Who still thinks running isn't a team sport?
After this weekend, those who feel that way should be far and few between.
The sport of track and field/distance running/cross-country in the USA is mostly saturated with the image of individual success, especially when it comes to gold medals and records at Olympic, NCAA, and other championship levels of competition.
But as this meet has evolved in the last year, all of the buzz it's generated has been that the sport of cross-country has an indomitable team aspect that's worth celebrating. This creation of Nike Team Nationals, from the initial brainstorms of Nike's Josh Rowe to the special 5th-man "Anchor Awards" that will be presented at meet's end has helped get the sport a new place in the public eye that it would have never otherwise had.
In Portland this week, it's all about team -- and giving those teams a chance to settle who's the best on the course instead of just the rankings.
"In our society, the individual star is stressed," said veteran journalist Marc Bloom, who has played a major leadership role in ranking and selecting teams, the former which he has been doing for more than two decades for his Harrier Magazine. "One of the great things about this is that the spotlight is shined on everything that goes into this as a team sport. No one here is discussing who (individually) is going to win the race tomorrow."
The 41 teams that are here don't represent all of the top teams in the country, as seven weren't able to come because of state regulations and two others simply declined invitations. The boys race includes the entire top ten from the latest Super 25 poll; the girls will be missing four top five teams, but get pretty good depth after that. Those represented will include clubs made up of athletes from high schools with great long-time traditions, like girls teams from Saratoga Springs (NY), and boys teams from York (IL), Christian Brothers Academy (NJ), The Woodlands (TX) and Mead (WA). Others, like Fayetteville-Manlius (NY) boys, and Smoky Hill (CO) and Yankton (SD) girls are in the process of establishing such a legacy.
Most people here feel that not only is the Kinetic Running Club the overwhelming favorite to dominate this meet, but that perhaps Saratoga -- No. 1 in the nation by Bloom 10 of the last 12 years -- is the greatest of all time. Certainly few that were at Van Courtland Park last weekend, as the club qualified 4 runners for Foot Locker Finals, will dispute that. The fact that the rest of the top five isn't here shouldn't diminish whatever they can accomplish Saturday.
Kinetic's ability to run to their potential will rest on a few factors: First, Nicole Blood must continue the strong front running she has displayed all year and come up big on the biggest stage. A winning or top-three performance has eluded her the last two years on another big stage in San Diego. Second, teammates Caitlin Lane, Lindsey Ferguson, and Hannah Davidson must not just run well, but be ready to pick up for anyone who is slightly off their game. Finally, the team needs the gap between their fourth and fifth girl to be as small as possible.
Linda Kranick, who along with her husband, Art, has fashioned this dynasty, is excited about what this event can do for cross-country. "Hopefully, this will introduce the sport to many more people."
The coach feels part of what distinguishes this team from many more special Saratoga teams is their mental attributes. "They're able to put everything in perspective," she said. "They have a great sense of humor and this season has been very enjoyable to all of us on a personal level."
So who is the best candidate for second place? It's a tough call, but Smoky Hill XC Club looks like a good bet to fit the bill -- or maybe even win if everything goes their way. Katelyn Kaltenbach, who made a return at FL Midwest last weekend after two months out with injury, will need to continue to progress and if she can move up to the lead pack it will help greatly. Morgan Schulz and Keara Sammons have to be in the mix with Saratoga's 2-3-4, and Smoky Hill's 4-7 will simply have to work together and run as best they can.
After that it should simply come down to who has the best day and epitomizes the team concept. The clubs representing the next four teams in the rankings -- Kingwood (TX), Yankton (SD), Roxbury (NJ), and Bowling Green (OH) -- are all here and will be battling for 3rd and 4th, at least.
Unlike the girls race, there is no clear favorite, but rather a large handful of teams considered key suitors to the crown. Most of the notoriety and trash talk (on the Internet) is focused on Fayetteville-Manlius and York, the former the New York squad setting new standards for 1-5 spread and the latter the latest incarnation of scores of great teams under the legendary tutelage of Joe Newton and led by one of the nation's best runners, Sean McNamara.
The accomplishments of F-M (known here as Stotan AC) have been well-documented as Jared Burdick, Tommy Gruenewald, John Heron, Owen Kimple, and Andrew McCann have run seven meets with spreads of 29 to 9 seconds. The legend grew when they scored 15 at Manhattan with a :12 spread. It has been said they have five No. 1 men. But maybe they have five No. 5 men!
"I wouldn't tell them anything different," said Coach Bill Aris of preparing his kids for this special event. "Our kids and the other teams are fully aware of this level of competition."
Part of F-M's success seems to come from taking a balanced approach and not thinking about factors they can't control. Consider the following responses:
An advantage from having their state meet 2-4 weeks later than many schools?
"I think everyone will still be ready to compete."
Intense focus on this meet?
"It's a wonderful opportunity and it kind of came along in the process of the season. There's a great deal of honor that comes with this. But we've not been working on the end game, but just working on trying to improve every week."
Pressure to win?
"Sure, we would love to win. But I'm primarily interested in whether we're improving."
York, meanwhile, doesn't have its legendary mentor here; Joe Newton had surgery after the season ended and is resting at home. He was part of the planning of this meet a year ago. But track coach/CC assistant Charlie Kern and strength/club coach Mike Calcagno have the Dukes ready to go.
"The excitement level for us is greater than it's ever been," said Coach Kern. "In the past, we could have never fulfilled any dream about taking on The Woodlands, Mead, or any of these other teams."
He added that the success of this team would simply come from running together, though he acknowledges that McNamara is going to be pushing at the front on his own most of the time. But York's Dettman twins (Matt and Eric) have been together as a great 2-3 punch all year and their 4-5 runners, Mike Arnold and Nick Kuczwara, were just eight spots and nine seconds apart at the state meet. They will have to keep F-M's men in their sight and the Dettmans probably ahead of that group for a best chance to win.
If either team falls short anywhere, there is a slew of great teams ready to win, place or show, including Ferris (WA), The Woodlands (TX), Royal Simi Valley (CA), Jesuit (OR), Christian Bros Academy (NJ), Cedar Cliff (PA), Marshall (MN), and Dana Hills (CA).