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Cross Country 1999

Doug Speck's recap of the Great American Cross Country Festival

Rick Hill's "Field of Dreams" 

first Great American meet succeeds in the first order - 
"most significant day in the history of US high school cross country" 

Girls Race of Champions - Boys Race of Champions - Interviews 

By Doug Speck

In a "field of dreams" scenario of the first order, Charlotte, North Carolina resident and developer Rick Hill, put together the first ever early season attempt to actively gather the top squads from across the country on both the male and female side in the "Great American Cross-Country Festival." From a dream over the last few years to actuality on the McAlpine- Greenway Park course used in the Southern Foot Locker Regional each year, Hill succeeded in the first order in what turned out to be the most significant day in the history of U.S. High School Cross-Country.  

With the sport a blend of individual and team efforts, the Festival this day had by far the most inclusive gathering of prep team and individual talent ever gathered from the different corners of the country. There are high-lights of each season in competitons held in every area of the nation, but they are all regional competitions that have a squad or two drop in from other areas. No one has ever gone out to gather together the top teams from the breadth and width of our vast land at a stage of the season when it is possible to have the best teams "on the course" settle who is truly the "best" as Hill and crew did here.  It was fitting that the affair featured the top ever team performance by one of the winning squads, with that coming in the summary below. 

The weather broke superbly as the "field of dreams" scenario held true the entire weekend, with the pagentry and hospitality of the southern hosts leaving all who attended with a warm afterglow of good will that will only boost the affair in the future. This is a winner that truly completes the jewels of the Fall season, as the Foot Locker series at the end of the year does perfect justice to the individual end of the activity, with this helping settle team ranking arguments before anyone starts their qualification process for their state affairs, after which time State Federations would not allow participation in such a "team affair."  Great day, great course, great hospitality, great meet management, great athletes--all that a good fan of the sport could ask for!! 

The meet centered around two "Race of Champions," which, as indicated above, contained the top gathering of talent from the different areas of the country ever to grace the starting line at a U.S. Prep Competition. Eastern States, Mt. SAC, Vulcan, Vail, Stanford, and others have been super meets for years, but no one could begin to touch the number and geographic diversity of top squads gathered here. With some archaic state organizations refusing to allow their student/teams to travel but ridiculously short distances, or even venture across state borders at all, it is impossible to ever gather every top ranked team, but the Boys contest here was absolutely amazing, with ten of the top twenty-one ranked teams from the latest "Harrier Magazine" poll standing on the starting line. The Girls' contest was not far
behind this day in top quality. 

Everyone involved in our activity is so wonderful it is always a joy to be around a meet or teams involved in cross-country, but there is such a special focus and sense of commitment from these top teams that their presence in any meet seems to lift the atmosphere and really renew one's faith in the country that we are handing to the next generation.  Some studly people came, saw, a few conquered and were conquered
during a furious day of action.

Girls Race of Champions

The Young Ladies' Race of Champions was the first of the big contests this day at Charlotte. The course setting was magnificent, with huge semi-circles of balloons, signs, and tents everywhere that instantly gave this meet big-time credibility.  Presentation is much of the show, with everyone who came in instantly sensing a legitimacy to this act that helped them to dig down a bit more when the running became tough! 

The National rankings at the top end would certainly undergo a shake-up after this race, with the top ranked squads in the four regions of the country, Saratoga Springs, NY (#1 Northeast and #1 nationally overall), Kingwood, Tx (#1 South #8 nationally), Bingham (South Jordan) UT (#1 West #4 nationally), and Colerain (say it "cole-rain" (Cincinnati) Ohio (#2 Midwest and #5 nationally) holding down four of the top eight spots in the national rankings. Louisa County (Va), the South's #2 ranked squad and #17 over-all filled out the top end, with a ton of other regional powers filling out the field. Teams from Alabama, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Florida, Nebraska, New Mexico, Georgia, Wyoming, Utah, and California gave the field a real geographic "gulp-ful!" 

The history of some of the programs was absolutely scary! St. Paul's (Alabama) had simply taken 27 of 29 possible State titles in the 90's in Cross-Country, Indoor, and Outdoor Track in their state, Gallup (New Mexico) had won state seven times since 1988, Campbell County (Wyoming) had won six state titles under Coach Orville Hess, Lincoln Southeast (Ne) had won nine consecutive state titles after 1989, etc. etc. etc. These people do come to run!!!! They, and many more super successful programs, were on the starting line here!

Saratoga Springs, New York, had to be the favorites. Coaches Art and Linda Kranik have to be among the top handful of distance coaches at absolutely any level in the United States. Wave after wave of talented stars roll through the upper New York State
program, with a frightening group back for the 1999 season.  Danielle Coon (a 4:41.7 1500m star in track) was the State individual runner-up last year, with Kate Markopoulas (a 4:47.3 1500 runner) fourth in that meet, with three others returning who were in the top forty-five of a combined division New York State affair last November that Saratoga won with 48 points!! The New York group, clad in dark blue running shorts and white singlet with the blue scripted "Saratoga" on the front laid low during the weekend and looked very determined during warm-ups. Obviously they would be kept honest with the group of teams on the starting line this weekend!

The McAlpine-Greenway course has a nice large grass starting area that narrows down where athletes head out on a series of trails that meander up and down through the tree-lined park, pretty much out of sight of fans until the group zooms back just across from the starting area at a mile and a quarter and heads out around a lake at two miles. 

Danielle Coon of the favored Saratoga group narrowly led the field off the grass, with the only strategy seeming of note early in the race was the "back of the pack" even pacing stance of the powder blue and pink-clad (memories of Jim Ryun and the University of Kansas with these unit's just like those of the University of Kansas) Colerain of Ohio group that had them pretty much all back in the pack. 

Early reports out on the course had the sophomore Zeigle twins for Bingham, Jackie (a 4:43.6 1500m runner) and Laura (10:59.17 3200m), challenging early pace-setter Coon of Saratoga for the lead. A huge crowd lined the entire course cheering for all the
squads, giving the competition an exciting atmosphere, with many of the runners mentioning later the lift they received as they ran past the "wall of sound," especially on the final run around the lake to the finish. 

At about a mile and a quarter the race is again visible to spectators who walk across from the start line to the wooded area, with this affair early on taking a stunning turn. Up front a pack of a half a dozen battled, with Colerain's (Oh) Allison Zeinner (an 11:01.9 3200m runner), Campbell County's (Wy) Alicia Craig, Felicia Guiliford (Gallup, New Mexico and fourth in last year's Foot Locker National Finals as a frosh!), and Mason Cathey (a 4:55.0 1600m runner), in the red-clad Bishop Kenney (Fl) uniform, identifiable. 

Shortly after the lead pack, it was apparent that the entirely blue-clad Bingham group from Utah had really come to run this morning! Coach Jeff Arbogast's Boys' team has received most of the publicity for the super over-all program for the last decade, with the arrival of the Zeigle twins over the last year super- charging the female half of the operation into overdrive. 

With all these great teams one had to expect teams to be spread out into the forties, fifties, or sixties for their late scorers of the top five. When Bingham zoomed by, easily identifiable with five inside the top fifteen at the mile and a quarter the die had definitely been cast.  Saratoga and Kingwood were very strong, with their top three or four inside the top twenty-five, so the contest was far from over, with still a lot of running to do. 

One sensed a real staying power of the Bingham crew as the event looped briefly out
of sight, then back in view as the runners charged into the two mile mark, at the end of the first run around the picturesque course's lake. There were no signficant changes in the team momentum, with Bingham's Zeigle duo bouncing along near the lead, and the Utah group uncannily seeming to hold about every other position after tenth through thirtieth (impossible number wise, but it looked that way!), with one waiting for the fairytale act to come unglued at any second. 

The athletes head out on a trail loop out of sight from two to nearly two and three quarters miles. There is one last run around the lake on into the finish. As the race came into view it was the orange and white clad Felicia Guliford who had moved into the lead, with the short sophomore with the bouncy stride looking full of run as she powered along in front of the huge, appreciative crowd. Behind Guliford it was Bingham's day, with the Zeigle twins going 2-3 in 17:25 (Laura) and 17:42 (Jackie). Allison Zeinner (Colerain, Oh), Alicia Craig (Campbell County, Wy), and Danielle Coon (Saratoga) filling out the top half dozen individually. 

The "magic stuff" that held Bingham together today held true, as Lisa Paxton (10th-18:25) and Charity Catmull (11th- 18:34) came in before any other squad's second runner. Saratoga (6-14-15) and Kingwood (8-16-18) kept it interesting, but Jessica Winters (19-18:56) for Bingham slammed the scoring door shut with her "inside the top twenty" finish. Bingham had real magic this day, with the team's
45-81-93 win over Saratoga and Kingwood even possible with the substitution of runners #6 (Grover, Stacie 28th 19:14) or #7 (Campbell, Angie 33rd 19:21)!   When one looks at the team time averages of the scorers of the first half dozen teams (ranging down through the low 19's, a solid time on this course!), there was some solid racing by a number of groups this day, but they all just ran into the Bingham "buzz-saw" this day that sliced a cut quite historical in significance.

There have been a great number of awesome prep female distance programs over the years, but it is the University HS of Irvine, California group of the early 1980's that is pointed to by most as the beacon by which all others must measure themselves. That
Uni group was led by Polly Plumer, who still holds the U.S. Prep record in the mile at 4:35.24 (1982), with the squad still holding the High School Distance Medley Relay record of 11:43.53, with an 18:52.5 4x1500m that extrapolates out to quicker than the
national 4x1600 record of 20:20.87. They set some team time records on the cross-country courses during that fabulous year of 1981-2, with a 92:25 on the Mt. SAC facility in Southern California (18:29 ave) that is the still-standing record there,
despite the onslaught of a number of #1 ranked nationally squads since that time. On a course that seems to run fairly similar timewise to Mt. SAC, which is shorter and hillier, Bingham's performance this day was better! The 18:13 average for the scoring five is absolutely mind-boggling, with the group's seeming "possessed" nature of racing this day certainly befitting the meet setting and surroundings. 

The team and performance did certainly not happen by accident, with Coach Jeff Arbogast's Bingham program amazingly well thought out, with one gaining the sense off to the side that no area of preparation, mental or physical, is left out of the equation. A simple summer training bulletin contains information and motivation in so many different areas and forms that it would motivate anyone to open the front door and start running down the street. Arbogast is very open about what he does in his program, with that information obviously gaining a bit more interest in the future off of
performances like this! 

Again, it was a stunning performance certainly befitting the occasion. The Best had the Best, who did the Best--leave it at that!

Boys Race of Champions

Oh my goodness, there was still a super Boys race to run after the Girls!  Again, ten of the twenty-one top ranked squads in the country would battle in a gathering one could only dream about in previous seasons. Christian Brothers (Lincroft, New Jersey #3), The Woodlands (Tx #5), Campbell County (Gillette, Wy #7), Lincoln Southeast (Ne #9), Katella (Anaheim, Ca #11), Beaver River (Beaver Falls, NY #13), and Long Beach Poly (Ca #14) were only the top end of another amazingly diverse geographic

It would turn out to be a color of another horse, or race that developed in a different style, than the Girls contest. Christian Brothers, a team that had frightening depth and a varsity that averaged 4:27 for their best 1600 meter times, would seem to have been the favorite. Coach Tom Heath finely hones championship squads year after year at the New Jersey parochial institution, with the sense that this had the potential to be one of his better squads in the program's illustrious history. CBA, as it says on the small white letters in the upper corner of the jersey of the dark blue uniforms, singlets and pants, is an easy uniform to spot. Obviously the ton of other powers here were not going to hand over victory in a casual manner. 

Some great individuals graced the teams gathered here, with Alan Webb (South Lakes, Reston, Va) 4:06.94 to break Jim Ryun's soph class mile record last year, Ricky Brookshire (Watauga, Boone, NC) 4:11.28 for a mile, and Mason Ward (Colerain, Cincinatti, Oh) 4:13.35 mile, quickest around the track last spring.

Eventually we did need to get down to the race here, also, with Chris Emme (The Woodlands, Tx), a 9:12.69 3200m runner, slightly leading the field off the grass at the start. Reports from the mile, passed in a casual 4:47, had a pack of a dozen running near the lead. One had very little of the "strung-out" sense of the Girls' race when the field came into view at a mile and a quarter, with a pack of 15 within five meters of the lead, and a huge number within the next 50 meters. 

This was going to be one of those "sort it out as we go" affairs, with the team awards going to those squads who moved up or faded the least. Christian Brothers looked in good shape, with the Bingham Boys, probably inspired by the Girls' team effort, looking quite strong.  Assorted others, Campbell County and Kingwood, had a couple
inside the top twenty-five, but it was quite apparent that no one would be scoring under 100 points here!  

The individual race had an interesting tone to it, with some in that huge lead pack (Webb, Brookshire, and Ward mentioned above) seemingly seriously "non-stressed" as the group rolled through two miles around the lake (10:02). 

When the field next came back into view for their final run around the lake to the finish, two athletes, Ricky Brookshire (NC) and Alan Webb (Va) had broken away from the pack and looked full of run. Webb led narrowly, with both accelerating rapidly over the final quarter mile.  Brookshire did edge ahead at one point, with Webb then slamming
the accelerator down, and during a desperate sprint to the finish edging ahead to a two meter triumph, with both clocking at a great 15:03. Brookshire's time was a North Carolina record on the popularly used course, with the Southern Foot Locker regional
here fully two months from now. 

Watching the team contest was quite a menagerie, with the top half-dozen squads seemingly coming in 5-8-10 places apart after their first scorer. No one really had a clue, including the leading coaches. There did turn out to be an interesting mechanical twist to the ability or inability to pick out the winners. Long after the dust cleared the computer cranked out that it had been The Woodlands, the super Coach Dan Green led program from Texas that won the competition with 108 points over Christian Brothers' 121, Bingham's surprising 160, with Kingwood 162 and Campbell County (Wy) 162. 

In thinking back over the race one searched for where the Woodlands' runners were placed, but then realized that after leader Chris Emme, fifth overall at a fine 15:23, that some of his teammates had placed the meet's numbers over their school name, leaving a white singlet top and dark running shorts bottom that basically could have probably fit about a half a dozen of the squads in the event. Luis Bodes (9th-15:29), another who was accidentally a "school name hider with his number" led the rest of the Woodland charge, with Coach Green's depth, which had the top #2 finisher, second highest number three and four, and first number five team finisher in the event. For that matter, the winning squad had the first number six and number seven finishers of any team in their race, showing their dominance this day! 

But wow! It was so neat to see the athletes from all over racing so hard, great spectator support racing around the well-marshalled course to cheer them on, on a great and beautiful day on a wonderful course to mark the second half of the Championship portion of this affair!


We had a chance to talk to the winning coaches and individuals after the race. Very interesting is a discussion of the purpose of this meet, when both coaches deal with competing against successful powers from a couple of thousand miles away!  

Coach Jeff Arbogast was obviously ecstatic, indicating as everyone this weekend, "It was a tremendous race, but also a tremendous venue. There has been so much put into this race to make it magic for the kids. First of all we are stunned to actually make it here, and it looks like Disneyland. We were surprised at how strongly our girls ran. It was a battle, and I was just happy that we were as deep as we were. Tactically, we looked at Laura and Jackie up front, but with the rest of the squad we have a philosophy of "bend but not break." 

"We try to keep the spread as close as we can.  Through the first mile and a half we were surprised with the placings. A girl who is usually our five or six was number four today, and one girl had a little bit of a virus who toughed it out into our fifth place spot, with our 1-2 and 4 runners were very consistent with where they should be. 

"Coming in it was a matter of perspective, where you can do well in your own area, but how tough are those people 2000 miles away? I thought we could challenge, but was surprised with how well we ran. We have three seniors and four sophomores on the

Race of Champions individual winner Felicia Guliford (Gallup, New Mexico) stated about her effort, "The race was faster than I expected, beforehand I thought the winner would be in the 17:30's. But the race went good. My strategy coming in was to go with the group that would go out hard. I did not want to lead early, but wanted to stay in about third or so. I moved into the lead with 800 to go, and felt good there, and sensed that I had enough strength to finish strongly if anyone challenged me. My school is trying to work out a trip to Mt. SAC to face the best runners out there."

Coach Danny Green of The Woodlands on his Boys Race of Champion winning team and the meet: "The meet was incredible with so many great individuals and teams and for Rick Hill, son Richard, and family and all of these great helpers, to get so many
great teams together, which is an area of the sport that we really emphasize (team aspect), it's just awesome and we owe a great deal of thanks to him for that. As far as our guys, we are elated. We knew going in that Chris Emme and Louis Bordes are our
front runners, and so we said let's just try to do what we normally do. Let's work with each other and try to get out in the front part of the race and just hang on. One of our athletes kind of got stuck in the back, with this course really fast, and the field kind of got away from him. A couple of our athletes went out really hard and came back on some others at the end. Coming in we thought we had a chance to win. Never having been to New Jersey to race someone like Christian Brothers or Katella in California you just really don't know what you are running against. We know that in our neck of the woods in Texas there are some great teams with Kingwood and MacArthur and some good individuals with track times similar to those entered in this race. We decided to just get in there and try to do what we do every week. Fate seemed to be on our side today."

Alan Webb of South Lakes, the Boys Race of Champions winner commented, "I felt good basically the whole way. It is still early in the season. I'm still looking forward to Regionals and Nationals (Foot Locker). Coming in to the race I wanted to stay in the front pack and be in a position to win, and was not worried about the time, figuring it would come with a win. Through two miles I felt incredible, which really boosted my
confidence. The crowd really lifted me along the lake area coming into two miles. With 1000 meters to go I really picked it up and tried to put Ricky (Brookshire) away. I sensed him near the end and was trying to see what he would do. He passed me with about 300 meters to go around the lake and I wanted to see where he was so I could put my final strategy together. He put his best kick on, and I put it on shortly after that time. In the Foot Locker Cross-Country Regional here last year I only ran 15:32 when I
went out too fast, and I am pleased with my 15:03 today."

Fitting comments from the coaches and top stars in the greatest day ever in U.S. High School Cross-Country. 

Congratulations to Mr. Rick Hill, son Richard, his family, and the greater Charlotte community, especially South Mecklenberg High School, who stepped forward to help!

See you next year-----





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