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Mt. SAC, Walnut CA
Dec. 1, 2007

Favorites Hasay and Fernandez Shine at Cloudy, Muddy Mt. SAC

By Ronnie Flores

The 20 qualifiers for Foot Locker Finals from the West.  Photo by Scott Kurtz 
Walnut, CA -- Some long-awaited heavy rains, that soaked the parched San Gabriel Valley through Friday night, forced Foot Locker West Event Director Doug Todd and his staff to make a rare move to the Mt. SAC road rain course to avoid disaster on the deadly slick clay surfaces of the famed course’s hills.

But that didn’t stop the heavy favorites from claiming their titles at Saturday’s 29th Annual Foot Locker Western Region Cross Country.

Most of those competing in the two seeded races and favored to secure a spot in next week’s Foot Locker Finals in San Diego did so, with those crossing the finish line first particularly undaunted by the change in course. Mission Prep jr Jordan Hasay cruised to her third straight FL West title by 11 seconds in 17:17, while Riverbank senior ran away from Judge Memorial UT senior Luke Puskedra in the final 600 to triumph in 14:53.

If anything, the change of venue may have helped the races stay more true to form; the ability of tired harriers to navigate Poopout Hill, for example, has changed the course of many a race here. Of course, others enjoy the hills and take advantage of them in their game plan. The road course, which incorporated some of the flatter, paved portions of the normal course, had no extreme hills. But it was rolling in spots, and with the pavement still being wet (though it didn’t rain during the races), some of the sharp turns were treacherous.

This was also the first year for all 10 Foot Locker West runners to come from these races. The last two years the top eight in each seeded race advanced along with the two top finishers at the Nike Team Nationals in Portland.

Business as Usual for Hasay

For Hasay, though, it was business as usual as she tries to reclaim the title she won in 2005. Two years ago, she tied the course record on the normal layout with a 17:08. In 2006, she again won here in 17:43, but was in training mode for the U.S. Juniors later in the winter and wasn’t able to repeat as national champion.

“I’m excited about next week,” Hasay remarked about her upcoming bid to top the podium again. “My strategy kind of changed because of the rain course. I didn’t want to run out the gate too hard.

“This past week, I cut down on my miles because this was a fast course. It felt good out there. I looked back a couple of times to see where the girls were when I was about to enter the track. I was just trying to stay at a strong pace.”

But clearly, the ever-advancing standout left plenty for next week, a sign of her maturation into a runner who can run strategy as well as all out from the gun.

The girls expected to be the front-runners were indeed up front on Saturday morning. Hasay, who won the CIF Div. V title last week in Fresno, opened in 5:09 (fast first mile) and built a 25 meter lead at the seven and a half minute mark. At this point in the race, Davis CA sr Lauryn Chetelat was running second with Mountain View AZ sr Nadya Bishton holding in third.

Tarver makes fourth team

Trailing Bishton in fourth at this point in the race was Serrano CA sr Kauren Tarver. Bishton eventually fell behind her and finished in sixth place with a time of 17:37 after placing fourth last year, but Tarver held her fourth spot in 17:36, allowing her to become only the 18th female to qualify for the FL National Championships four consecutive years.

“I’m pretty excited, because I usually run well at nationals,” said the elated senior during Saturday’s award ceremony.

Tarver’s historical accomplishment was definitely noteworthy, but the girls race clearly belonged to Hasay, who built a 50 meter lead at the 9:50 mark and reportedly ran a 10:30 two-mile split. She eventually built up a lead of 10 seconds and the only suspense when she entered the stadium to complete the race would be which order the 10 qualifiers would finish.

Chetalat held on to 2nd (17:28) while Xavier College prep soph Jessica Tonn hustled in for 3rd in 17:35. Tonn had run second to Hasay at Mt. SAC, but had not beaten the Bishtons at all this year. The Bishtons, in turn, were unbeaten heading into Saturday’s race. Along with Nadya’s 6th, Nastia finished in 8th (17:40).

Clovis soph Meghan Marvin (17:37) split Tarver and Nadya Bishton in 5th, while Oregon’s top runner, Klamath Falls jr Taylor Wallace, ran home in 7th (17:39).

Drama for last two finishers

Then there was actually some drama after Hasay entered the stadium for the conclusion of the race as Sarah Sumpter (Cloverdale, CA) fell on the track as she was running in 9th and quickly got back up and finished strong. Amazingly, it was actually the second time during the race she lost precious time, but she recovered to hold 9th in 17:44.

“Inside the stadium, I actually stepped on someone’s foot near the finish shoot,” Sumpter explained. “The first time it was around a tight curve out on the pavement. I just biffed it and fell on my face. I really think I could have run better without having to chase time, but I am happy that I qualified.”

Tenth place finisher Nicole Nielson (Boise, ID) finished four seconds ahead of Vanessa Hancock (Brea, CA) in eleventh place.

“My coach (Tim Severa) was screaming at me that I was in eleventh place,” Nielsen explained. “I knew I was near the top 10, but I didn’t know if I was tenth or eleventh. I thought about all the people that were here supporting me and I thought to myself, ‘Nicole, you’ve got to go.’”

Fernandez Runs Away With Title Late

In the boys race, there definitely were no hiccups for winner Fernandez, as he set a meet record and broke the 15-minute barrier with a 14:53 clocking. While Hasay was the prohibitive favorite in the girls race, the Boys Seeded Race was expected to be a two-horse affair between the Riverbank High senior and Luke Puskedra, the unbeaten Utah state champion from Ogden. The latter had built a huge set of credentials since last spring with his Arcadia 2M victory and wins this fall at Firman and NTN Southwest.

And a two man race it was until 600 meters left when Fernandez broke away to smash the meet record of 15:21 set by Seth Watkins of Kalispell, Montana. Of course, the time will not be a “course” record.

“I was loose from the beginning,” Fernandez explained. “We (Puskedra and I) ran a fast and smooth first mile. After that, we pulled away from the pack. In the last 800 (meters), I decided to go for it to see what would happen. He (Puskedra) didn’t.”

Puskedra (15:08), in fact, was clearly just maintaining to qualify for next week, holding back his best finish for Balboa.

It wasn’t surprising that Fernandez took down Watkins’ mark considering just a week ago he broke the CIF state record at 5,000 meters set by 1986 Cal-Hi Sports State Runner of the Year and Foot Locker National Champion Marc Davis by 14 seconds in a blistering 14:24. That the top seven qualifiers actually broke Watkins’ mark on Saturday morning was more the effect of the different course, which was somewhat drier by the time the boys ran.

Fernandez reportedly clocked a 4:28 mile split and a 9:30 two-mile split and averaged 4:43 per mile over the 5000-meter race. After the two leaders, it was a great competitive finish for the remaining eight qualifying spots for San Diego, with the suspense especially strong for the last few. This was a departure from some recent years, when the top 8 had broken away.

Lafler grabs final spot in tight battle

At the two and three quarter-mile mark, five runners were competing for that final qualifying spot and in the end it was Jonathan Lafler (Maple Valley, WA) that will compete at Balboa Park next week. He finished in 15:22, just a single second in front of snake-bit Bryce Burgess (Portland, OR) and two seconds faster than James Tracy (Fair Oaks, CA).

“I felt comfortable through the first mile,” Lafler explained. “I knew we were going at a fast pace. With 500 meters to go, I was fading. I was eighth going onto the track, but they (the leaders) we’re pulling away from me. I told myself, ‘I got to push it.’”

Meanwhile, Utah got two of the top three as Stephen Clark closed on Puskedra and took third in 15:14. He was followed by CA D3 champ James Attarian, who continued his fine breakout campaign in 4th at 15:17. Gig Harbor WA sr Miles Utterreiner, who was clearly the best in his state all year, confirmed his status in 5th (also 15:17). While Horizon AZ sr Jim Walmsley found the Mt. SAC course entirely different than the one he ran during victory here in October, he also made it in smoothly at 15:19 for 6th.

CA D1 state champ Chris Schwartz of Bakersfield led three more Golden State runners in 7th through 9th, running 15:20. He was followed in single-second intervals by Brett Walters (15:21) and Trabuco Hills sr Riley Sullivan. Running at Balboa in December was probably a distant thought for Sullivan both at season’s start – when it seemed his top-ranked team was on a collision course with NTN – and later on when he missed races due to injury. But he got healthy and heated up in his Southern Section performances, running the fastest Mt. SAC (2.91M course) time of the year in 14:48, then was barely 2nd to Schwartz in the CA D1 race.

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