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The Lines Are Drawn

With the addition of individuals to the new NXN, athletes and their coaches will have to decide where the best experiences and opportunities lie. What do those coaches and athletes who are impacted most have to say about it?

By SteveU


1. A Brief Introduction
2. Albuquerque Academy NM's Adam Kedge (Ben Johnson)
3. Neuqua Valley IL's Paul Vandersteen (Chris Derrick)

(continued on) PAGE 2 - PAGE 3 - PAGE 4 (NEW Additional Comments page, with NTN Champ Chris Derrick)

(subsequent pages include comments from Holy Trinity FL Coach Doug Butler, FL Champ Ashley Brasovan, Mission Prep CA Coach Armando Siqueiros, Gill St. Bernard NJ Coach Ryan Grote, Knoxville TC coach Marty Sonnenfeldt, Regis Jesuit CO coach Bob Nicolls, Neuqua Valley sr and NTN Champ Chris Derrick)

1. A Brief Introduction

For 25 years, the cross-country post-season (beyond state meets) was for individuals, if you were a prep runner who aspired to national competition. Since 1979, after you had run your state meet, you got ready for Foot Locker (originally Kinney). You ran in one of four regional meets and tried to make it to sunny Orlando or San Diego. You may have gone to a regional meet with some of your teammates, but you ran as an individual. In cross-country, somehow there’s always been a place for individuals in a sport with its own special team element.

Then something new came along, in 2004, when Nike developed a unique post-season event that celebrated the team aspect of the sport and completed the corporation’s trilogy of events for each season of track and XC. Nike Team Nationals began by inviting teams from each region based on performances throughout the year, and then last fall offered regional meets for the first time as the means to qualifying.

For the past four years, athletes and coaches have had to make decisions about which event to participate in, or to try to do both. It became more complicated in 2007 with the NTN Regional events creating head-to-head conflicts with Foot Locker Regionals.

There have been attempts at collaboration or fusion of the two events, with negotiations having taken place between the on-the-ground organizers and directors, as well as at the higher corporate levels between the massive retail and manufacturing entities. There was a certain level of cooperation in the early years, but that basically ended last fall.

Both events have, by all accounts, offered overwhelmingly positive experiences for the participants, whether it’s been a chance to get flown to sunny Southern California and be treated like kings and queens for a weekend at one of the country’s most fabulous hotels, or a chance to go with your team/club to the home of the world’s most famous shoe and running product company, hang out on their campus, and be part of a weekend of activities that also makes the participants feel like harrier royalty.

That’s a very brief history of the two events, but now another factor has been introduced, one whose impact on the national XC landscape could be just as significant as the original introduction of these two national events.

The “Team” has been taken out of the title of the Nike meet and replaced with “Cross.” And gone with it is that meet’s restriction of just being open to teams. Now, whether you are an individual that wants to race without a team, or an individual on a team that never will have a chance to make it to the Nike Cross Nationals, you can still get to Portland as an individual. Now a Jordan Hasay, an Ashley Brasovan, or a Doug Smith can compete in a regional meet and get a chance to make it to Nike’s big dance with or without their team.

So what do the coaches and athletes in the sport think of these changes? We contacted more than a dozen coaches and athletes, as well as Foot Locker personnel, to get their responses to Nike’s initiative. There was no response from the Foot Locker personnel, but several coaches and a top athlete responded to questions.

2. Albuquerque Academy NM's Adam Kedge (Ben Johnson)

Ben Johnson at FL Finals in 06 (left) and at NTN in 07.
Perhaps no athlete has been affected as much by the evolution of NTN and Foot Locker to date than Ben Johnson, whose final season at Albuquerque Academy NM is about to end. As a junior in 2006, Johnson benefited from the fact that the top two individuals from the NTN race that were from states in the Foot Locker West region – the events have been contested on the same day – received invitations to run Foot Locker Finals. His 3rd at NTN was impressive enough for a junior that was just beginning to get noticed nationally. But then he effectively topped that against the better competition the following week with a 6th in San Diego, the top run by a junior that year.

Last fall, however, the relationship and negotiations between Nike and Foot Locker deteriorated to the point where Nike withdrew its financial support from the Foot Locker meet, and Foot Locker went to simply qualifying 10 individuals from the West Region into the Finals, the same as the other regions. No longer were any individuals from the NTN race given a bid. Johnson had to choose, and he chose NTN, where he finished 3rd and led his team to the same.

So what does Johnson’s coach at Albuquerque Academy, Adam Kedge, think about this development with the Nike meet? Well, first and foremost, Coach Kedge believes in balance, with school, family, training, racing, and the subsequent travel. He notes the increase in competitive opportunities and says, “Too many coaches and parents are having their top kids chase every opportunity that is out there.”

As would be the case with most any successful coach, the top focus is the state championship, then 1-2 other big meets beyond that. “Having both strong individuals and teams in the past 10 years, we've found that if the concentration is on the team for the majority of the season that the individual can still prosper,” he says.

It’s not surprising, then, that NTN/NXN has had an appeal for Kedge and his program. “As a school we've always valued our time at Nike. With a team-centered focus being part of our core principles, we hope to continue to be part of this great event. We've enjoyed the modifications that were put in place by adding the open race, regionals, and now individuals. In the fall of 2008 we're shooting first for State and then, if we have the ability, NXN.”

But Kedge also made a point to praise Foot Locker, and not close the door on participation there. “Foot Locker Nationals is also a great event and provides wonderful opportunity for top individuals,” he says. “Our school has been fortunate to have a couple of individuals participate at FLN and be successful. If our team gets to the point where we are not as strong as a group, I could foresee attending the Foot Locker Regional and National events in the future. To shoot for both NXN and FLN, along with being at our best at our state meet, all in one year, makes for a long couple of months and not an idea I favor at this point.”

3. Neuqua Valley IL's Paul Vandersteen (Chris Derrick)

Chris Derrick at NTN 07 (left) and Foot Locker the next week.
This past fall, hundreds of miles to the north and east, Chris Derrick and his Neuqua Valley, IL team became central figures in both meets. After a stellar regular season where Derrick and his mates won the AAA state title – with Chris setting a record at the historic Detweiller Park – the senior set out to try and sweep both national events, beginning with the regional races. He wasn’t the only athletes to attempt the feat, but with his state meet on the weekend preceding the quest, he clearly took on the biggest challenge.

Derrick would wind up with victories at the NTN Midwest and National Championship events (leading his team to victories in both), and runner-up finishes behind Indiana’s Mike Fout in both Foot Locker Midwest and Finals races. He was clearly taxed at the end of the quartet of championships, but after his mind-boggling 13:55.96 5,000-meter track performance this spring at Arcadia, the consensus is Derrick is the country’s best prep distance runner this year.

Derrick’s coach, Paul Vandersteen, says he is “all for including individuals” in NXN “as long as the team emphasis does not lose out in the process” and the course can handle the traffic. “Nike has always focused on the team race and, to me, that is what XC is all about. Nike has been able to creatively problem-solve to create a race that is held in high regard by many.”

Of course, given Illinois guidelines, Vandersteen’s involvement with his athletes ends with the state meet, and that’s where the emphasis will remain. “I will never cater our training toward a meet outside of our official high school season,” he says. “It is up to the guys on the team to determine whether they want to pursue goals as a club team beyond that.”

Derrick, he adds, “made his own choices in regards to the post-season races,” yet followed the team-first philosophy beyond the state meet. “I know that for our guys, the team is first. So, assuming we have a competitive team, most decision-making is going to lean in the direction of running as a club team opposed to running individually. For example, if the Foot Locker National meet was held before NXN, that may have impacted Chris’s decision to run Foot Locker, because the team comes first for him.”

Yet, Coach Vandersteen has an appreciation for both the Nike and Foot Locker events, and would encourage his runners to consider both, as long as it’s possible. “I hope Nike and Footlocker can work something out to coordinate their efforts so as many guys as possible can compete in both regional meets.

“As it stands now, for the runners in Illinois, I think you will continue to see them pursue both venues,” he says. “The Foot Locker Midwest meet in Kenosha is very well run, has a strong tradition, and is a great way to experience XC on a challenging course with great competition. We could see some elite runners making the choice to just run in the Nike meet, if they qualify, and don’t want to travel a long distance two consecutive weekends. However, I don’t think this would apply to very many guys.

“What I like about both Regional meets is they offer an opportunity for young men and women to race regardless of ability level,” he concludes. “I will encourage my athletes to continue to run in both.”

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