2009 Footlocker Preview
Last summer and early September a minimum of over 11,000 runners began their seasons both with hopes and expectations and now at season’s end there are but 80 runners, who still have hopes for a national championship. Forty guys & forty gals will race this Saturday, as the climax of the season will take place in San Diego at its historic Balboa Park course.
This year marks the 31st running of the Footlocker race & the girls’ race, which will begin the day’s action, in some ways typifies the beginning of a new era, for last year’s race featured, what I referred to as the ‘Clash of the Titans’, because on hand were three former champions (Jordan Hasay, Ashley Brasov an & Kathy Kroeger), who all returned to face each other. That had never before happened & it was a fitting end to the first thirty years of this series. They have all moved on to compete at the college level and thusly a new champion will be crowned. Fittingly, as Footlocker begins its next thirty years, the slate is clean and the field is reasonably open in terms of competition.
Still, while a number of girls have a legitimate chance at a title, it would appear that there is a ’Big Four’, who can be expected to be at the front of the pack: Megan Goethals, Aisling Cuffe, Chelsey Sveinsson & Molly Grabill. Each runner is not only undefeated but they are yet to be truly challenged. Megan placed third last year and has not skipped a beat since then. She won at West Bloomfield, Oakland County & at Spartan & then blistered the course in Michigan in 16:54 to win another state title. At Kenosha she repeated as the Midwest Champion against a high quality field. Her time of 17:42 has rarely been bettered. Chelsey won the South Regional for the second straight year & has also annexed the Cowboy & Chili Pepper titles. Her time at the region was an impressive 16:53. One major difference for her this year is that she skipped the race in Portland, which she won last year, to concentrate on Footlocker. She placed fourth at National last & will be fresh this year.
Aisling Cuffe finished just out of the top ten last year but has raised her running to a new level. She won the 5K on the track last spring at the Junior Nationals & in cross country won at the Paul Short, Bowdoin & Eastern States. The New York champion also won the Northeast Regional in a stunning 17:46 on the famous & respected Sunken Meadow course. She broke the old course record that had long been held by Christine Curtin, so she has joined impressive company. Hers is a formidable presence. Molly Grabill was ill last, so she did not compete but, if she had a fever last year, she has been on fire this year and has had a remarkable campaign that has been every bit as dominant as the others with victories at Stanford, Bronco, Mt. Carmel & at Mt. SAC. The California state champion challenged the course as well as the field to run an impressive 17:55 at the West Regional.
Of course during Footlocker’s venerable run a number of athletes have come into nationals undefeated and a few have left with unblemished records but such is the quality of the field that there are a number of runners, who are very capable of winning.. Included in that group are Jessica Tonn & Emily Sisson, who became just the 22nd & 23rd girls to qualify all four years. (Jorge Torres remains the only guy to turn the trick). Jessica placed 10th last year & Emily finished 3rd in 2006. Tonn has won at Queen Creek, George Young & Scottsdale & is the Arizona state champion. She was also 2nd at Mt. SAC with 17:03 and cruised to a 5th place finish at Walnut. As befit’s a four-time qualifier, she ran a savvy race aware of the fact that the point last week was to simply qualify. Moreover, she has improved at nationals each year & another such improvement in position could make things interesting. Emily also has the experience to go with a quality record. She won at Jorgeson and in Missouri and placed 2nd to Goethals at the Midwest Regional. She also won the Heartland Regional but last weekend she weekend she passed up the race in Portland to be fresh - smart girl! Chelsea Ley returns again after her 8th place finish last year. This year she has claimed titles at the Cherokee & Shore meets. She was also third in the Northeast Regional.
Katie Flood is runner, who might have been yet another four-time qualifier, had she not chosen to run in Portland’s ‘little league world series’ last year. She returns to Footlocker after winning the race in Portland. That course is so poor that it usually has a negative effect on those, who race it, so she will be at some what of a disadvantage in San Diego but, if she can recover, she will be a threat. Megan Morgan is another, who must be included on this list. With the exception of an off day at Woodbridge she has not lost to anyone except Molly Grabill. She was second to her at Bronco, Mt. Carmel, Stanford & Mt. SAC, as well as 2nd at state, where she ran 17:16. She also took the Staub title. Notably she ran 17:59 in the West Regional & was closing the gap between her and Molly at the end.
Such is the quality of the field that simply being a state champion does not create awe and there are a number of state champions of note plus a number of other girls, who might make their presence felt. One is Abbey Leonardi of Maine, who placed second in the Northeast. Colorado champion Kelsey Lakowske was 5th in the Midwest but is coming down from altitude, while Ashlie Decker is returning for another crack at nationals. She was 2nd at Griak to Flood & 2nd in the Heartland, while 4th at Kenosha. Ashlie was 4th at Portland last weekend.
A few others to watch are Sara Sargent of Pennsylvania, who was first at Manhattan & Penn and 2nd to Cuffe at Paul Short. Emily Durkin, who won the new England title after placing second at state in Maine, and Kathryn Fleuhr of Florida won the Flrunners, Little Everglades before taking 2nd in the South Regional in 17:09. Jacque SAC . Megan Ferowich of Tennessee reminded many of Kathy Kroeger when she won state in 17:47. She was 4th in the South Regional.
This is a deep and talented field - indeed it may be one of the deepest Footlocker fields ever. Luck does play a part in getting here & sadly Emily Lipari, who won at Brown & Nassau after qualifying the previous two years, did not have it. She was injured late in the year with an ankle problem and was unable to run at State or regional. Kinsey Gomez of Idaho just missed at the West Regional in spite of falling & injuring herself - still she placed 11th. They both deserve to be here in some ways but this is still a loaded field. Time & space do not allow the inclusion of everyone yet all here are champions. However, if you like long-shot specials, look to Karlie Garcia of California. The tiny sprite, who Steve Brand of the San Diego Union Tribune described as “diminutive”, has improved so much during the season that one is tempted to project even more. Early in the season she was only third in the Thunder Invitational with a 19:07 & then was 2nd in the Sierra Foothills in 18:58. She then placed 2nd at Stanford in 18:30 before running big at state in 17:52. At Footlocker West she was always with the chase pack and she zipped to the finish in 18:02 to take third. You could sense the first-year zeal for competition on her face & sense her young freshman innocence as well. If she come in with the same exuberance & naïveté she could steal the day.
There are only a handful of returnees among the guys & the field, and at least on paper, the field does not appear to be as deep. Going into the weekend last week my favorite was Lukas Verzbicas of Illinois, who recently won the US Junior Duathlon title. He defeated Futsom Zeinasellassie, who last year became only the third male runner to qualify as a freshman, at Culver & won his state meet in 14:07 giving Craig Virgin’s record a rare scare. He was not challenged in the Midwest Regional, so he has to be one of the favorites. Going against him is history and no male sophomore has ever won Footlocker.
That said, after witnessing Brian Shrader’s impressive victory at the West Regional there is a temptation to view him as the favorite. He returns to Balboa with experience and he knows the course & he is the Arizona champion. Brian also won the Desert Twilight but really made a statement at Walnut. He had been content to run second & stay out of trouble early and he cruised up “poopout” hill and only then began to race. His time of 15:25 was only four seconds off the record of Seth Watkins, yet he ran well within himself. He even impressed second-place finisher Wade Meddles, who noted that the winner was flying at the end and had a lot left. Shrader note that he was easily in the best shape of his life.
Wade Meddles blasted off at Mt. SAC yet held on to take 2nd place. The Nevada champion was third at Stanford and 4th at Mt. SAC. He also qualified for the race in Portland by winning the Southwest region but passed up a trip to the northwest to focus on the more “prestigious” race. If he holds back a bit and does not employ his “fly and die” he will be formidable, especially since he has a good kick. Shane Moskowitz of Washington is not only his state’s champion but he also beat the best of Oregon & Washington in the Border Clash. Among his numerous wins were Fort Steilacoom, Curtis & Bellarmine. Due to a lingering cold he was not at full-strength at the regional, yet he still finished 5th. Like Moskowitzz, Steve Magnuson of Arizona returns and is familiar with the course. He won the George Young & Ccnley meets and was 9th at Mt. SAC. He moved late in the race at regional to take 7th behind Washington’s Conner Peloquin.
Brad Miles of Pennsylvania is the Northeast Champion and was second at Eastern States. The state champion should be in the hunt as well. Craig Lutz of Texas is another, who made a statement last weekend. His win at Portland was impressive and he won the South Regional as well. His greatest handicap will be having run in Portland, which has been a compromising issue for numerous runners in the past, but his races suggest that he will have something to say about the outcome.
Others to watch are New Jersey’s Dave Oster, who won the Shore Coaches. He placed third in the Northeast. Tyler Udland from the same state placed 2nd at the Regional & he has the advantage of returning. Walter Schafer is the Colorado champion, was 5th at Stanford & won the Liberty Bell. He was second in the Midwest, so he is capable of a big race. Kirubel Erassa was second at the South Regional with a time of 14:43. The Georgia champion also won at the Gulf Coast & Reebok. Brian Atkinson won at South Broward but the Floridian really turned heads, when he won the Great American. Matt McElroy of California won at Woodbridge & Orange County plus he was 2nd at Mt. SAC. His 4th at the West Regional bodes well for his chances. John Raneri of Connecticut was at the Northeast Region & he is the New England champion as well. North Carolina’s John Hurysz won at Greensboro and was fifth at Great American before placing third in the South.
Naturally everyone here is used to winning and is a champion many times over & more importantly they believe in their abilities. They have worked hard just to get to San Diego & on race day anything is possible. During the course of the Footlocker series there were a goodly number of runners, who have risen to the challenge. It would not be a surprise if it happened again. Best of luck to everyone and don’t forget to fully appreciate the great Footlocker experience. Win or lose the athletes are all a part of a special history.