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South Region
Regional meet: November 22, 2008 at The Woodlands TX

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Two teams and five individuals will qualify for NXN national finals December 6, 2008 at Portland OR. 

Familiar Storylines in the South
The Woodlands clubs look to sweep; Connor and Andrews favored, but Sveinsson, Ornelas, and Lutz will hope to take away individual crowns

Preview by SteveU, DyeStat/ESPN RISE senior editor

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before.

Battle between Texas powerhouses.  The Woodlands favored in both races.  Reed Connor, Zach Ornelas, and Craig Lutz battling for boys individual glory.  Sarah Andrews dominating the girls field.

Sound familiar?  It should.  The above was basically the script of the Nike South Invitational here at The Woodlands last month.  Though a few good teams were in other classes, it doubled as the theme for the Texas 5A State Meet in Round Rock last weekend, as well.

Now the show returns here while there are some other clubs and individuals from Arkansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Louisiana, the NXN South meet is usually going to be a Texas show, and as much so as ever this year.

Not that it’s a bad show.  Not at all.  In fact, the rise of Saturday’s favorites are some of the better stories of the year in the sport.

Boys Championship

The Woodlands is a traditional power in Texas and national track and XC, let there be no doubt.  As The Woodlands TC, they have qualified for NXN on the boys side for three of the four years and are the defending South champs.  They had some losses to graduation last year, but they also didn’t have Connor in the regional race.  With the improvement of Connor to the very elite levels and the focus of the team overall in Coach Danny Green’s final year, the boys have been the best team in Texas, the South, and currently #8 in the U.S. 

Connor had a solid start, winning several races, then taking 3rd at Nike South, beating Ornelas, but losing to Lutz and Paul Snyder.  But at state, perhaps buoyed by the 8:54 3200 time trial he reportedly ran days before, he blazed a 14:48 that eclipsed the course record of Colby Lowe.  That was good to beat both Ornelas (2nd, 14:59) and Lutz (3rd, 15:10).

NON steeple champ and Vista Ridge senior Ornelas fell at Nike South, but recovered well for his runner-up spot there.  He’s run strongly and been in every race, but hasn’t beaten Connor yet.  For Lutz, the Marcus HS soph, the Texas state meet was his first loss after a fall of great races where he beat the deep cadre of Texas stars several times.  Whether he’s begun to feel the strain of some many great races as a soph remains to be seen.  Whatever happens Saturday, he’s had an amazing year for a 10th-grader.

Behind those big three, there are several others who will make it a deep race and likely battle for individual qualifying spots to Portland.  The runner considered to be the top Texan in the pre-season was Southlake Carroll senior C.J. Brown.  But Brown was beaten by Lutz early in the season and has not really challenged any of the big three yet.  Last weekend, though, Brown was closer to Lutz than any other time this fall (15:13, three seconds behind) and may be ready to again start showing the form that made him 5th at NXN Finals last fall.

Other top contenders for the top five are Seven Lakes TX’s James Welin, Mercedes TX’s Alex de la Garza, Tupelo MS state champ Max Holman, and Snyder.

Team-wise, The Woodlands (The Woodlands TC) has too much depth for everyone else.  Katy Seven Lakes – (Seven Lakes XC) led by the trio of Welin, Chris Jessett, and Chase Rathke – goes toe-to-toe with them through three runners, but the depth of the state champs provides the victory margin.  After Connor, The Woodlands counters with Drew Butler and Landon Milhorn, then there’s little fall off with the rest of the top seven.

The field, with 20 clubs, has good depth.  The top eight ranked teams – led by The Woodlands and Seven Lakes – will be here.  Nine of the other 12 entries are bubble teams in the latest NXN South rankings.  From outside Texas, there’s Arkansas 7A champ Rogers (Rogers XC), Oklahoma 6A runner-up Moore (Moore XC), Louisiana 5A runner-up Jesuit (Mid-City New Orleans TC) – and that’s it.  Lutz and Ornelas, like Connor, will be running with full teams, but Lutz’s is a long shot and Ornelas’ is not a serious contender.

After The Woodlands and Seven Lakes, which scored 56 and 87 at state, respectively, the next best threat is Cedar Park (Cedar Park CC), which was 3rd at state with 94.  Led by Parker Stinson, who was 12th at state but has been better, the club has a tighter spread than either of the top two, but not quite as much power up front.  Still, they are a definite contender to get a Portland qualifier.

The next best contender is Boerne Champion (RC Boerne), the 4A state champ by a wide margin.  They scored fourth in the state meet merge and boast a very tight 1-4.  Klein Oak (Panther TC), 4th in the 5A meet, is also a factor.

Girls Championship

It’s not just that Sarah Andrews is so much better this year, it’s her teammates, as well.  Because of that, The Woodlands C-C Club is the strong favorite to win Saturday.

Andrews was good as a soph here last year, finishing 6th after falling in a disappointing state meet.  Over the winter and into the spring, she became arguably the best long-distance runner in the state, taking the 5A 3200 title.  Now she’s one of the best harriers in the county, unbeaten this year including monster wins at the Woodbridge meet in California and Nike South on her home course.  NXN, of course, will be another chance to run on the familiar layout.

But The Woodlands goes deep; that’s what won them the 5A title this fall, their first since 1989.  The gap at state between #2 girl Samantha Thompson (12th overall) and #6 Shelby Hayes (21st) was just 13 seconds.  True, it was 2M, but even at the Nike South meet it was a solid 41 seconds.

The girls field in the team race is thinner, with just a dozen entrants.  Trying to challenge The Woodlands will be the next 5 teams in the South rankings, which is also the next 4 finishers from the 5A state meet and the 4A champ.  Cinco Ranch (Cinco Ranch RC) was 2nd at state, 24 points behind The Woodlands, and is led by 1-2 punch Alyse Goldsmith and Itzel Cetina

The new Kingwood Park school (K-Park XC) dominated 4A, scoring 35 and winning by 60.  They were 3rd in the merge, which is where they are ranked in the South.  Incredibly, their top five finished 5-6-7-8-9 at state.  The next three Texas contenders would be 5A powers Southlake Carroll (Carroll XC Club, the defending champs), Plano West (Plano West RC), and Kingwood (Kingwood XC Club).  Belton (Belton Tiger TC), 7th in 5A and 8th in the region, is also entered.

From outside Texas, there’s just the dominant Bentonville AR girls (Bentonville TC), which triumphed again in 7A in Arkansas, and is a bubble team in the South.

Although Andrews has to be the favorite, the battle to cross the line first could be fascinating given that the race is the first meeting of Andrews and Greenhill HS TX soph Chelsey Sveinsson.  Sveinsson first attracted national attention when she won the freshman mile at Nike Indoor in a faster time (4:49.37) than the championship division was run.  She eventually lowered her time to 4:43 at the Penn Relays mile and 2:08.  Her school does not compete in UIL, thus was not at last week’s state meet, but she picked up major wins this fall at the Cowboy Shootout in OK and the Chile Pepper in AR.

And it may not be just a two-girl race.  Southlake Carroll’s Tara Upshaw has struggled with consistency at times, but she’s very good when at her best, as she was a year ago when she won here in 18:26.  She’s coming off a state meet where she was just 14th in 5A, but the situation was similar last year. 

The rest of the Lone Star State’s top five 5A runners are also in the race, including Colleyville Heritage’s Aly Nielson (Metroplex Striders), Belton’s Regan Tindell (Belton Tiger TC), and the Vista Ridge duo of Amanda Russell and Ashley Isham (Vista Ridge RC).  TX 4A and 3A champs Carly Kitts of Midlothian and Bailey Belvis of Prosper (both Metroplex Striders) are also here, as is Elkins AR jr Grace Helmsfield (Arkansas 3A champ, 2nd best overall), Benton LA’s Kaitlin Flattman (4A champ, 2nd best overall) and TAPPS 4A champ Katie Barry of Liberty Christian (Metroplex Striders), who was easily the fastest of all classes at that Texas state private school meet.

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