Nation's hot lineups clash in frigid, wet conditions. Inaugural champions Elmhurst IL boys and Saratoga NY girls return, but wide open races are expected this time around.
PORTLAND 12/1/05 -- The final hill has been conquered ... and the last finish chute stuffed full.
From the tiny but competitive dual meets ... to the inter-state and mega-sized invitational clashes.
The lone remaining score sheet now tabulated ... with the final regional honor or state championship trophy now hoisted.
Still, the question across America remains: "Who's Number One?"
Finally, it's time to find out.
The arrival of forty of America's top cross-country programs is just hours away, with frigid temperatures and a deceivingly difficult course awaiting. They come from near and far, from within these city limits as members of Central Catholic XC Club or from thousands of miles away in the "Panhandle" landscape of Florida or the frigid steppes of Alaska.
wide open this year
Unlike the inaugural Nike Team Nationals affair of 2004, this year's edition of the championship meet appears far more competitive and wide open -- in both gender races!
Last year saw Kroy XC Club (renamed to Elmhurst XC this time around) of Illinois won the expected two-team boys showdown against Stotan XC Club (name updated to Manlius XC Club in 2005). In the second annual event, however, there are no consensus choices as Elmhurst and Manlius are both considered contenders, but California squad Simi Valley XC (formerly Ernie's Army in the inaugural event), Washington entry Mead XC, local pick Central Catholic XC, New York-based power Saratoga Streaks XC and New Jersey area juggernaut Brothers XC helping comprise a deep well of challengers.
On the girls' side, heavy 2004 favorite and eventual winner Saratoga Streaks XC of New York (which competed under the name Kinetic Racing Club) posted an impressive victory margin, but the second time around should prove a far tougher haul. Saratoga faces enormous challenges from both coasts, with California-based Newport XC (competed as Corona del Mar HS in the Fall) and fellow Big Apple resident Hilton XC Club recently considered by many as the favored entries ahead of Saratoga, with 2004 national powers Fremont XC and Yankton 3-D also returning to Portland Meadows this weekend with their year-ago rosters virtually intact.
changes this year
Aside from the litany of new club names to closer associate to with the communities these squads hail from, the only other minor race-related changes in the second edition of the meet centers around the course layouts/conditions. The "whoop-dee-do" hills (traversed three times during the 5,000-meter race, with the final revolution easily proving the most taxing after several minutes of traversing a muddy/soggy course) have been slightly lengthened in this go-around, thus limiting the visual see-saw effect of last year and perhaps not thwarting the race rhythm of competitors quite as much.
The hay bales which were strewn along the course in single-height fashion for the inaugural meet may be stacked in such a way as to have the harriers run up, across and down them this time around, with the recent heavy rainy season also depositing a literal "lake" of water for virtually the entire first turn of the horse-racing layout, forcing the runners to either hug the rail to avoid the mess, otherwise finding themselves shin-deep in the quagmire.
Among the other meet highlights will be a live Webcast of the meet to keep fans across the country in tune in real time, a "dance-off" competition and a "Talent Show" competition during the pre-meet day festivities, as well as appearances and Q & A sessions with on-hand Nike athletes Shalane Flanagan, Paul Tergat, Alan Webb, Lauren Fleshman, Adam Goucher and Dathan Ritzenhein. Additional guests include keynote speaker and former Olympian Henry Marsh and legendary high school coach Joe Newton.
Other scheduled weekend activities include tours of Nike "Campus" (the world headquarters for Nike) and its famed Nike Sports Research Lab (giving insight on how its shoes are designed, constructed and tested), an NCAA Forum which presents prospective collegiate athletes with detailed background on post-prep running options, and a Closing Awards ceremony highlights the weekend's top meet performers.
But make no mistake about it, first and foremost these kids are here to race! Here's our look at some of the leading storylines to be apprised of:
The boys' race is set for a 10 a.m. Saturday start and is sizing up as an intriguing blockbuster. Recently anointed California state champion Royal HS set course records at the benchmark Mt. SAC and Woodward Park courses this season, drawing worthy comparison to the Golden State's premier prep squads over the decades (including the 1993 and 1994 Thousand Oaks squads and the eye-popping 1972 Lompoc contingent). Competing here as Simi Valley XC Club, the group harbors the lethal combination of excellent front-running and overall quality depth to concoct a winning score tabulation.
Junior Michael Cybulski, the reigning state track champion at 3200 meters (9:02.57), has battled back from a well-concealed bone spur injury in a toe and a tender hamstring condition to rocket Simi Valley into the true national hierarchy. Royal's bread and butter is its depth, often able to win talent-saturated competitions while its roster is shorthanded, as several have taken turns stepping forward when the need has arisen.
Elmhurst is America's most storied city for teen-age male distance runners, an annual factory of high-end performers helping comprise an area with a decades-long tradition of excellence in the sport. The latest Illinois-based lineup is another doozy, with twins Matt and Eric Dettman headlining a superb crew that always finds a way to far exceed expectations when the chips are down. Elmhurst's success has always stemmed from its depth, however, as it shall be interesting to see if a new star at the final scoring position (No. 5) will emerge once more.
Manlius XC and Brothers XC are a pair of programs well familiar with year-end successes across the hill and dale, with 2005 certainly proving to be no exception. Team members from Manlius edged those from Saratoga for overall excellence when these lineups met during high school competition this Fall, with the former relying on veteran Tom Gruenewald to lead a very experienced cast. Brothers XC has Chris Horel headlining perhaps the finest collection of teen runners in New Jersey history, with the group overcoming a freak mid-season training accident to one of its runners to rebound well and perform extraordinarily on time-tested courses this Fall.
Pacific Northwest powers Spokane XC and Mead XC are ready to joust for a fifth time, with the previous four showdowns all occurring in high school competition. Mead, led by the fine tandem of juniors Taylor Nepon and Dylan Hatcher, won the first three clashes, with Robert Cosby-led Spokane XC (competing as Ferris HS) winning the final affair at the Washington state meet.
Saratoga has been the true national surprise this Fall, taking a big step forward to join its girls program among the national elite. Junior Stephen Murdock leads the arsenal, but the team's depth has improved nicely over the last year to truly account for its competitive rise. Locally favored squad Central Catholic may boast the individual favorite in Kenny Klotz (also to be challenged by Murdock, North Carolina Chapel Hills XC's Jack Bolas, and Simi Valley's Cybulski among others), but its entire roster seems to be maturing at just the right time, pegging the crew as a very dangerous and capable darkhorse threat. Also keep an eye on Mountain View XC of Utah, another program with an amazing pedigree in the sport and well capable of pulling off upsets at NTN.
Who will emerge as the victor on the girls' side? That's a tough call as at least a half dozen teams are pegged to be in the title hunt as the kilometer-by-kilometer splits flash across the Jumbotron "tote board" throughout the race. A team's 4th and 5th scorers shall prove very vital in determining the final pecking order.
Corona del Mar has looked sensational in mirroring the Simi Valley boys efforts in California, also establishing all-time team-time bests on the famed Mt. SAC and Woodward Park layouts before storming to a California state high school title. Stanford-bound senior Annie St. Geme is among the individual co-favorites in the race and will be counted on to get Newport XC's scoring total off to an impressively low start.
Saratoga just edged Hilton during in-state prep competition this Fall after victory by wider margin earlier in the year, with the famed program shaking off the defection of two key standouts over the summertime to develop new contributors that has kept the upstate New York powerhouse purring along in impressive fashion. The group has a fierce 1-2 punch in Hannah Davidson and Laura Ferguson, but depth has always proven to be its calling card during its finest moments. Hilton, a sensational crew in its own right, has made good on its quiet promise to challenge Saratoga for the top spot, with a fully healthy Amanda Griggs being a key ingredient in any winning recipe this might be stirred up this weekend.
Fremont and Yankton 3-D were key players in the 2004 NTN wars, with the former coming on magnificently as a wild-card entrant to earn a 5th-place finish in the first-year event as Cassandra Ricks helped lead the fast-rising contingent which returns seeking to step up those final few rungs on the elite ladder. Yankton, which followed national superstar Ramsey Kavan at this event a year ago, returns everyone but the 2004 individual winner this time out, and has steadily thwarted leading Heartland competition this Fall.
Succasunna NJ (Roxbury), a group seemingly lying low on the radar for much of the season (although offering occasional signals of potential dominance), caught fire during the latter stages of its interscholastic season, including belting the course record at Holmdel Park, a treacherous layout long considered the prime source of comparison for New Jersey's elite teams over the years.
These are just a few of the leading programs, but it remains to be seen which rosters will duplicate the 2004 feats of Mead's boys and Fremont's girls in rising to prominence or which will replicate the amazing year-ago down-the-stretch dominance by Elmhurst boys and Saratoga girls in earning the top prize. You'll have to wait till deep into the race, as the "pack" makes its way into the chute to complete each team's scoring. After all, this is true cross-country ... where every teammate counts! ##
John Dye - founder and editor in chief