by Leo Collins
PORTLAND OR 12/4/04 -- The scene was Portland Meadows, which usually presents races between thoroughbred horses, but thoroughbreds of another type displayed their prowess today. And the two-legged runners showed that they possessed the hearts of their four-legged counterparts! Thousands gathered in temperatures that were only in the low 40's with noted humidity to witness the grand cross country races that followed: the first team national championship in history.
In the past the adherents of various teams around the nation could only make arguments as to why their team should be considered number one but this year, thanks to Nike, the best teams in the nation had more than the chance to express their opinions in person. Better yet they were able to put their feet where there proverbial mouths were & stood up, well ran actually, for themselves.
As befits a race track the course was basically flat with the exception of a slight up-hill grade at the start, half-way point & finish. Added to the natural environment was a man-made trio of slight hills measuring 4' in height each spaced within 50 yards of each other to produce a ‘roller coaster' effect, which forced runners to change their strides dramatically as they ascended & then descended repeatedly. It was also a course that was a bit soggy at the beginning and almost a quagmire at the end, so no personal records could have been expected.
The guys had the good fortune to run first and with the sound of the gun the race was off in earnest with John Maletis of the Crusaders leading an immediate charge. In the first 200 meters the Crusader (Jesuit) Harriers of Portland dominated the front of the race. By the time they had reached the ‘coaster' Kevin Ondrasek of Carroll XC had taken the lead & within a short period of time had opened up a gap of around 50 meters. He continued to push the pace while Robert Bedsole of Birmingham , Laef Barnes of Mead & Thomas Greenwald of Stotan battled for 2 nd . There was no change as they hit the mile mark in 4:40 but Robert Barany of Yakima & Michael Maag of Jesuit moved into contention. Also of note Sean McNamara of Kroy joined the fray & by the 6:30 point of the race had taken second position.
For years many have decried the technological age & its negative impact on fitness, especially that of the young but today in Oregon we saw a brilliant & innovative meshing of the two disparate aspects of life. As the race progressed thanks to a new system by Finish Lynx, fans could see how the actual team race was evolving. At every 1,000 meters, the fans could assess how the teams stood at that point in the race & had a far better handle than normal of the jockeying for position that always takes place in midst of the race. No longer did one have little concept of the team situation, for fans could see the team scores displayed at each segment of the races. It provided for a far better ‘feel' for the development of the race.
Individually, however, Ondrasek rolled along as McNamara was poised to pounce & the pack trailed a bit behind. By the time the race had reached the 9.5 minute mark, McNamara had assumed the lead & Barany had taken 3 rd . The ultimate result was coming into focus by the time that they reached the 4K mark as McNamara & Barany were joined by Brandon Bethke of the Beach Dudes & Matt Dettman of Kroy. The team race as well had been reduced to Stotan & Kroy, which were only separated by four points. McNamara pushed the pace the rest of the way to win by a 12 second margin. Bethke grabbed 2 nd followed by Barany & Dettman.
The Kroy boys came on strong at the end to claim the team championship. It was a vindication of sorts, as they had been ranked number one early in the season until they were replaced by Stotan & their amazing team split in October and November. Today that broke down at the end as the Stotan guys did not finish as closely as usual & the up-front fire power of Kroy could not be overcome. As Maletits of Jesuit noted afterward it's ‘all about team & has been the most fun of any season' and that feeling was on display today for all the invited teams. I suppose in one way Kroy had the most fun, as evidenced by their reaction, when notified of the results, but there were no gloomy faces to be seen after the race had ended. Everyone seemed to know that they had taken part in something special & for many that was reason for joy enough.
The race for the title for the guys had been one of much speculation but the Saratoga NY girls team was so formidable that it did not seem feasible that they could lose. The pre-race announcer anointed them the ‘best cross country team in history' & repeated it a number of times, so the only real question seemed to be ‘how much would the margin of victory be?' Unfortunately the running lassies, racing second, inherited a course that literally had been torn apart by the boys. In a way it was a muddy reminder that this would not be just a walk in the park. From the beginning they had a course that one could literally sink their feet into & it would make footing be tenuous at best.
It was Fountain Valley CA that stormed away to the front at first but were passed by Saratoga's first 3 runners & Ramsey Kavan of South Dakota prior to the ‘coaster' It was on the first rise that Nicole Blood of Saratoga , who had a slight lead, stumbled & nearly fell. For a moment she appeared in distress as she fell behind the lead group & it's quite possible that she never did regain her rhythm the rest of the way. Kavan made her move just after completing the hills & took an immediate 20-30 yard lead. Blood suddenly found herself in 4 th place but the fact that Saratoga had a problem was hardly noted given that with the help of her compatriots they still held 4 of the top 6 positions in the race at the 1K point, which Kavan reached in 3:20.
Kavan, the Midwest Regional winner, led at the mile with a 5:39 time & Saratoga runners held positions 2-3-4. When they reached the 2K, the order was a repeat with Kavan leading Blood, Hannah Davidson & Lindsay Ferguson of Saratoga with Brie Felnagle of Bellarmine,Katelyn Kaltenbach, defending National Champion, of Colorado & Morgan Schulz of Colorado in 7 th .
The middle of the race seemed to be flowing in inevitable fashion as Kavan held a 10 second lead over Blood, who in turn held a 5 second lead over the aforementioned chase pack. The only change by that point was the addition of Keara Sammons of Colorado .
The major change was to come in the final kilometer. Brie Felnagle, who afterwards noted that she always ‘felt like she had a lot left,' departed from the chase pack to make a determined push to overtake Blood, which she not only accomplished but she put distance between herself & her opponent. In the end Kavan remained undefeated with a 10 second victory, while Felnagle took second, making her own statement that she could have something to say at Footlocker. Blood gallantly maintained 3 rd ahead of Kaltenbach & her team mate Sammons, while Kinetic ( Saratoga ) runners Davidson & Ferguson trailed just behind.
As the tired runners trudged in at the end of the competition, an opponent came up to the Saratoga Seven & commented: “You guys are awesome!”, which indeed they really are. None of the runners may have run their best way as coach Linda Kranick of Saratoga noted, yet the result was an overwhelming victory of 74 points. Of course Saratoga Springs has been about racing Thoroughbreds since the Civil War & it only makes sense that its cross country team displays those same sterling qualities.
This race was about the team, not individuals, and a team working together can handle adversity. It was a wonderful experience for both fans and competitors, who had the opportunity to display the essence of Cross Country. For the first time we have a true National Champion. The only negative is that in assigning the seeding we still have the old inherent problem of evaluation, as evidenced by the absence of the girls from Gig Harbor WA. They barely lost their state championship on a 6 th woman tie-breaker to Bellarmine, which placed 4 th behind Sisu (Smoky Hill Aurora CO) & 3-D Running (Kavan's Yankton SD team), yet they were not on hand to display just how good they really are. There is no question in my mind that they would have placed at least in the middle of this race. Bellarmine members noted that their team was disturbed at the absence of Gig Harbor & that the Northwest is consistently under-rated.
Still, choosing the best is not an easy task & this was a brilliant step in the right direction. The use of technology added a whole new & unique aspect to the experience. It was almost stunning to see team standings displayed in the midst of a race. It was a most positive experience for all with almost ebullient faces all around. Even Nicole Blood could only laugh at her stumble jokingly asking: “Can I get through a muddy race without falling?”. John Maletis of Jesuit expressed it best when noting that ‘this season has been the most fun. It's all about team!" Amen
Hats off to Nike. Josh Rowe & his crew put on a great race with fine competition, unique displays & fast results. Now it's off to San Diego where the best individuals can display their talents & the only thing that can beat this race is a dry course.