Foot Locker National Preview

By Leo Collins

The highpoint of the 2010 high school cross country season comes to a fitting climax this coming weekend, when the 2010 Foot Locker national championship races take place at Balboa Park in San Diego. It all comes down to this one race when forty of the nation’s finest girls & an equal number of their male counterparts toe the line at Morley Field. The base mileage has all been logged, the speed work has been completed and everyone should be set to run their best at the 32nd edition of America’s premier high school race.

Each athlete, who has qualified, is a champion in their own right. They are here, because they have earned a berth through competition after having found the faith in themselves to challenge America’s best and go for its traditional championship. There are too many state champions alone to count much less major invitational champions and they will be on hand as a result of their own accomplishments and not a superior team mate.

The young ladies will compete first, so we will take a look at them first and leading the way is Aisling Cuffe of Cornwall, N.Y., who is making her third appearance in the race. Last year it was Aisling plus Chelsey Ley, who set the pace and set the tone for the probably the most exciting finish in the history of the series but this year she has moved on to another level. She is undefeated for the year and has established new course records almost everywhere she has competed. Her year conjures memories of Jordan Hasay, Amber Trotter, Julia Stamps, Melody Fairchild, Erin Keogh & Janet Smith, who have all won this event after dominant campaigns. In some ways her season has been a such a banner one that only that of Ceci Hopp, who set eighteen course records in eighteen races in 1980, seems to have had a superior one. She has broken sixteen minutes for 5K twice this season including a victory at Great American plus Eastern States. and of course is the Northeast champion for the second straight year. Any attempt to claim a national title must pass by her.

As formidable a runner as Aisling is she will face by far the best field of the year and easily one of the finest Foot Locker fields ever and there are a fair number of girls, who given the right circumstances can score a victory. Just from the Northeast alone there is Maine’s Abbey Leonardi. She placed second at Sunken Meadows once again & her only loss in the campaign was to Aisling. Megan Venables won the Shore coaches and eclipsed the 1983 course record at New Jersey’s Holmdel course set by none other than Janet Smith. If she is “on” she is a threat. Her fellow New Jersey resident Megan Lacy is a group champion, who placed third in the regional ahead of Venables.

Southern runners have annexed a number of Foot locker titles just in this past decade alone & their leader is Kathryn Fleuhr of Florida, who ran 17:06 in claiming the South regional. She also won at Flrunners and, like her sister Erika, qualified last year. Although Kathryn has often led the way it is Erika, who owns the State championship this year, so one never knows where their sibling rivalry might lead. Rachel Johnson earned her second straight third place finish at South this year & then followed that up last weekend in the Portland mud bowl . Wesley Frazier missed the fall campaign due to injury, yet she somehow found the strength to earn her second straight national berth, so who knows?

The Midwest Regional contributed Allison Woodward of Wisconsin, who ran 17:18 on the vaunted Kenosha course. That time alone conjures memories of Melody Fairchild & Claire Durkin, who blitzed the course in past years, and it suggests great potential. Gabriel Anzalone of Michigan won at Portage & then placed second at Kenosha in a fine 17:25 edging Shannon Osika, who is also from Michigan. Not to be underestimated is Kelsey Lakowske of Colorado, who placed 6th at nationals last year & works with none other than Melody Fairchild. The hunch is that Kelsey was merely concerned with qualifying so look out for her as well. Eleanor Fulton ran 17:33 at Liberty Bell and is another very capable runner.

The number of Foot Locker champions from the West is an impressive one and this year that region has a number of very impressive runners. Julie Nacouzi of California won the region this year to secure her 2nd berth at nationals. Molly Grabill is another two-time finalist and she took second last weekend without committing all of her resources. She won earlier at Mt. Carmel, Danner & Mt. SAC and she knows the course only too well. Maddie Meyers of Seattle is hardly a dark horse after gliding home third last weekend and her victory at South Whidbey shows that she can handle the hills. The Washington State champion ran a fine 17:34 at Pasco and is a most serious threat. She backed up her first trip to Foot Locker with a strong indoor & then even a better outdoor track campaign. It would not be wise to be near her with 100 meters to go in the race. Julia Foster of New Mexico may have placed ‘only’ 9th in the West last weekend but she had been undefeated for the campaign prior to Saturday. Her skein of victories includes a triumph in the NTN Southwest Regional and you have to admire the competitive spirit of a runner, who wishes to challenge the very best competitors in San Diego. Californian Clare Carroll placed 4th in the West & won her State divisional title and seems to be improving as the season has progressed. Her 4th at West thrusts her into serious consideration as well. Carrie Verdon of California won at Stanford & is also a divisional State champion. Her time of 17:51 at Woodward was the second best of the day and she, of course, was fifth in the West.

In reviewing what appears to be the most likely candidates there is always the concern to seem to be denigrating the chances of others, yet everyone in the race deserves their spot on the starting line. When all is said and done there are 11th place finishers from the regional finals, who will not compete on Saturday, but they have had stellar campaigns and on the right day could have pulled off an upset: such is the quality of runner, who takes a shot at a Foot Locker berth. Sometimes good fortune is necessary as well and we will especially miss having Chelsey Sveinsson on hand. Her injury forced her to pass on an attempt to be a four-time qualifier and yet anyone, who says his stirring finish last year, knows that she deserves to be here in many ways. Still this is one of the strongest Foot Locker finals in the great tradition of the series.

There is no better place to start with the guys’ preview than Lukas Verzbicas, who last year became the first sophomore to win Foot Locker. In that race he challenged the field to stay with him and then rolled to victory. This year he has gone out hard and then seemingly held much in reserve, as he has often continually looked over his shoulder. That was the formula at the Midwest Regional & then again last weekend at Portland. With this being the last race of the season he may well simply charge out and not look back. He won the Illinois State meet along the way & in so doing narrowly missed Craig Virgin’s Course record. He will be tough to beat but, then again, that is why we run races. Arizonan Billy Orman is his state’s champion & he also won at the Desert Classic & at Davis. He stopped off to win the NTN Southwest Regional before claiming Foot Locker West last weekend. He is an intelligent racer and more than capable of an upset. While thinking of the West there is also Jantzen Oshier of California, who pushed the pace hard last weekend, yet still had plenty left to claim third. A more conservative pace early could make a big deal of difference. Not to be overlooked is Spokane’s Andrew Gardner, who ran like an upper class runner last week at Mt. SAC before coming in second. He was a member of the US Junior National Cross Country team last winter: does anyone believe sophomores could win in successive years? It’s more than possible! California’s Matt Carpowich is a home town runner, so he will be in very familiar territory and should not be overlooked.

This is a very special year for quality in the Midwest & especially in Indiana, Chris Walden returns for a second attempt and has already broken the 15 minute barrier for 5K. He has won a number of invitational races & was second at the Mid-East Meet of Champions. Futsum Zenasellassie of Indiana worked on his grades last fall after becoming one of only three freshman males ever to qualify for the series. He closed well on Lukas at the Midwest and, like Walden, has broken fifteen minutes. Ohio’s Michal Brajdic won the Tiffin Carnival early in the season but nothing more need be set about him but that he topped Bob Kennedy’s long-held record in the State meet. Zach Wills is a three-time State champion in another Ohio division. Another Midwest runner of note is South Dakota’s Tony Smoragiewicz, who placed third in the Midwest.

Handicapping the Northeast is an especially difficult task, especially when one considers that the champion ran, as near as I can figure, only one major race this season and then won it. His 15:42 at Sunken Meadow is difficult to argue. Edward Owens, also from New York, did not have a great deal more experience this season but he won the State Public School meet before adding the Federation title. He was sixth in the Northwest. New Hampshire champion Jeff Le Coste is hardly lacking a 2010 resume with wins at Manchester and in the New England Championship. He was not far off the winning pace with his 15:45, which was good for third. John Murray of Massachusetts returns once again & has an advantage in knowing the Balboa course. He also ran 15:45 on Long Island. The state champion placed 2nd at Brown. John McGowan of Washington ran 15:46 placing sixth at Northeast. That alone makes him someone quite special in Foot Locker history: the runner from the District of Columbia to make Foot Locker!

The course at McAlpine Greenway also makes it a challenge to factor in the Southern runners but Jimmy Clark won in a time of 14:55. That does have a nice ring all its own. The South has been resurgent of late and their runners should be well in the mix once again. Blake Williams garnered sixth in the South Regional last fall & moved up to second this year. He also went under the 15 minute barrier at the regional. Virginian Ahmed Bile, yes you recognize that name for a very good reason, is his state’s champion and his 4th behind Scott Morgan of North Carolina bodes well for both of them. The pair finished a second apart with Morgan running a fine 15:01.

As I write this, it is cold and pouring in Portland and soon the family will join the Foot Locker finalists in sunny San Diego. While I can not say, that the author has earned the trip, it can be guaranteed that the young athletes have earned it. Time and space does not allow a thorough rundown, although Foot Locker will in deed do it with its beautiful program, but all these runners are champions. And they will be treated like the champions that they are with a beautiful first class hotel & all the amenities even beyond which one could hope. One only need recall Olympian Ryan Hall’s comment last fall, when he was asked to compare his Olympic experience with that of Foot Locker. He broke out into laughter noting that Foot Locker wins far and away. Our best to everyone in the race but for sure be aware & fulfilled in the knowledge that you are champions and now share in the rich thirty-two year tradition of the race.