PORTLAND -- What happens when champion meets champion?
Where will you run when there's no one to rely on but each other?
What if there was one race to prove the true number one?
It's time to find out!
Forty-one of the finest cross-country teams in America -- headlined by the finest female youth squad in American history and a cavalcade of talented male squads seemingly separated by just a few seconds and points -- are all gathered here in Portland this weekend to partake in the highly anticipated inaugural edition of the Nike Team Nationals, the first event of its kind in which elite high-school-aged athletes clash to determine who can achieve the pinnacle levels of teamwork.
Thirty-two automatic bids (16 boys club teams and 16 girls club teams) have been awarded to arrive here, with an additional nine berths (5 for boys and 4 for girls) christened in recent weeks to formulate the Who's Who field. Here's what we see playing out this weekend:
BOYS TEAM CHAMPIONSHIP
The Road To Number One goes through New York, where Stotan XC Club (competing as Fayetteville-Manlius HS during the regular season) has gained an upper hand on the competition this fall. During the recently concluded high school season, members of this club team snared national headlines in posting a pair of jaw-dropping showings at both the Manhattan Invitational (scoring a perfect 15 points, posting a 12-second scoring gap, and crushing the team-time course record) and the state's Federation meet (recording another huge victory while condensing its scoring gap down to nine seconds). Based strictly on performances along well-chronicled national courses, Stotan has shown to be #1 thus far this year. But not by much.
South Side Farm Team (which competed as Ferris HS of Spokane WA during the season) entered the fall as a clear contender for top national accolades, but a humbling early-season setback at the Stanford Invitational during its high school season sent the team reeling. The crew has rebounded with a steely vengeance, however, throwing down hurculean team efforts at the Jim Danner Invitational in Oregon and again at the high school season-ending Washington state meet, downing several notable lineups in the process.
Kroy XC Club (whose members competed for York HS in Illinois) showcases what several pundits consider to be the individual favorite this weekend (Sean McNamara), but the crew boasts a very potent lead triumvirate, perhaps setting the table for a championship feast. Several DyeStat fans on message have proclaimed the squad could pull a 1-2-3 sweep here (highly unlikely) in hinging its team chances.
The Woodlands XC Club of Texas has been dominant in the Lone Star State this fall while competing in the high school season, including a season-opening trouncing over in-state rivals at the inaugural Nike South Invitational and a runaway triumph at the high school state meet.
Ernie Army's XC Club (comprised of team members from Royal HS of California during the prep season) harbors sensational depth, with the lineup able to defeat a host of megapowers (high school squads from Ferris, Jesuit, Mead, Dana Hills, Don Lugo and Madera -- all nationally ranked in 2004), oftentimes while being shorthanded due to injury. When competing with its healthiest lineup of the season at last weekend's California state championships for high schools, these team members obliterated the competition in a 65-point decision over an impressive field while mired in muddy conditions on a rain-drenched course.
The darkhorses? Best bets there go to Marshall Mix XC Club of Minnesota (which competes as Marshall HS during the prep calendar) and Crusader Harriers (Jesuit HS of Portland, serving as the high-profile and popular local favorite here). Both squads are very deep at the scoring positions, flashes signs of championship promise when all cylinders click.
So what'll happen?
Careful statistical analysis shows that while Stotan XC's fine packing abilities make it the favorite, there is at least one rival team (Kroy XC) capable of sticking three scorers in the finish chute ahead of Stotan's #1, with a handful of teams perhaps able to shove a pair of scoring ahead of that same scoring position for the pre-race team favorite. Two of those squads (South Side and Ernie's Army) have flashed periodic signs of being able to rival Stotan's time-scoring gap if all its scorers were to click on the same day. Among the elite teams, only Stotan has mastered such abilities this far -- and that's why they're the favorite.
GIRLS TEAM CHAMPIONSHIP
Kinetic Racing Club (Saratoga Springs HS members during the prep season) is the greatest distance-running squad in American youth history, with the unit able to feature national-class presence at the front of its scoring efforts and unrivaled depth on the back end. The only real questions surrounding their team should be (1) will Nicole Blood be able to post victory? (2) Can Kinetic RC pull a sweep of the top positions? (3) How low a team score can it post? (4) Barring a titanic upset, how large can its victory margin be?
The race could very well be for #2, where SISU XC Club (which competed for Smoky Hill HS during the fall) is the favorite and appears well armed to justify its preseason #2 national ranking. Defending FootLocker national champion Katelyn Kaltenbach in finally healthy and racing back into shape after injury surfaced early into the year (not the previoiusly thought stress fracture condition reported by many outlets, but rather an acute injury that took a while to correctly diagnose). She is joined by teammates Keara Sammons, a newly christened FootLocker Nationals qualifier, and Morgan Schulz, a 2003 FootLocker Nationals qualifier. With Kaltenbach out of mthe lineup earlier in the year, the rest of the team fell out of sync, including an uncharacteristic subpar showing by some team members at the Great American Cross-Country Festival.
South Region power Kingwood XC Club has been carrying the flag in the Lone Star State this fall, including a dominant showing for its members at the Texas state meet last month. Roxbury XC Club, the emerging power from the Northeast (New Jersey) has ripped off a series of fine historical course efforts in recent outings, while Northwest Region powerhouse Hilltop Belles (courting members of Bellarmine Prep HS) could join rising Team Ohio (Bowling Green HS team members) and darkhorse Fountain Valley Barons XC Club (California) are well capable of a shocker.
INDIVIDUALS TO WATCH
Barring upsets, look for the boys race to be a duel between Kroy's Sean McNamara and The Beach Dudes' Brandon Bethke (attending El Toro HS in Calfiornia). McNamara, who wheeled an 8:55 time-trial effort earlier this fall, has the in-race tenacity of a pit bull while Bethke, a 4:09 performer for 1600 meters and the newly crowned state Division I XC champion, has the poise and speed to wage battle for the top spot. Robert Bedsoleof Alabama (sinus infection almost prevented him from qualifying a week ago) and Laef Barnes of Washington (missed summertime training due to a stress fracture but coming on very well in the last three weeks) are other prime threats.
For the girls, the battle could very well come down to the FootLocker qualifying quartet from Kinetic Racing Club (Nicole Blood, Hannah Davidson, Lindsay Ferguson and Caitlin Lane) and the qualifying duo from SISU XC Club (Katelyn Kaltenbach and Keara Sammons) matching up talents with 2004 unbeaten star Brie Felnagle of Washington.
THE "GOLDEN ANCHOR"
Cross-country team excellence is all about the quality of depth at the 4-5 scoring positions. Since no team's score 'closes' until the 5th runner enters the finish chute, the Nike Team Nationals event will present special awards to the four fastest #5 team scorers in each race. Commemorative oversized brushed aluminum stars in the configuration on the NTN logo will be awarded to the outstanding #5 runners "anchoring" their team's performance. The second-, third-, and fourth-place teams' "anchor runners" will receive silver-colored stars, while the winning team's fifth runner will receive the coveted and one-of-a-kind "Golden Anchor" award.
From this day forward, any major on-site meets will also highlight the winning team's golden anchor. After all, in cross-country... every teammate counts!