced a team champion for either boys or girls at Nike Cross Nationals for whatever reason. The state of New York has certainly held a strangehold on the girls' title as the first place trophy has never left the state since Saratoga Springs won the inaugural race in 2004 and Hilton held the fort down in their 2005 win before F-M began its current streak of 4 victories in 2006. In three of the six Nike Cross Nationals, New York girls have went 1-2 in the team standings.
If there were ever a year for the California girls to knock off the New York girls from having bragging rights in cross country, this year would be a great opportunity with their four team representatives. An exceptionally strong season of performances by the California girls earned them two at-large berth squads in Great Oak and La Costa Canyon to join the two automatic qualifiers Saugus and Mira Costa after the state meet results merge. The depth has been incredible and the competition has been fierced as several top ranked and state champion caliber teams from other states have came into California to compete at various invitationals throughout the past few months and finished behind handfuls of in-state schools not including the NXN bound teams.
Saugus does not have 6 girls under 18 minutes for 5K this season, but not that far off the high standard set by the US #1 Fayetteville-Manlius girls with only a 23 second spread separating their top five runners from 17:44 to 18:07. Saugus is capable of keeping their team score under 100 points in the national race, which a team has never been under 100 points and not won the Nike Cross Nationals title in the meet's history for boys and girls. Under 100 points may be the magic number for Saugus, but then again Fayetteville-Manlius is capable of being in only the double digits as well for a third straight year. Saugus has a veteran and experienced team with five seniors and two juniors comprising their top seven, which has had to watch Fayetteville-Manlius hoist the big Nike trophy every year instead of them. They will have one last opportunity to enjoy that moment as champions at Portland Meadows on Saturday. Saugus senior Kaylin Mahoney was the team's top finisher in the 2009 national race with a 13th place effort of 18:10 and will be one of the top returnees in the field after a state runner-up finish in her race at the California State Meet last weekend with a season best performance of 17:44. Mahoney and her teammates ran season bests across the board in the Division 2 last weekend at Woodward Park as expect a Saugus front pack at NXN including Mahoney, Stephanie Bulder (17:46), and Karis Franklin (17:48) who were all top 5 finishers at their state meet.
After the top 2 nationally ranked programs in Fayetteville-Manlius of New York and Saugus of California, the teams competing for most of the remaining top 10 positions seem to rely on both coasts with New York Regional runner-up and last year's NXN second place finisher Saratoga Springs and Southeast Regional champions Tatnall from the East Coast, while the remaining three qualifier squads from California in Mira Costa, Great Oak, and La Costa Canyon will look to show why their state deserved two at-large bids if they can insert all four schools inside an always competitive top 10 to crack into at the Nike Cross Nationals.
Saratoga Springs girls may have had to settle for distance second places throughout the season to Fayetteville-Manlius, but they will more than settle for another runner-up finish to F-M if it is on the national stage on Saturday. This year's Saratoga Springs team does not have that one dominant front runner individual, but have to instead rely on a pack similar to Saugus as only a 22 second gap exists between the season best 5K times of their top five runners. Their top five order has not remained constant as different runners have stepped up to lead the team throughout the fall. Saratoga Springs junior Margaret Macdonald was out in front earlier in the season and posted the team's best 5K time of the season with her 17:50 run in their Great American Festival victory, while sophomores Keelin Hollowood and Madi Carr led the team at the state meet. At the NXN New York Regional, Amanda Burroughs was the team's highest individual finisher in 11th place. A key to their success on Saturday in order to repeat a national runner-up showing against a strong quartet of California schools though will be having all of runners which have led their team at some point this season to stay upfront together at Portland Meadows.
Speaking of four-peats earlier with the Fayetteville-Manlius girls, the Tatnall girls just capped off a four-peat of their own as they qualified for the fourth consecutive year for the Nike Cross Nationals out of the Southeast Region. From a small private school in Delaware, the Tatnall girls have risen to a large national powerhouse which have been almost expected now to make it to Portland, Oregon every December. Two years ago at NXN, the Tatnall girls proved the Southeast Region as a legitimate player in the national race for girls and not simply a region being given two pity automatic spots for non-competitive teams with their third place finish behind F-M and Saugus. Last year's Tatnall team took a step backwards in a 14th place finish but the program has certainly rebuilt itself to be in position to challenge or match their national meet high point in their 2008 third place finish.
Despite facing a serious challenge from a previous US top 10 caliber squad in Green Hope of North Carolina, the Tatnall girls blew through the Southeast Regional with some impressive times including their 18:19 team average (fastest among all NXN regional races behind Saugus' state meet performance) and a 17:14 individual victory from their top runner Haley Pierce. However, Pierce and Tatnall girls will need to improve upon their 1:40 split at the regional meet as health issues had their Coach Patrick Castagno concerned going into the race, but appear to be getting healthier in time for Portland. Reagan Anderson earlier in the season clocked a swift time of 17:39 and her Tatnall teammates could use a similar effort in performance to keep them in the team hunt with the New York and California squads. Pierce figures to be one of the top individual competitors in the field after her regional meet performance and will try to improve upon her seventh place finish (17:59) in the 2009 Nike Cross Nationals.
Sometimes times can be very misleading coming into the Nike Cross Nationals as not all teams and runners are afforded the opportunity to run on fast or fair 5K courses to run during the season. Some states are constantly racing on hilly courses or higher altitude to affect times, while some girls' teams never race the 5K distance until the post-season as their state subjects them racing lower distances of 2 miles (Texas) or 4K (several Heartland/Midwest region states). Times alone seem to favor the East Coast and West Coast teams, but in the middle of the country is some high quality cross country action producing teams to be respected and not overlooked heading into this weekend.
The Southwest Region champion Fort Collins girls from Colorado finished third last year behind F-M and Saratoga, but did incur significant graduation losses from that great squad with three of their top five runners departed. Colorado 5A state runner-up Erin Hooker is the leading returning runner from the 2009 NXN third place Fort Collins squad as she paced her team to another NXN Southwest Region team title with a 17:45 PR individual runner-up performance.
The Midwest boys and in particular, Illinois boys, have been the top and most competitive representatives for the landlocked states in NXN meet history. The storied York boys program has won 1 NXN title (2004) as well as two runner-up finishes (2005, 2008) and their in-state rivals from Neuqua Valley claimed the 2007 national title. However, the Illinois girls are starting to come out of the shadows of their male counterparts and earn more respect nationally as shown by the state receiving an at-large bid to Wheaton Warrenville South to accompany another Illinois squad to Oregon in Midwest region champions Palatine. In a true exhibit of the state's depth for the Illinois girls this fall, neither NXN bound squads won a state team title as Schaumburg won the Illinois 3A state title over runner-up Palatine and third place Wheaton Warrenville South. Palatine girls are led by senior Courtney Brown, who ran 16:44 for 3 miles at the Illinois State Championships and took 8th at the NXN Midwest Regional. Only a 2 point cushion separated Palatine from Carmel High School of Indiana for the NXN regional team title as the two automatic qualifiers. Wheaton Warrenville South matched up well with the two auto qualifying squads through three runners, but lost ground in #4 and #5 positions.
Not to be lost in the team battle are the individual qualifiers with quality group of 45 girls forming teams of their own with their respective region's individual qualifiers. NXN Heartland individual champion Allie Woodward is on fire this post-season as she followed up her 17:36 win at the Heartland Regional by another significant first place finish last week at the Foot Locker Midwest Regional. The Notre Dame Academy (Green Bay, WI) senior Woodward clocked a 17:18 PR in her Foot Locker Regional victory after running 4K's for most of the fall in her homestate of Wisconsin.
Staying in the center of the country, Illinois 3A state champion Kayla Beattie of Woodstock High School will be joining Woodward in San Diego next weekend after racing her this weekend in Portland following a sixth place finish in the same Foot Locker Midwest Regional race with Woodward. Prior to her 17:33 PR performance last week, Beattie claimed the NXN Midwest regional title with a 17:45 clocking. She started a busy month of November racing with a 16:22 3 mile state championship at historic Detweiler Park in Peoria, Illinois.
Plano (TX) senior Rachel Johnson is one of the most experienced runners in the field on the national stage as a returning Foot Locker All-American (11th in 2009) and one of the top returnees from the 2009 Nike Cross Nationals with a sixth place run last December at Portland Meadows. Johnson, who doubled last spring with Texas state titles and PR's in the 1600 (4:53) and 3200 (10:31), will be doing the NXN/Foot Locker double again as she won the NXN South Region two weeks ago and last weekend in Charlotte placed third in the Foot Locker South Regional.
The Northeast girls' teams may have their work cut out for them in trying to finish in the top half of the competitive NXN field on Saturday, but their top two individual qualifiers in Molly McNamara of New Jersey and Lindsay Crevoiserat of Connecticut should have no problem finding their way to the front of the field. McNamara and Crevoiserat ran matching times of 18:33 in the NXN Northeast Regional with McNamara as the narrow winner. Both should be pressed to run faster at Portland Meadows and have the track credentials to keep up with a faster pace. McNamara has ran 2:09 for 800 meters and 4:51 for 1600 meters, while New England cross country champion Crevoiserat has clocked in at 4:51 for 1600 meters and 10:37 for 3200 meters.
Glacier Peak sophomore Amy-Eloise Neale was hoping to be joined in Portland with her 6 teammates as the third place Northwest Regional squad drew consideration for an at-large bid, but instead will have to compete individually for a high finish alongside another top runner from the state of Washington in NXN Northwest Regional winner Katie Knight of North Central High School (Spokane). Knight at 17:34 and Neale and 17:45 both break 18 minutes on moderately fair, but not a speedway 5K course for the regional race. Sub 18 minute performances again from two of Washington's best would likely guarantee individual finishes well inside the top 10 at the Nike Cross Nationals.