The Nike Cross Nationals (NXN) brings together the best teams in the country and pits them against each other on the most unique course available. Portland Meadows will once again play host to the championship battle and the manufactured course that traverses the interior of a horse racing track will have all the traditional features of European style cross country racing; including plenty of mud.
The road to the NXN podium is not easy, especially for those in California and New York. Many have spent the last month running all-out each weekend just for the right to compete in their state championship. The path to a state title is fraught with grueling courses and fierce competition, but a berth in the Nike Cross Nationals usually requires a top four finish after all the five divisions have been combined in a ‘Power Merge’.
California and New York are the only two states with their own qualifying region (mainly because the population density causes added depth), but the rest of the country experiences a similar challenge en route to Portland. The only difference being the proximity and timing of their regional qualifier. But having to travel out of their home state to compete in a regional championship may pay dividends for several teams, as athletes and coaches have had at least one opportunity to fine tune the nuances of hitting the road with a squad full of high school athletes.
The Midwest, Northwest and Heartland regional qualifying races took place back on the weekend of November 12th and those teams will have the added advantage of two rest weeks between major races. But, any perceived advantage may be negated by wear and tear of the condensed schedule needed to host the regional qualifier two weeks earlier. In addition, some programs have found it difficult to extend their peak cycles to cover the added timeframe. But these three regions have had a good track record at NXN and extending the season to the first week in December has become a much more manageable undertaking in recent years.
The Southwest, South, Northeast and Southeast championships took place over the past two weekends, and although many of the top ranked teams advanced unscathed, some pleasant surprises emerged as athletes begin to round into post season form. Several teams had athletes run the race of their lives to upset former champions, but can lightning strike twice for these groups? Some would argue that momentum is on their side.
Below is a brief look at each region and what it took to qualify.
US#1 Manlius XC (Fayetteville-Manlius) was the only team to post an average time under 19:00 minutes on the notoriously difficult Bowdoin Park course. Their uncharacteristic 1-5 spread of 1:39 was not indicative of problems with their depth; rather, it was the result of a tremendous performance by race winner Jillian Fanning.
Fanning once again led the Manlius XC crew to a title, and in the process, she continued her undefeated season by posting a 27 second win over Sam Nadel of North Shore RC. The 43 to 57 team win over Kinetic RC (Saratoga Springs High School) may have been closer than expected, but the effort cemented Manlius XC and Fanning as favorites entering Saturday. The team will be seeking their sixth straight NXN title.
The New York region has traditionally been a major player in the battle for podium spots at NXN and this year will be no different. Kinetic received the second automatic bid from the region, and justified their US #2 ranking by holding off US #3 North Shore by eleven points. North Shore may have the best 1-2 punch in the nation with Nadel and Briana Neurd, but third place is always a heartbreaking place to finish. That is, unless you are fortunate enough to receive an “At-Large” bid. The team spent an anxiety filed 24 hours waiting for the announcement, and then began to pack their bags for Portland when the received the good news on Sunday. The best part about racing in a championship is that nobody cares how you qualified once you are on the line. Everybody is fair game when the gun goes off.
The individual depth out of New York is mostly dominated by the top three teams, with seven of the top ten finishers belonging to programs that will be racing full squads on Saturday. Mary Cain of Bronxville High School was the rare exception, and has been a force this year on the East Coast. She finished third last week at the Regionals, and added the achievement to a season résumé that includes wins at the NY Federation Championships and the Section 1 Championships. New York has plenty of talent to put five in the top fifteen; it’s just a matter of what school they will come from.
Illustrating the strength of the division, all four of the NXN qualifiers in this region came from the Division 2 race. Saugus continued their incredible dominance in California, winning yet another state title in what many consider the deepest race in history of the State Meet. The profile of the team is classic Saugus style, with a prominent frontrunner in Karis Frankian, backed-up with impressive depth that operates on miniscule gaps. But this year’s margin of victory was not as prominent as in years past, and the race was not without controversy.
Simi Valley beat Saugus in the CIF Southern Section Finals, pulling away in the second half to eventually win the race 60 to 69. They would return the very next week with confidence and momentum as they tried to prevent Saugus from defending their state championship. Things were going well for Simi Valley when Sarah Baxter won the race with the fastest time of the day (17:08), but then turmoil struck. Their #4 runner was disqualified for contact at the finish line and Simi slipped to fourth place after the adjusted scores. Fortunately for Simi Valley, the NXN committee recognized their potential and granted them one of the “At-Large” bids.
US #18 La Costa Canyon made easy work of the San Diego Section and has a tight group of four, but their issues with depth were exploited by the 18 second gap of Saugus. Despite the problem, the team wound up second thanks in part to the misfortune of Simi Valley.
Redondo Union (Redondo Beach XC) shares a similar profile to La Costa Canyon, and was also a beneficiary of the Simi Valley mishap; allowing them to finish third last week and gain the other “At-Large” bid. The talent is there for both teams to make a push for a top five finish on Saturday, but the deeper and faster field may cause problems if contact is broken before the midway point.
In addition to the athletes mentioned above, several other individuals from California have a shot at a top ten finish. Hagen Reedy of Buchanan High School won the Division 1 race impressively (17:27), and the other four qualifying individuals appear to be evenly matched with 5,000 meter times in the 17:30 range at Woodward Park in Fresno, CA.
It was a true team effort for US #29 Hamilton-Wenham (H-W XC Club, MA), as they upset defending champion Champlain Valley of Vermont 142 to 197. Freshman Emily Weigand led the team by finishing 15th in team scoring (27th overall), but the real damage was done by their 32 second spread. Kerry Phelan usually leads the Generals but an off day put her back in the 5th scoring position. Phelan is typically a very consistent runner and should resume the lead role on Saturday. Her return to the front may increase their 1-5 spread, but the difference should be offset by a lower point total and team time.
Despite the off day, Champlain Valley remained in the national rankings at #31. Confidence in the squad comes from their impressive performance at the New England Championships where they were able to fend off several regional powerhouse programs. In addition, Champlain Valley is no stranger to Portland Meadows after representing the Northeast in the 2010 championships. They finished 21st last year with a relatively young squad, and the added experience should help them improve on that performance.
Elle Purrier of Vermont has been using a simple race strategy: lead and don’t let up. The tenacious junior ran away from a talented field at the New England Championships, and then she did the same at the Nike Northeast Championships. Purrier won the event by 11 seconds in front of a pack of three runners from New Jersey. She has been tested but not pushed, and it will be interesting to see what she can produce in a pack that will show no mercy.
Amy-Eloise Neale has been on a roll ever since the Stanford Invitational back in September. The Glacier Peak High School junior posted the third fastest 5,000m time of the day (17:09) and parlayed that success into a Nike Northwest Regional title and a course record. But Neale had to earn that victory by avenging an 18 second loss at the Washington State Championships to Katie Knight of North Spokane. Knight finished a close second at the NXN Northwest meet, and the pair were the only runners in the field to cover the 5000m course in under 18 minutes. Neale will be the top returning athlete from 2010 and you can expect Knight to be right off her shoulder.
US #13 Summit XC Club (Summit High School, WA) was able to weather the storm created by Neale and her single team point to hold off her US#25 Snohomish XC (Glacier Peak) squad by 14 points. Megan Fristoe finished 11th overall (9th in scoring) to lead Summit, but it was Kira Kelly and Sarah Fristoe who saved the day by finishing 31st and 32nd in the scoring, respectively.
Both teams will need similar performances from their mid-pack runners to break into the top 15 Saturday, but both are familiar with the race course because of their school’s proximity to Portland.
Junior Maria Hauger ran away with a 24 second win and was the only runner in the field to break the 18 minute barrier. That is when the onslaught of youth began to pour in. Eighth grader Stephanie Jenks crossed the line in second (18:16), and she was followed closely by freshman Jenna Truedson (18:19). Juniors Danielle Anderson (18:23) and Alli Cash (18:25) rounded-out the top five and truly displayed what a bright future this region will have.
The team battle was dominated by teams with solid pack running abilities but no true single digit scoring threat. Monticello edged Neenah 104 to 106 for the win and the two teams are as evenly matched as possible. Both will need to display some grit in the main pack if they want to crack the top 15, but a tight pack that establishes their position early can get it done.
Amanda Fox (Naperville Central High School) and Samantha Nightingale (Blue Springs South High School) needed every inch of the LaVern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course to decide the Nike Midwest champion. After switching positions several times, Fox finally pulled away from Nightingale to get the win by a stride. A fraction of a second separated the two and both runners bring with them the credentials to be legitimate top 10 contenders. Fox set an Illinois Class 3A record of 16:24 (3 miles) a few weeks ago, and Nightingale was undefeated on the season until the NXN Midwest race. History has shown us that the pair is evenly matched, so you might see them side by side on Saturday.
Carmel High School (Code Red Carmel, IN) had just successfully defended their Indiana state title when two weeks later they had to return to the same course to face an even bigger challenge. New Trier (Northshore Tsunami RC, IL) had also recently earned a state title (Illinois Class 3A), and the two locked horns for a great regional battle. New Trier put three girls on the medal stand, but Carmel escaped with the win 45 to 49, due in large part to their 38 second 1-5 spread.
Both teams have a good shot at top ten finishes, but Carmel will need to put some scorers in the top third of the race, while New Trier will need to keep their gap less than 45 seconds.
US#9 Fort Collins, Colorado has firepower to spare with a top tier frontrunner in Erin Hooker, and a pack of four that runs extremely well together. Hooker broke away from Summer Harper (Orem XC) to win the region by 6 seconds (17:36), and her teammates took a cue from their leader to put all five scoring runners in the top 40. As a result, Fort Collins earned a comfortable 34 point win over GTD X-AZ (Xavier Colleg Prep, AZ) in the process.
Advancing to Portland from this region was an all-out effort as seven girls posted times under 18 minutes. After Hooker broke the tape, Summer Harper, Rolonda Jumbo (Chinle, AZ), Elise Cranny (Niwot, CO), and Sarah Feeny (Odgen, UT) all came barreling across the line in under four seconds. And the drama continued as Jamie Stokes (Odgen, UT) attempted to hold off Birdie Hutton of Colorado for the fifth and final qualifying spot. Stokes narrowly edged Hutton by .25 for the trip to Portland.
The individuals of the Southwest region have the ability to function like a highly efficient team with five individuals packed so closely together. If they decide to join forces in a mutually beneficial relationship, they might all make the top 25.
Southlake Carroll (TX) is in the hunt for the best combined program in the country. The only thing standing in their way is Fayetteville-Manlius. It’s a rare accomplishment to have both genders ranked in the top 25 nationally, and the girls program is doing their fair share of the workload to uphold that stellar reputation. Two weeks ago, Southlake Carroll (Carroll XC) put all five scoring runners in the top 25 with a 24 second spread. A performance like that will win a lot of races, but to post 48 points in a major regional championship will cause other teams across the country to take notice.
Kingswood finished 24 points behind Southlake Carroll with 72 points, but they were comfortably ahead of third place Park XC with 133 points. Sandie Raines led the group with a 9th place finish (18:40), and their team point total was helped greatly by Ashley Mills, who finished just 8 seconds later.
The fight for an individual bid to Portland was a good one with Madi McLellan (18:03) of the famed Woodlands High School (TX) program breaking away from Karis Jochem (18:07) for the win. The fight behind them was just as good, with Alexandra Davis and Safiya Belbina finishing less than a second apart at 18:19.02 and 18:19.95, respectively. Magdalena Escobar (18:27) rounds-out the top five from a region where the times from that day may not be truly indicative of the quality of athletes.
Delaware has become a hotbed of female distance runners over the past couple of years. With that increased talent comes fierce competition and blazing fast times. Julie Macedo (Charter School of Wilmington) and Haley Pierce (Tatnall) have spent the season battling, and in the process they have helped advance the reputation of the entire state.
Macedo pulled away late from Pierce to claim the win in a very fast 17:01. In fact, her time was so good that it made the history books for the North Carolina course; second only to Aisling Cuffe (16:40). But Pierce had more to worry about than individual accolades. Her Wilmington XC (Tatnall High School) team was the top ranked program entering the meet and they wanted to retain that momentum.
Tatnall lived up to expectations, posting just 37 points, due in part to the second and third place finishes of Pierce and teammate Reagan Anderson. Behind them an opportunistic Louisville TC (KY) team squeaked by Midlothian TC (VA) by just three points (86 to 89) to grab the second automatic qualifier. The two traded shots through four scoring runners until Caroline McCaslin delivered the go ahead performance as Louisville’s 5th runner.
Athletes from the Southeast will be in the mix for both the individual title and the team championship. We may see another epic Macedo vs. Pierce dual but the two cannot lose sight of the race around them. Tatnall will run for a podium spot which will complicate Pierce’s job, but it is a responsibility she has handled well this year.
Welcome to the world of Speed Ratings. While Track may be made conducive to simply comparing times, any cross country fan knows that times are only half the battle. To compensate, Bill Meylan of Tully Runners created a Speed Rating formula, based on a similar one for horse racing, to compare performances across courses, weather conditions, altitudes, and course conditions. As a result, the number it produces can be used to compare performances much like you would with a track time.
All Speed Ratings were taken from the respective Regional meets, with California using their respective State Meet ratings. They are not meant to predict the final outcome of the meet, only give a general idea of where each team stands. Anything can happen on race day, and with the great weather predicted for this weekend in Portland, Oregon, anything just might.