Boys - Girls
With 40 of the best cross-country squads in America poised for Saturday’s 3rd Nike Team Nationals in Portland, Oregon—20 boys teams and 20 girls teams that achieved regional excellence in a rigorous season-long selection process—two questions emerge in assessing the chances of top contenders.
One, to what extent will experience in the first two NTN events play a role for returning schools this time?
And two, which teams are the true strength teams because, as competitors learned in 2004 and ’05, the Portland Meadows 5,000-meter race course together with likely wet and even muddy conditions favor the rugged runners who have seen their share of tough sledding.
Both questions revolve around a third one: can the New York teams continue their domination?
In ’04, Saratoga Springs’ “Dream Team” of four Foot Locker finalists won the girls race by 74 points, while Fayetteville-Manlius boys were 2nd to York of Illinois. Last year, it was an Empire State sweep. Hilton girls won with Saratoga 2nd. Saratoga boys won with Fayetteville 3rd on tie-breaker that went to York. If it wasn’t for York—which returns this year after collecting its 26th state 2A title—the last two years would have looked like a New York dual meet.
This time, logic suggests a different outcome. Or does it? Fayetteville has done a role reversal, returning with its state champion girls team, which defeated Hilton twice in two weeks of state meets. Hilton took a step up at last Saturday’s Foot Locker Northeast, in which its top two girls, seniors Allison Sawyer and Caroline Schultz, ran 8th and 11th. Sawyer qualified for the nationals, while Schultz just missed. Defending its NTN title, Hilton, from the Rochester area, has obvious experience with four girls back from last year, as well as finely-honed toughness from another season of stormy fall weather in upstate New York. Fayetteville girls are new to NTN and run with two freshmen and a soph in their top four. Look for Hilton girls to ride their wave into a bid for a repeat championship.
as many as a dozen girls teams will challenge New York's finest
But with the girls’ field so wide open that as many as a dozen schools may have a legitimate shot at victory, the race promises to be decided by a few points and perhaps an heroic late charge by some unsuspecting athlete. That homestretch run should be something to watch.
No girls’ team has more NTN experience than Yankton of South Dakota, 5th and 3rd the last two years and back with its best team ever, a decisive state 2A winner over rival Sioux Falls Roosevelt. Leading the team is last year’s NTN individual winner, Betsy Bies, who succeeded her teammate, Ramsay Kavan, the victor in ’04. These girls should be able to toss off the pressure and compete as though it’s just another run far from everywhere in the middle of South Dakota.
If any team knows how to handle the rugged, big-rep New York squads, it’s Midlothian of Virginia, surprise winner in October in the Manhattan Girls Eastern States race at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. That day, Midlo left teams like Hilton and Saratoga well back, and that was before the squad’s hard training period accelerated. Midlo went on to win its state race comfortably and, while other contenders from New York and California have had to fight hard in recent meets, the Virginians have not had a tough race in seven weeks.
Likewise for Eleanor Roosevelt girls of Maryland, 2nd to Midlo at Manhattan, returning their entire squad that placed 11th at NTN last year. Known for their dazzling track speed, Roosevelt girls put in a big base over the summer and now have strength to go with their turnover. Like Yankton, this is a cool group that will consider the championship ballyhoo just another day at the office.
After some bruising in the first two NTNs, California girls are looking to make a statement. In ’04, the state was led by Fountain Valley in 11th; last year, Corona del Mar, on the short list of favorites, finished 6th. CDM is back along with Saugus, both unbeaten state winners last Saturday in Fresno with hopes of finding a comfort level on the heavy turf of Portland Meadows. All five CDM scorers, including state Div. III titlist Sarah Cummings (who built on her ice skating strength to become a runner), ran in Portland last year. Interestingly, the two teams, each choosing its competition carefully, have yet to meet this season. They were closely matched in separate divisions at state, and whichever school prevails in their post-state showdown could wind up on the NTN podium.
While CDM did not venture outside California this fall, Saugus already has an Oregon victory to its credit--a mid-season win at the Danner meet, in Gresham, over West Valley of Alaska, the runaway state 4A titlist. In the same meet, Carondelet, the third California team at NTN and a sleeper for most of the season, quietly took 3rd. Carondelet nailed its state race, winning Div. II, but the team is young, with two freshmen and two sophs leading the way.
West Valley returns with a much improved and more experienced squad than the unit that placed 15th at NTN in ’05. Unlike last year, the girls from frozen Fairbanks are not merely happy to be considered a novelty from Alaska. They aim to win. And with nothing to do for two months but train, this squad could be dangerous. West Valley packs tight, 21 seconds for its scoring five at state. So do the Iowa City girls, a breathtaking 16 seconds at 4k winning state 4A.
How do tight packs stack up against teams with stars up front and big spreads? It’s nice to have both. Last year, Hilton had its top runner, Sawyer, 8th, with four girls in the top 20, and its 5th scorer only 51 seconds behind Sawyer. Hilton defeated Saratoga by 27 points. Hilton’s 5th scorer, Ashley Jones, led all 5th scorers to win the Nike girls “Anchor Award.” Jones was 5th scorer again two weeks ago in the New York State meet. Could history repeat at NTN?
York IL boys know a little something about history. The Dukes of Elmhurst and “Long Green Line” fame add to cross-country lore almost every season. After a typical York state meet success (winning by 105 points with a 26-second spread), the Dukes’ chances in Portland may depend on whether national-class half-miler Nick Kuczwara is on top of his game. His stunning 16th place as a soph in ’04 helped York win the first NTN. Last year, he was 47th as York placed 2nd by 23 points. This year at state, he was 6th man. We’re betting this young man will be psyched in his last high school cross-country meet.
For psyche jobs, how about those weekly Washington state power struggles in Spokane. One week it’s Ferris, the next week it’s Mead.
Ferris handled Royal (CA), Mead et al. at the Stanford meet in September and went on to defeat Mead—the York of the West--by 21 in state 4A. The squad’s all-senior scoring unit is worthy of championship stature—its professed goal from day one.
Mead, 4th and 3rd the last two years at NTN, will be missing last year’s number-one man Taylor Nepon, 5th in ’05, who tried to come back from a knee injury this fall but was the Panthers’ 7th man at state and is now low-keying it in preparation for track.
Royal Simi Valley CA has also dealt with a pivotal injury. With number-3 man Danny Benson hurt and returning last week at state, he was a far back 5th man, paving the way for Trabuco Hills’ upset win in Div. I, by 11. Trabuco, winner at the Firman (ID) meet in September, ran a great race led by brothers J.T. (senior) and Riley (junior) Sullivan, but a healthy Benson (and reports are that he's ready to roll) would give Royal a clear advantage.
Is it an advantage to stay home, skip all the major invitationals in your midst, holding your cards close to your vest, for one unleash-the-beast run for the roses? (Remember, Portland is the city of roses.) Coatesville of Pennsylvania is banking on it. The team’s quality was so clear-cut it screamed out in local meets, and many fans consider the Philadephia-area squad the state’s best ever. In a very Ferris-like performance at state, Coatesville’s all-senior scorers had a 42-second split with times of 15:17 to 15:59 for a 5k with hills. When you average only 37 seconds off a runner who went on to place 9th in the Foot Locker Northeast, you’re a top-dog threat. And don’t think any amount of mud would scare these guys.
A little cross-country run is hardly stage-fright territory for the youngsters of Willmar MN, a team of Somalians whose families settled in Minnesota after fleeing the life-and-death strife in their homeland. Willmar placed 14th last year and didn’t like it. This fall, the team ran unbeaten with a beautiful state 2A run: high placings, fast times, tight spread—and that’s in one of the deepest state fields anywhere. The team averaged 39 seconds off state champ Hassan Mead, who last week won the Foot Locker Midwest.
In the same race, Potosi MO's number-2 man, Josh Mathis, placed 14th, a taste of what the unbeaten state 4A champs might accomplish in Portland. Josh Thebeau leads a squad that won the Chile Pepper (AR) meet in October and ran 1-2-3-6-8 at state for a record low point total and 47-second spread.
And what about the New York boys? Last year’s winner, Saratoga Springs, lost its top four including national headliner Steve Murdock, who over the summer transferred to rival Shenendehowa. That move catapulted an already fine Shen team to overall boys champion at the huge Manhattan meet in October, and ultimately to the state title by 53 in the one-race federation final.
As NTN has seen, you ignore a New York team at your peril, so watch for Shen, and for Murdock, a front-runner if ever there was one, to take the race to the big boys from Spokane and southern Cal, from Pa. and the Heartland, from Elmhurst where the legend grows daily and they’re itching for the gun to sound.