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2007 Foot Locker Nationals
December 8, 2007 Balboa Park, San Diego CA

Comeback Kids v. Greatest of All Time

By Richard Gonzalez

SAN DIEGO 12/7/07 -- "The Comeback Kids" versus "The Greatest of All Time" could very well be the competing themes at this weekend's 29th Annual FootLocker Cross-Country Championships playing out along Morley Field at Balboa Park.

Eighty of the top high school runners in the nation assembled for two grand year-end races, each to determine the national champion across hill and dale. Or perhaps in the rarest of cases at San Diego, across soggy slope and occasional mud.

Rains are forecast in the two days leading up to the meet including throughout the eve, with clouds but no precipitation currently the diagnosis for each of the two mid-morning races on Saturday.

usual San Diego weather
San Diego today

the last two girls champions seek comebacks

The girls race features "The Comeback Kids" in more ways than one. First off, a staggering 18 of the 21 non-senior females from last year's meet have successfully negotiated the return trip to FootLocker, an amazing percentage considering the wealth of talent across the landcape on the girls' side.

But the real "Comeback Kids" might very well be California's Jordan Hasay and Tennessee's Kathy Kroeger, albeit for contrasting circumstances. Hasay, the 2005 FootLocker champion, seeks a return to the throne after settling for a surprisingly unsatisfying 10th last year. Kroeger, last year's FootLocker winner, missed nearly the entire track season yet aims to successfully defend her crown this time out.

On the boys' side, the states of California and Illinois have led the way nationally thus far in recent years of the new millennium in terms of national-caliber depth in track distance marks and similar across-the-map success in cross-country. In fact, those two states have combined to win three of the last four national titles on the boys' side (Illinois' Matt Withrow in 2003 and California's A.J. Acosta and Chad Hall in 2005 and 2006, respectively).

Boys race features "greatest of all time" from powerful California and Illinois

But arguably the "Greatest Of All Time" from those two states will be locking up this weekend, with California's German Fernandez and Illinois' Chris Derrick finaly dueling after rattling off record-setting ledgers this fall. They are joined by a cast of top-end challengers also capable of wearing the crown.

Here's a thumbnail glance at the leading favorites, along with one prognosticator's picks for the top 5 places:

Jordan Hasay arrives here in a far different frame of mind than 12 months ago, when the then-defending champion's mind was filled with uncertainty after a revised training plan geared toward the following February's USATF Cross-Country Junior Nationals left her feeling somewhat sluggish and vulnerable come FootLocker. The concern proved founded when she lacked the mid-race power to keep up with a throttled tempo, eventually settlnig for 10th place among a loaded field. Hasay is back toward her freshman-year training routine, but training even faster and recovering even quicker.

Hasay also arrives here riding a wave of newfound confidence and also with the most glistening credential among the field: World Youth Championships silver medalist at 1500 meters. Her successful international foray has armed her with an even greater vibe that she's indeed back on her game.

The same could be said for Tennessee's Kathy Kroeger, who emerged on the national scene with a stunning winning run here at Morley Field before disappearing off the radar just as quickly. The culprit of her vanishing act was a serious health concern as her dropping body weight led set off red flags. Fortunately, she has in recent months been the beneficiary of an outstanding support group that has carefully and lovingly guided her comeback, not a moment too rushed. She has gradually approached her 2006 form in recent months, including an inspiring runner-up effort to Floridian star Ashley Brasovan at the Great American Cross-Country Festival and a big emotional triumph at the FootLocker South Regional.

Brasovan leads a littany of top challengers from a national scene with mind-bogglng depth. One clear example of such talent is the dept of quality four-lap performances on the track, which often carry over to similar successes on the cross-country courses. In typical years, up to 30 girls might break 4:55 for 1600 meers on the oval. Last spring, a stunning single-year record 56 girls achieved the feat!

The boys' race carries plenty of anticipation, with German Fernandez of Riverbank proving that his eye-popping clockings on less-established but still charted courses were forecasting history to come at the state meet. Fernandez came through with an amazing Woodward Park run that pared a staggering 14 seconds off former FootLocker champion and evental steeplechase Olympian Marc Davis' Woodward Park course record. Fernandez hadn't faced much competition to date, but destroyed all comers by unbelievable margins. Any skeptics were left to crawl into a hole after the California state meet.

Chris Derrick has been "The Money Man" this fall, coming through in the big races to lead his Neuqua Valley high school team to a magical season punctuated by last weekend's team and individual wns at the Nike Team Nationals in Portland. Derrick earlier this year set the Detweiler Park (state meet course) record
in winning by commanding margin, with that layout altered in recent years but his perfofmance still rating comparable to local legend Craig Virgin's mark.

Utah's Luke Puskedra has also been dominant this fall, tearing through a series of course records while following his trademark hard-starting race approach. A few of Puskedra's top efforts have come at altitude, an additional sign of his toughness in battling through the elements despite undertaking his breakneck pace. the lone blemish on his 2007 record came last weekend, when being beat by Fernandez on the rain course at the FootLocker West Regional.

Texas' Colby Lowe is among the leading returnees from a year ago and has enjoyed a stellar campaign thus far in '07. The FootLocker South Region champion, the speed-focused Lowe also performed well in the muck at last weekend's NTN, leading much of the championship boys race before being passed by Derrick.

Both the NTN performers and the West Region qualifiers caught breaks last weekend. Rather than arriving in San Diego with dead legs from the immensely muddy challenge at NTN or the 5k torture chamber that is Mt. SAC, the runnng surface was more firm in Portlnd due to freezing temperatures while those at Mt. SAC rain on mostly flat pavement when inclement weather led t use of the rain course.

Here's our Top 5 picks:

1. Jordan Hasay -- She's fit, hungry, stronger than ever and back on her mental game. Too many pluses to overlook coming in.
2. Kathy Kroeger -- An amazing and compelling comeback story, she's on a huge upswing now and has a great support crew in the biggest race of all.
3. Ashley Brasovan -- The miniature gnome from Florida is enjoying her best stretch drive to date, seeking to also regain her Great American meet form.
4. Nadya Bishton -- An amazing talent with great strength and a spring in her step, we'll see if her grand plan maps out just right.
5. Laurynne Chetelat -- The Northern Californian first arrived on the scene with a nice showing at USATF Nationals in Colorado in February and has been training -- and racing -- better and better over time.

1. German Fernandez -- He's the fittest in the field, with the only question being if he can avoid reading his own clippings and over-thinking. An amazing talent.
2. Chris Derrick -- He blew by Colby Lowe almost on command at NTN and has left many of the nation's best in his wake in 2007.
3. Luke Puskedra -- Could be the most dangerous threat to Fernandez, especially if his fast-starting style brings others out of their plans.
4. Donn Cabral -- Not quite hammering throughout the fall, the Northeast Region champion is cranking up the engines
5. Colby Lowe -- This kid's a gamer. The better the footing at Balboa Park, the more dangerous he will become.  

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