NXN Midwest: Where does York get their inspiration? Tradition, and last year's 2nd place finish.

TERRE HAUTE – Scott Milling admitted it.  While every Kroy (York HS, IL) cross-country club has high expectations as part of its DNA, last year’s entry at Nike Cross Nationals Midwest was no sure bet to make it to Portland and extend the program’s streak to eight.  So when Milling and Co. learned they were second, even if it was a distant second behind Columbus Thorn (Columbus North HS, IN), it was cause for celebration.


As for 2012?  Things are a little different; that is, to say “back to normal.”


“This year, we’ve been on a mission,” Milling said.


That mission resulted in an impressive state meet victory Nov. 3 and then, Sunday at the Lavern Gibson XC course, an exceedingly dominant performance.  With Milling’s 8th-place finish (scoring 3rd) leading the way to a 95-point total, Kroy extended its run (to nine) of being the only program in the country, for either gender, to qualify for every NXN Final.  The Carmel Distance Project (Indiana state champ Carmel HS) finished second with 162 points, making their first trip ever to Portland and joining their victorious girls’ squad.


Finishing third was AMDG TC (Ohio D1 champs St. Xavier) with 211 points and fourth was the defending champs from Columbus Thorn with 252.


With mild temps (60-ish) and a dry course, but with 25-30 mph winds whipping across the rolling hills of the 5,000-meter layout, the boys’ individual battle turned strategic, with a pack of about 18 going through two miles in 9:57.  Ohio D1 victor Sam Wharton, fifth here last year, tried to make a serious break shortly thereafter, but he was caught at the base of the long finishing straight and half a dozen runners had a chance coming up the brutal incline into that wind.


O’Fallon IL (O’Fallon RC) senior Alex Riba had the best finishing form, edging ahead with more than 300 to go and refusing to surrender until he crossed in 15:30.1.  He had been fourth in the Illinois 3A final.  Wharton followed in 15:32.0, with another solid kicker – senior T.J. Carey of Lake Orion MI, who was second in his D1 state meet – digging down deep for third in 15:33.7.  In fourth and fifth came the Illinois 3A runner-up and champion from that Nov. 3 showdown – seniors Quentin Shaffer of Prospect and Jack Keelen of Chicago St. Ignatius – in 15:34.3 and 15:34.6 to round out the individual qualifiers to Portland.


That uphill finish was also tough on two other top contenders from Ohio.  D2 state champ Samuel Prakel took sixth in 15:37.3 and Jacob Dumford – runner-up behind Wharton in D1 and right there with 400 to go – was passed by more than 15 runners to take 24th in 16:02.2.  Both of them fared better, however, than Indiana state champ Connor Sorrells, who was in contention early but faded to 103rd.


Mission Accomplished


As Milling said, York was on a mission all year and, as their alter ego Kroy TC, they were ready as could be Sunday.  “We definitely came in to qualify and win,” the senior added.  York had finished an un-York-like fourth at state in 2011, but ruled by 35 the week before NXN MW this year.  “Winning state was the monkey off our back.  So today everyone was relaxed, confident and ready.”


Behind Milling, it was senior Alex Mimlitz and junior Kyle Mattes in 26th and 32nd, almost together at 16:03.9 and 16:05.8 (scoring 11th and 15th).  Junior Alex Bashqawi finished just nine seconds later at 16:14.5 (42nd) and scoring 22nd.  Then the wait wasn’t too long before senior Jack Libert wrapped it up with 16:28.8 (78th), scoring 44th.


Honestly, it wasn’t quite like mentor Charlie Kern imagined it.  “They had a really good performance last week ... this week we were hoping Chris May would be able to close the gap on Mimlitz and Mattes.


“It did not work out that way,” he continued, noting that May was the sixth man on this day, “but Bashqawi came up huge for us.”


As for Milling, Kern added, “It’s always good to have a low stick.”  Milling and Mimlitz will be making their third trip to Portland, while Mattes, May and Libert will compete in the finals for the second time.


The Carmel DP didn’t have any low sticks in their runner-up effort, but when you have a mere 8-second spread between your second and sixth runners, you’re usually in good shape.  Junior Bobby Browning scored lowest, netting 16 points for his team with his 16:06.2 (33rd overall).  But then between 16:20 and 16:30 came freshman Ben Veatch (16:21.1, placing 58th, scoring 32nd), senior Charlie Watson (16:22.8, 64th/35th), junior Michael George (16:24.3, 68th/38th), junior Ben Anderson (16:25.4, 73rd/41st), and senior Corey Turner (16:29.3, 80th/45th).


That was good for 162 points, 49 ahead of third-place AMDG TC (St. Xavier HS, OH).  At state, Carmel had done the packing thing even better, putting their first six in an 11-second span.


Amazingly, AMDG did the same thing in packing their second and sixth scorers within a 10-second span – and their #1, Michael Hall, scored two spots lower than Browning at 16:05.3.  But those next five from AMDG ran between 16:27-16:37.  You could see why St. X won the Ohio D1 title, but they were just a few seconds off Carmel in each of those spots.  St. X beat Carmel at the Culver Invite back in September.


Carmel coach Erhard Bell acknowledged his team didn’t have the front-running firepower and would have to do exactly what they did (see lead story).  He and his kids were also aware of the quality of teams they were up against.  “We knew York was incredibly good and we’d been beaten by St. Xavier at Culver,” he said.  “But our kids really ran pretty good.  They’ve been really, really focused these last three weeks (since a loss at semi-state).  We’re thankful to be going to Portland.”


Riba kicks, survives best


How often is the winner of a major race someone who hasn’t even imagined winning, at least not until the final meters? 


It happens sometimes, especially in a mass finish.  And a mass finish is pretty much what we had for the individual battle in Sunday’s NXN Midwest boys championship race. 


After watching runners in the two open races and the girls’ championship battle the fierce wind, none of the front-runners, battling for those five individual qualifying spots, wanted to do anything rash.  So after an opening mile in 4:49, there was still an unwieldy throng of about 18 runners together at two miles (9:57). 


Unbeknownst to many, one of the favorites had already dropped far back, with Indiana state champ Connor Sorrells just not having it on this day and having packed it in en route to 103rd place.  He is still listed for the Mideast Meet of Champions this coming week and whether or not he can get it together to qualify for Foot Locker Finals remains to be seen.


But one of the other state champs, Tippecanoe senior Sam Wharton (Ohio D1), was the first to make a serious move.  He had hoped the race would have gone out faster, but he finally pushed around the 4k mark and began trying to put away the race before the final stretch.  “But they caught me on the last turn, on the last uphill,” he said.  “Sprint finishes are not my cup of tea ... but maybe I went a little too early after all.”


Wharton, O’Fallon IL senior Alex Riba, Prospect IL senior Quentin Shaffer, Chicago St. Ignatius senior Jack Keelan, Lake Orion MI senior T.J. Carey, and Versailles OH senior Sam Prakel were all part of the final group sprinting up the hill.


Prakel, the Ohio D2 champ (15th here last year) who at one point before the hill was second behind Wharton – lending hope to Buckeye State fans for a 1-2 finish by the “Sams” – wound up an unfortunate sixth.  Keelen, the Illinois 3A state champ, thrived when he ran aggressively all race at state, but is less experienced in situations like Sunday and was fortunate to make it in fifth.  Shaffer, runnerup behind Keelan last weekend, continued his amazing season as a second-year runner and was fourth.


That left Carey, who had been second at the Michigan D1 state meet the week before and typically has a solid kick; it served him well again here.


As for Riba, the 3A fourth-place finisher in Illinois who said he wasn’t even thinking about winning until the very end (see lead story), probably got into the style of the race the most.  “I figured out early it was going to be a tactical race and stayed away from the wind,” he said.  “I was just going to kick as hard as I could ... but when I went for it between 300 and 400 to go, I didn’t know I could hold it all the way.”  He laughed.  “That last stretch took forever!”