The Nation Has Its Champion
by Steve (steveu) Underwood, with “Hill” reports and interviews from Kirsten O’Hara
“Either you love AJ or you hate him,” someone was heard to say after the race.
If there were any haters at Balboa Park Saturday, they were hard to find. With dozens of crazed fellow El Camino students wearing face and body-paint, or “AJ Nation” shirts, the, uh, outgoing AJ Acosta definitely had to be feeling the love. Adding in a smoldering desire to win on what is practically his home course, the senior had the chutzpah to make a daring mid-race move to take the 27th Foot Locker National Finals.
AJ upped the ante on an already hot pace as he started motoring on the first trip down “The Hill,” less than halfway through the race. He later admitted he went perilously close to redlining and, in the last half mile, Cabrillo CA sr. Michael Coe made a championship bid. In the end, he sprinted to nearly catch AJ in the final 50 meters. But the FL West champ was sprinting, too, and Coe’s legs locked a tad on him in the final strides. Both were timed in 15:02, but AJ had the clear win.
“I never pushed that hard in a race,” the champ admitted when he had finally caught his breath. “I didn’t want it to come down to a kicker’s race, even though I have confidence in my kick.”
The victory, he added, was nothing short of what he expected of himself. “I’ve been dreaming about this since my freshman year,” he added. He was also quick to seek out Coe and congratulate him. Later, he did a semi-dive into his crowd of fans outside the bullpen.
Coe would have loved to win, but was very pleased with the runner-up finish and the way it happened. “I ran exactly the strategy that I wanted to,” he said. “I ran the second half as hard as I could. It was not quite enough, but I’ll take it. AJ is a great runner, it’s his course, and he ran really well.”
Diego and Danny Mercado had originally fostered the fast pace, flying through the first mile with abandon. AJ, St. Francis CA sr. Ben Sitler, and Crested Butte Academy CO sr. Dan Roberts were up there, too, seemingly duplicating the first mile at Mt. SAC last week. But the first mile there is flatter and the tempo was definitely harder here.
The mile was reached in 4:33. At that point, Greenwood KY senior Michael Eaton had joined the leaders, but he had fallen behind too many runners in the first 400, then expended too much energy reaching the leaders so quickly. He would eventually drop back to 13th (15:27). Roberts quickly slipped away as well (12th, also 15:27), but his Midwest teammate Landon Peacock would surge up to try and match the pace.
Surprisingly, the Mercados’ raging pace began to wane as well. Danny and Diego would finish 8th (15:17) and 11th (15:22), respectively, and it would be revealed later that they had unfortunately chosen the race to break in new pairs of spikes, with Diego particularly suffering from the consequences.
The pack pushed up the big hill the first time, with AJ flanked by the Mercados, Eaton, Peacock, and Sitler. Then, about 6:00 into the race on the downside, AJ moved, much earlier than it was expected that anyone would. Immediately, things began to break up and spread out.
AJ went through 2 miles in 9:31. Meanwhile, Coe had started more conservatively, then established second place. Peacock was in third and Kenny Klotz and Mohamud Ige were moving behind him. Coe went after Acosta somewhat on the last big hill, later wishing a bit that he’d been even more aggressive. But the fuel tanks of both were running down as they ground it out with their heads down. Coe closed within 2-3 seconds, but then had to push to keep from losing most of what he’d gained when AJ flew on the downhill.
AJ looked good to win, but as 400 to go turned into 200 to go and less, it became obvious that Coe’s final kick was going to close the gap some more. It was just a matter of how much. “I got close enough that I could have reached out and touched him,” Coe said of the final 30-50 meters. At the very end, AJ gained a little bit back.
They had 10 seconds on anyone else, but that “anyone” turned out to be Prospect IL sr. Ryan Craven who passed several others in the last 1200 and had an outstanding last 400 for 15:12. After that, again, it was a West Region show, as the team scored 22 to the Midwest’s 38. A gutty Klotz closed for fourth (15:13), with Peacock fading a bit but still a strong fifth (15:15), and Sitler ran a very solid race all the way for seventh in 15:16. Then Danny Mercado’s eighth was the final West scorer.
Most figured AJ, Coe, and the Mercados to be high scorers. Sitler may have surprised many from outside the region, but he was as steady and strong as he’d been a week earlier, with his finish being a key in clinching the team title.
“I am very happy about my race,” he said. “I went ranked 9th and finished 7th, so improving on that is great. Coming here for the first time is always tough, but I thought that if I go out there and be tough, that’s all I can ask of myself. And our team won with California domination.”
“I just wanted to run tough and relaxed for the first part of the race and then AJ (Acosta) took off after the mile,” he added. “During the second 800 loop, I saw Coe take off, too, and I broke a bit there and fell back to the 10th spot. Diego came up next to me at that point, so I ran with him back up to 9th. When I got to the flat part coming in, I passed two people.”
Then there was Klotz. Like his fellow qualifiers and competitors from NTN, the talented Oregonian absolutely felt last week’s race in his legs as he tried to close on the leaders. Not one to go out crazy fast, but normally to overwhelm the opposition later in the race, he could never quite reach those gears. Still, he kicked nicely for fourth.
“It was the most I’ve hurt the whole year,” he said. “I don’t know if it was the effect of that race, but I felt a lot more smooth last week. I was surprised I could move up to fourth. I was hurting when I was doing it.”
Craven’s effort was the beginning of several performances that made sure the traditionally strong Midwest finished a strong second. He and Peacock gave the team two in the top five, then HD Jacobs IL jr. Evan Jager rolled in a stunning 9th (15:18) with a great come-from-behind effort. He was the day’s top non-senior. Ige, who showed wisdom in holding back from his usual fierce start, got as high as fifth, but then dropped to 10th (15:21).
“At a mile and a half, I decided it was time to throw it in and move up,” said Craven. “I wasn’t feeling that great doing it, but I was about 15th, then I passed a lot of people after the two mile. Going up the hill the second time I was about eighth.”
Craven said that during the summer he thought a lot about qualifying for Foot Locker and placing very high, but as the season got moving found himself focusing much more on dealing with trying to win over a crowded state meet field. He was second there by just a tick to Steve Finley’s monster finish, but then kept getting better each week with fourth at the Mideast championships, fourth at FL Midwest, and finally his amazing race here.
“It seems now like state wasn’t that big a deal,” he said. “I showed here what I can really do.”
So did a lot of others.
Results - Boys
Scoring Teams and Points:
1. West 22 (1 2 4 7 8)
2. Midwest 38 (3 5 9 10 11)
3. South 72 (6 12 15 19 20)
4. Northeast 78 (13 14 16 17 18)
1 AJ Acosta (12) West El Camino H.S. Oceanside CA 15:02
2 Michael Coe (12) West Cabrillo H.S. Lompoc CA 15:02
3 Ryan Craven (12) Midwest Prospect H.S. Mount Prospect IL 15:12
4 Kenny Klotz (12) West Central Catholic H.S. Beaverton OR 15:13
5 Landon Peacock (12) Midwest Cedar Springs H.S. Morley MI 15:15
6 Jack Bolas (12) South Chapel Hill H.S. Chapel Hill NC 15:15
7 Benjamin Sitler (12) West St. Francis H.S. Los Altos CA 15:16
8 Danny Mercado (12) West West Covina H.S. West Covina CA 15:17
9 Evan Jager (11) Midwest HD Jacobs H.S. Algonquin IL 15:18
10 Mohamud Ige (12) Midwest Denver South H.S. Littleton CO 15:21
11 Diego Mercado (12) West West Covina H.S. West Covina CA 15:22
12 Daniel Roberts (12) Midwest Crested Butte Academy Nicksburk CO 15:27
13 Michael Eaton (12) South Greenwood H.S. Bowling Green KY 15:27
14 Tradelle Ward (12) Northeast Griswold H.S. Griswold CT 15:28
15 De'Sean Turner (11) Midwest Warren Central H.S. Indianapolis IN 15:29
16 Matthew Tebo (11) West El Dorado H.S. Albuquerque NM 15:32
17 Ayalew Taye (11) Northeast Cushing Academy Ashburnham MA 15:32
18 Ben Hubers (11) South McEachern H.S. Marietta GA 15:34
19 Noah Shannon (12) Midwest Fort Collins H.S. Fort Collins CO 15:39
20 Jay Koloseus (12) Northeast Guilford H.S. Guilford CT 15:40
21 Keith Capecci (12) Northeast Council Rock North H.S. New Hope PA 15:40
22 Jeremy Stevens (12) Midwest Winnebago H.S. Winnebago IL 15:41
23 Sintayehu Taye (10) Northeast Cushing Academy Ashburnham MA 15:43
24 Noel Bateman (12) Northeast Aquinas H.S. Rochester NY 15:43
25 Brian Rhodes-Devey (11) Northeast Guilderland H.S. Slingerlands NY 15:44
26 Jeff Perrella (12) Northeast Westfield H.S. Westfield NJ 15:45
27 Greg Kelsey (12) Northeast Saratoga Springs H.S. Saratoga Springs NY 15:45
28 Isaac Stoutenburgh (12) West Crater H.S. Central Point OR 15:49
29 Colby Lowe (10) South Southlake Carroll H.S. Southlake TX 15:52
30 Rob Sorrell (12) South Bolton H.S. Memphis TN 15:53
31 Jeffrey Helmer (12) West Jackson H.S. Snohomish WA 15:54
32 Clay Hannah (12) South Lebanon H.S. Lebanon TN 16:04
33 Stephen Finley (12) Midwest Palatine H.S. Palatine IL 16:08
34 Brock Hagerman (12) Midwest Pendelton Heights H.S. Markleville IN 16:09
35 Joshua Hibbs (12) Northeast Hatboro Horsham H.S. Hatboro PA 16:10
36 Taylor Nepon (12) West Mead H.S. Spokane WA 16:14
37 Duncan Phillips (11) South A & M Consolidated College Station TX 16:18
38 Brad Siragusa (11) South Chantilly H.S. Herndon VA 16:43
39 Daniel Gerber (12) South The Woodlands H.S. The Woodlands TX 18:07
40 Justin Harbor (12) South Flagler Palm Coast H.S. Palm Coast FL