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2008 Foot Locker - the 30th

National Finals
12/13/08 at Balboa Park, San Diego CA

Haile's long road should end with a title

 Foot Locker Finals Boys Preview and Predictions by SteveU

Haile has lots of reasons to smile at FL Northeast. 
Photo John Dye
The road to winning a national title can be a long one, both literally and figuratively.  But could it be any longer than it is for this year’s top contenders?  They have come from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Burundi, the Czech Republic, and Alaska.  They have excelled despite fleeing from war and abusive childhoods, as well as dealing with eligibility controversies and a lack of varsity status.  Most of them were not at a national level last year, and the ones that were, were not top contenders yet.  It’s a field full of faces most in the country didn’t really know until this fall – a stark contrast to the girls field, which includes three former national champions.

Remember last year’s titanic battle of Derrick, Fernandez, Puskedra, Lowe, and Cabral … and Mike Fout, who actually won the thing?  It’s a different world here this year.

But it’s an intriguing one all the same.  We’ve gotten to know Solomon Haile, from Ethiopia by way of Maryland, as he’s overcome questions about his age and racing history.  We’ve heard about Jakub Zivec rising up from the JV ranks he was relegated to when he came from the Czech Republic to Minnesota.  We’ve been enthralled by Trevor Dunbar’s snowy time trials and other achievements in Alaska, and what he’s done when he’s come down to the Lower 48.  We’ve watched Joseph Manilafasha, a few years removed from a refugee camp after escaping war-torn Burundi, grow from a talented but inexperienced soph to a savvy senior.  We’ve learned of the obstacles that Chris Schwartz has overcome just to toe the line every week.

We’ve seen the rise of several veterans hose time has finally come – like Bill Matthews, Evan Appel, Matt Sonnenfeldt, and Thomas Porter – and seen several talented non-seniors emerge to battle with them – like Tyler Udland, Brian Shrader, and Futsum Zeinasellassie.

But the biggest story on the boys side has to be that of Haile, who won two track 5k titles last year in the Nike Indoor and Outdoor meets, but has really developed into a top national class performer this fall.  The top performance of the year has to be the Sherwood MD senior’s course-record victory at the Manhattan Invitational.  It was after that when message board pundits and others began questioning if he was age-eligible and whether he’d accepted prize money in road races before he started running for Sherwood. 

Those questions were answered by Solomon’s family and documentation, however, to the satisfaction of the Maryland state association, and attention returned to what Haile was doing over hill and dale.  A second impressive course record at the Maryland State Meet was next, followed by a comfortable victory at Foot Locker Northeast.  The Ethiopian has to be the favorite – and, if he can win, he will be the first national champion from that region since Somalia native Abdirizak Mohamud in 1996-97.

 Manilafasha and Zivec at FL Midwest. 
Photo Pat Davey
He will have several key challengers, however, both in terms of intrigue and actual ability to win the race.

How about the story of Zivec, the Grand Rapids MN turbo who blazed past stunned fans in junior varsity races in Minnesota before stories on him finally began coming out?  He was not a traditional exchange student, which meant he could not compete in varsity races (according to the MN state association), but still hoped to put himself in a position to be considered for a collegiate program in the future. 

The opportunities have come in the post-season and Zivec has taken full advantage, winning NXN Heartland and Foot Locker Midwest region races, showing the ability to pace, lead, and finish.  At NXN Finals, however, he hurt his ankle on the course and while he still finished second, he admitted early this week that it was bothering him considerably and it appeared his competing Saturday might be a game-time decision.  ***Then Friday, a Foot Locker Midwest official said there was definitely a chance Zivec would not start and it would be very difficult for him to be a factor if he did.

But Zivec isn’t the only runner from FL Midwest who could win here.  Manilafasha, one of two two-time Finalists from Colorado, was unbeaten until Kenosha and ranked #1 much of the season.  The Denver North CO sr hinted that he would be ready to win when it counted the most, in San Diego.  Manilafasha’s life in his homeland is much further in the past than Haile’s or Zivec’s, as he has been in the US with his family since 2001.  His middle-of-the-pack finish as a soph was expected due to inexperience, but he was off form much of his junior season before finally getting back to the same level at the end.  Now he’s clearly taken a step up and is ready to compete for a title.

 Dunbar and Schwartz lead at FL West. 
Photo John Dye
Alaska may not be quite as exotic a place for a Foot Locker Finalist’s home as one of the above-mentioned countries, but thanks to YouTube, Dunbar gave fans around the country some idea of what it’s like to roll with him in Kodiak.  The 3200-meter time trial video seen around the world added to the buzz surrounding a runner who’d already bopped down to Oregon and California to win major meets, with the latter victory at Mt. SAC etching him as at least a national co-favorite in the minds of many.  The best finishes at Foot Locker West, however, went to Schwartz and Shrader.  While a tempered region effort is not always the biggest factor in predicting a national outcome, the finish at least cast doubt on Dunbar’s ability to win and helped shift the favorite’s role to Haile.

Speaking of doubt, there was plenty surrounding Schwartz after he struggled at the end of his D3 state meet to finish 7th.  This was a runner previously unbeaten by Californians and having only lost to Dunbar at Mt. SAC.  But Schwartz later said he had not eaten properly before the race.  Better fueled before Foot Locker West, the Foothills CA sr thundered home ahead of everyone last Saturday and thrust himself firmly back in championship contention.  Several days earlier, a story about Schwartz had appeared in the Bakersfield Californian that detailed a life where he was reportedly abused and abandoned by his father and mother as a younger child, then lived in a series of foster homes.  With maturity, the discovery of his chosen sport, and settling down with his current family, Schwartz has created for himself a present as a potential national champ and a future as a collegiate student-athlete.

The other top contender to win, Matthews, has perhaps not had the same international and domestic challenges of some of his rivals, but he’s certainly had his own unique journey in finally getting to San Diego. 
Sonnenfeldt and Matthews at FL South. 
Photo Steve Wallace

Not many remember that Matthews won the Alabama 6A title as a Mountain Brook freshman back in 2005.  Ultimately, however, it was decided that the better situation for him was as a boarding student at The Baylor School in Chattanooga.  His development has been very gradual since and he’s suffered a bit from the Rodney Dangerfield syndrome of getting little or no respect, even after winning Great American in October.  But all that changed at McAlpine two weeks ago.  A 14:48 will do that, even as fast as that course is.

Three other veteran contenders for top five or top 10 spots include the other two three-time qualifiers.  After a modest start to the fall, Dakota Ridge CO senior Appel authored his best season to date, repeating as state 5A champ and taking a very solid third behind Zivec and Manilafasha at FL Midwest.  Similarly, Mountain View VA senior Porter has turned it up a notch from the other two years where he made it here, eventually winning the 3A state title in Virginia and qualifying a stronger 4th this time after 10th and 8th the other two years.  And although this is his first time to San Diego, it seems like Knoxville West sr Sonnenfeldt has been in the mix for this his whole career.  Like Matthews, he truly arrived with his great FL South finish, just two ticks behind the winner.

Seniors almost always dominate this meet (the top 16 spots last year).  Some of this year’s outstanding underclassmen, especially the sophs, went the NXN route.  But two juniors and a freshman deserve particular note as top contenders.  Millburn NJ jr Udland emerged from a crowded and talented Jersey scene this year to take the NJ MOC and clearly establish himself as the best in that state.  His runner-up spot at FL Northeast confirmed he’s a top 5-10 talent.  On the other hand, Shrader didn’t get a lot of appreciation outside of Arizona, where he was unbeaten, but the Sinagua junior’s runner-up performance at FL West made it clear he’s a prime All-American candidate.

Then there’s the freshman – the first here since Jorge Torres in 1996.  Zeinasellassie, whose native land is Eritrea, has been burning it up at North Central IN all year.  The 15-year-old lost a shoe and his state meet to Drew Shields, but came back with a very strong fourth at FL Midwest.  He may not be ready to go for the win yet, but he’s the future here if he sticks with it.

And speaking of the win … well, who gets it?  Haile and Zivec have shown themselves to be the most talented, but Zivec’s ankle and his having gone to the well hard and often in the last month make him a big question mark.  No one has gotten it done quite like Haile all year long and his game should be equal to anything else anyone can dish out.

SteveU's Top 20
1. Solomon Haile MD
2. Joseph Manilafasha CO
3. Trevor Dunbar AK
4. Chris Schwartz CA
5. Bill Matthews AL
6. Tyler Udland NJ
7. Jakub Zivec MN
8. Evan Appel CO
9. Thomas Porter VA
10. Brian Shrader AZ
11. Matt Sonnenfeldt TN
12. Futsum Zeinasellassie IN
13. Wyatt Landrum CA
14. Andrew Springer RI
15. Zach Torres CA
16. Joe Whelen NY
17. CJ Brown TX
18. Drew Shields IN
19. Alex Ott VA
20. Dylan Sorensen IN
*** after publication, it was learned that Zivec's injury will reportedly prevent him from "being a factor," if he even starts at all.  This information would revise the picks with Zivec being 15th and everyone 8th-15th moving up a spot.