PORTLAND, ORE. -- Competing before an estimated crowd of 4,500-plus spectators at Portland Meadows Race Track, the nation's best cross-country programs performed as elite club teams in a mud-slinging, camelback-crossing, lactate-building 5,000-meter challenge along a European-style layout designed specifically for this occasion.
Years after the idea was hatched, months after the races were planned, and just hours after the course was finally built, 40 minutes of action proved it was all worth it. In the end, the clear-cut victors continued to be the two most fabled prep-level programs in the history of our sport: the girls from Kinetic Racing Club (members of Saratoga Springs HS, NY) and the boys from Kroy Cross-Country Club (York, Elmhurst, IL). Triumph came in contrasting styles, with Kinetic Running Club seizing the lead in the girls' race by the one-kilometer mark and extending the edge over the next three kilometers, while Kroy's boys rallied into the lead by mid-race and then exploded with a late race surge to expand their tenuous 4-point advantage to an eventual 35-point winning margin.
"This was the greatest event ever!" squealed Kinetic Running Club team leader Nicole Blood, herself a veteran of dozens of national-class competitions over the years. "The whole idea of competing together against the very best in the country was something very fun -- something every one of our team members can share."
The boys team victory for Kroy XC Club offered a fulfilling validation for its team members, quieting a horde of message board skeptics who questioned the group's true abilities/credentials over the last three decades as state association rules have prevented the program from competing out of state during the high school season.
While the competition wore t-shirts, shorts, and sweat tops and sweat pants during many of the festive activities hosted during the weekend, Kroy team member often donned cleanly-pressed suits in keeping with its focused theme here. Kroy's eventual victory capped what team frontrunner Sean McNamara referred to as a "business trip". And yes, the boys from Illinois sure took care of business.
"We came here to run and we came here to win," quipped McNamara, whose tenacity helped propel him into the lead of the boys race during the middle mile -- an advantage he never relinquished. "We wanted to have fun when we were here, but there's no more fun you can have than winning it all."
The boys' competition figured to be a titanic showdown between Kroy and Stotan XC Club (featuring runners from Fayetteville-Manlius HS of New York during the season). The anticipation did not disappoint. With the innovative debut of in-race kilometer-by-kilometer scoring updates appearing on the two 17-foot-by-23-foot jumbo screens and Palm One hand held computers, fans were kept apprised of the amazing team battles unfolding as the FinishLynx operators kept feeding the continually changing data onto the oversized screens.
It was the hometown Crusader Harriers (members of the Portland Jesuit HS team) that delighted the partisan crowd with an early team lead, including placing three runners in the top 10 during the opening kilometer. A breathtaking visual played out along the series of four tightly bunched mini-hills termed the camelbacks, as the heads of a swarm of teens bobbed up and down as they filed through the roller coaster-like hills in stunning unison at a very fast pace.
"Those hills were rad," beamed Kroy HS team manager Patrick Tomaciewicz, who had the best seat in the house during championship day as he toured along on the trailing television feed vehicle to help with spotting duties after spending pre-meet time in the Kroy camp. "It was crazy seeing everyone fly through those - crazy!"
By mid-race, Stotan had moved into the lead, with national powers The Woodlands XC Club (The Woodlands, TX), Crusaders Harriers, Ernie's Army (which represented Royal HS during the California season) and Mountain View XC Club (Mountain View HS, Utah) also appearing high on the leader board.
After having California's Brandon Bethke (Beach Dudes XC Club, El Toro HS team member) stalk him for much of the first half of the race while they held down the 2-3 positions, McNamara erased a 10-second deficit to bolt past early leader Kevin Ondrasek of Texas (Southlake XC Club, Carroll HS). McNamara, a brazen competitor and FootLocker Nationals title contender next week, then forced the pace to start sending his rivals spiraling into oxygen debt. Behind him, siblings Matthew and Eric Dettman sandwiched around teammate Nick Kuczwara as Kroy flaunted four runners in the top 30 enter the final kilo.
As the 146-runner field snaked through the winding layout, a few surprises began emerging on the leader board behind the Kroy and Stotan clubs, which were separated by a single-digit margin entering the final 1,000 meters. Tyson's Army, a crew comrpised of team members from Northwest Region perennial power Mead HS of Spokane (WA), and Ernie's Army were battling for podium positions (top four teams) with mega-powers The Woodlands XC Club, Mountain View XC Club, and Crusader Harriers not too far in the offing.
By late race, McNamara had effectively distanced himself from Bethke (leading his team to an upset of four nationally ranked squads) en route to victory (15:43 to 15:55), with eventual third placer Robbie Barany of the Yakima Harriers (Eisenhower HS, WA) running the race of his life to stake claim to third en route to a FootLocker Nationals berth!
McNamara and Matthew Dettman (fourth in 16:08) made Kroy XC Club the only squad with two scorers in the top 18 -- actually having three as Kuzcwara placed 16th in 16:32. From there, it was a mad dash over the final two miles, with Kroy clinging to a slim lead and Stotan in position (five runners ahead of York's fourth scorer) to challenge for the win. But off the final curve and along closing straightaway into the finish chute, it was the Kroy crew that closed like champions.
With wave after wave of scorers spilling down the home straight, it was easy to see the green-clad Kroy squad making key passed and forcing two-point swings along the way. Eric Dettman caught at least four runners during the final minute to place 29th overall in 16:43. The key, however, came when final scorer Josh Schroeder breezed by at least a dozen runners along the final 300-plus meters to seal the victory with a 42nd-place crossing in 16:50. Schroeder's heroics earned him the "Golden Anchor" award reserved for the fifth scorer of the winning team, securing Kroy's place in the annals of distance-running lore.
Stotan, which was unable to match Kroy's close, held on to place second (92 to 127) as frontrunners Thomas Gruenewald (9th in 16:16) and Andrew McCann (18th in 16:33) led the effort and fifth scorer and anchor Owen Kimple (35th in 16:47) closed out the scoring.
The amazing surprise of the day was Mead's third-place team finish after arriving here ranked 16th in the Harrier's national poll. Although leader Laef Barnes' 6th-place finish did not advance him to FootLocker Nationals (Bethk and Barany claimed the two West Region berths), Tyson's Army had all five scorers place in the top fifty to amass 146 points. The hero of the day for the famed program was #7 runner Greg Panas, who placed third for the team here in powering the squad onto the awards podium.
Ernie's Army held steady and kept its position for much of the race, with the California-based power being led by senior Dylan Jaedtke (10th in 16:18) and sophomore Michael Cybulski (23rd in 16:36). Royal's depth was as strong as anyone's, with anchor award winner (going to the top four anchors) Hudson Andrews (taking 53rd in 16:58) crossing ahead of teammates Danny Benson (69th in 17:07) and Ben Capper (94th in 17:30) being the fastest 6th and 7th men in the meet. The nice surprises came from Mountain View XC (placing fifth after entering here ranked 12th nationally) and Yakima Harriers XC Club (placing a stunning ninth after arriving here unranked in the Harrier Magazine's Super 25 poll.
On the girls' side, Kinetic RC/Saratoga Springs used the occasion to stamp a bold exclamation point on the most dominant season in prep distance running history. Its "Fab Four" of FootLocker Nationals qualifiers -- Blood, Hannah Davidson, Lindsey Ferguson and Caitlin Lane -- finished among the first ten runners here, spanning 38 seconds (18:20 to 18:58) to set the table for victory.
The final outcome was not official, however, until Kinetic RC fifth scorer Karyn Delay dashed across the finish in 23rd place, wrapping up its 51-point effort (SISU XC Club of Colorado was second in 18:05) and 94:07 team time on a course which runners described as among the slowest and trickiest they had ever encountered. Delay was the winner of the meet's "Golden Anchor" award for females by virtue of being the fastest 5th scorer in the race, a statistical tie-in which almost always spells victory for team's boasting the "golden anchor." For added measure, Kinetic RC also showcased the swiftest 6th (Ashley Campbell) and 7th scorers (Alysha McElroy) of the meet!
For Kinetic, which prides itself on teamwork over individual successes, claiming a very one-sided victory in a showdown race of top teams across the map dovetailed nicely with its cavalcade of mythical national titles via subjective rankings over the years.
"The best part was that every girl played a role here, which is the way it should be in determining who's best," said Kinetic RC coach Linda Kranick.
Kinetic found itself temporarily in chase mode at the outset, with Fountain Family Running Club opting to open with a stern pace after the starting command was given. FFRC runners (which competed as Fountain Valley HS during the season) actually held the top three places through the straightforward and flat first 380 meters, with team member Crystal Reed setting the pace. Once the field reached the first directional change -- a deep-sweeping arc along the race track's first turn -- the field closed in and the team battle began. Kinetic RC of Saratoga began moving up by the close of the turn and moved into the lead at the kilometer mark despite having Blood take a spill while navigating the camelbacks challenge just after the half-mile mark. By two kilometers, Kinetic/Saratoga had four runners positioned within the top ten and chasing 3-D Running Club's (Yankton, South Dakota) Ramsey Kavan, with both the 3-D and Fountain Family clubs trying to maintain scoring contact.
From kilometer three to kilometer four (the start of the second loop of a 2k stretch), the pressure Saratoga applied on the opposition only grew heavier as its scoring total dropped from 50 points to 44. Up front, Kavan continued to own the pole position, with speedster Brie Felnagle of the Hilltop Belles (Bellarmine Prep HS, Tacoma, WA) and Blood giving chase.
Entering the final kilo, SISU Cross-Country Club began to rally fiercely. SISU, which was ranked second nationally in preseason while competing as Smoky Hill HS, was fielding its first healthy lineup in more than two months and was challenging hard here. With 2003 FootLocker champion Katelyn Kaltenbach and 2004 FL qualifier Keara Sammons working off each other and former FootLocker qualifier Morgan Schulz also nearing the head of the pack, a virtual dual meet battle was breaking out. Kinetic and SISU combined to hold down 6 of the first 8 places down the stretch, with the former holding a slim 16-17 scoring edge through three team positions. In the end, however, Kinetic was just too deep for anyone to match.
Kaltenbach, who continues to signal improved fitness since her return from injury, Sammons and Schulz retained their top ten positions for SISU, with Erin Stratton and anchor award winner Renee Mayer rounding out the 125-point scoring tally.
Kavan kept the lead over the final three kilometers to win in 18:05, with Felnagle (18:15) and Blood (18:20) going 2-3. Teamwise, the 3-D Running Club (which competed for Yankton HS of South Dakota during the season) was the only other squad to squeeze under the 200-point scoring total, netting 154 points as race-winner Kavan and Elizabeth Bies (15th in 19:08) led and anchor honoree Kristen Sternhagen helped combine for a nice showing.
Felnagle punched her ticket to San Diego by placing second individually (her first loss of the season) while pacing the Hilltop Belles to a surprising fourth-place team placing. In revealing the fine depth and balance present nationally, the Belles were at the front end of an 11-team logjam separated by only 64 points! Leading the way among that group in terms of apparent breakthroughs were Kamataie XC Club (Fremont HS, Utah), which entered ranked 20th nationally but placed fifth here; Southlake XC Club (Southlake Carroll HS, Texas), which placed 8th after entering ranked 19th; and Raditude XC Club (competing for Thousand Oaks HS during the season), which arrived here as unranked within the national Top 25 but beat five nationally ranked squads while placing a surprising 12th.
FLAT COURSE... BUT NOT A FAST COURSE
When athletes had their first glimpse of the Portland Meadows landscape before Friday's course run-through, skepticism abounded. While watching from the glass-enclosed grandstand and waiting for race horses to complete their morning workout, all they could see was a relatively flat and seemingly fast course.
"Is this it?" runners from all pockets of the nation asked in uncertain manner. "Doesn't look like much of a challenge..."
Minutes later, the course was theirs. Meandering through the mildly rolling slopes along the infield golf course, runners encountered noticeably soft earth underlying the greenery, not to mention some slick muddy patches along the course's first turn. Soon opinions began to change. From runners to coaches to team managers to parents, nearly all began commenting that the course might not be overly fast after all. After more touring, including traversing the modest series of four roller coaster-like five-foot hills termed "the camelbacks" and hopping over 18-inch-high bales of hay strewn in certain areas, expectation of slow times continued gaining the popular vote.
By afternoon's end, athletes began using terms such as "challenging," unique," "difficult," "slow," "tricky," and "awesome" in rating the layout.
Despite the forecast for heavy rains in the wee hours of race day, the storm never came. Even so, runners found the course to be highly deceiving on race day. With no truly fast portion available (the quickest stretch was the 175-meter soft and very flat gravel stretch after the camelbacks), tactical racing proved critical. Those starting quickly paid the price; those starting conservatively and then picking picking off the overzealous starters were rewarded best.
Despite their modest height, the camelbacks were cited by runners an informal post-race poll as the race's trickiest part. Such a response was expected. Although not a major factor the first time through, athletes toured the camelbacks three times during the race, with the final two tours becoming progressively more taxing and truly rhythm-breaking as fatigue from the overall physical challenge of the high-level race began seeping in.
Additionally, the gradual turns along dense and slightly sloping grass dampened the likelihood for fast times. Not one runner termed the course as being easy by day's end, with several coaches commenting favorably over mapping a layout whose final version proved advantageous to neither the flat-land states or the hill-dominated regions. In short, many coaches said they felt the course type pretty much leveled the playing field.
RANKING THE RANKINGS
So which regions shined while others struggled? Which rankings appeared on target while others seemed way off? Taking into account the adjusted projected placings when considering the ranked no-shows into the meet, it appeared the boys' rankings were pretty much in the ballpark (despite superb step-up performances from Tyson's Army [Mead HS, WA] and Mountain View XC Club) while much of tghe pecking order on the girls' side initially appeared riddled with misses.
The region most capable of bristling in the direction of the NTN Rankings Committee could be the Southwest Region, which had 5 of its 6 teams in both genders place either equal to or better than projected when compared to the Harrier rankings released on November 21st.
Next up was the California, which had 4 of 5 teams finish equal to or better than projected, with its sixth team unable to be tracked as its final placing and pre-meet non-ranking offered an inconclusive analysis.
On the flip side, it appeared the Southeast and Northeast regions struggled most in backing up their rankings. All four Southeast Region teams entered in the meet finished lower than projected, while 4 of the 6 Northeast Region teams (including all three in the Northeast) finished lower than expected.
Rankings, schmankings -- we finally had it settled on the course! See you next year!