December 3, 2015
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We’re into December now, and the cross-country season is drawing to a close. The NCAA Championships are in the books and all that remain on the year are the U.S. Club Cross-Country Championships (December 12 in San Francisco) and three marquee high school meets: Saturday’s Nike Cross Nationals and Foot Locker West and next week’s Foot Locker finals. This preview will focus on NXN; we’ll take a detailed look at Foot Lockers next week.
Once again, the championships will be held at Portland’s Glendoveer Golf Course. The meet shifted to Glendoveer in 2014 after 10 years at Portland Meadows, and though the venue changed, the mud remained a constant. In total, 22 boys’ teams, 22 girls’ teams and 90 individuals (five boys and five girls from each of the eight NXN regionals plus the California state meet) will be in the fields on Saturday, with the races crowning both individual and team national champions (though, as usual, most of the top individuals will be at Foot Lockers). We break down what you need to know heading into Saturday’s meet. Our girls preview appears below. Our 2015 boys NXN preview is here.
When: Saturday, 1:05 p.m. ET
Where: Glendoveer Golf Course, Portland, Ore.
How to watch: Stream the meet live here (coverage starts at 12:30 p.m. ET)
Fayetteville-Manlius has won eight of the last nine titles and should add another one on Saturday. According to the speed ratings of TullyRunners.com, which compares performances across different courses and conditions, their performances at NXN NY (1st, 38 points) and the New York state championships (1st, 28 points) are far better than anything else another team did at states or regionals and also compare favorably to what F-M title teams of the past have done. Here’s how this year’s squad stacks up against F-M’s last four NXN champs:
|2015||28 points||38 points (18:23 average)|
|2014||20 points||34 points (19:07 average)|
|2012||32 points||28 points (18:52 average)|
|2011||15 points||43 points (18:51 average)|
|2010||15 points||28 points (18:25 average)|
*no average time given as the state meet course rotates every year
There is no reason to pick against the Hornets again this year. Between the men and women, coach Bill Aris has sent at least one team to NXN every year since the meet came into existence in 2004 and has won nine titles (eight girls’, one boys’). He knows how to prepare his team to run well at this meet, and his squad is experienced, with three of the top five from last year (Sophia Ryan, Jenna Farrell and Samantha Levy) returning in 2015.
What’s scariest about F-M is that they don’t need to run a great race to win. Farrell was the fourth runner on a title team last year (49th overall at NXN) and didn’t even score for F-M at NXN NY last weekend. Eighth-grader Claire Walters, the NY Class A state champion, finished as F-M’s #7 at NXN NY and the Hornets still crushed everyone. F-M is a machine.
With Kaitlyn Neal, who won NXN NY by 13 seconds in 17:37, F-M has a runner who could score in the low single digits (Neal’s 156 Tully speed rating in that race was the third-best by any athlete in the field this year); Walters could join her if she recaptures her state meet form (152 speed rating). For F-M to lose, it would take multiple blowups or a truly historic race from another school. And given the track record of Aris’ teams in Portland, the former is extremely unlikely.
That’s bad news for the Great Oak girls, who could be staring at a second straight runner-up finish. After they were upset at NXN in 2013, F-M was viewed as vulnerable last year but responded with a comfortable 70-point outing, thrashing runner-up Great Oak by 79.
However, Great Oak is a better team than it was in 2014. They return their top six athletes from last year, and top runner Destiny Collins is healthier than she was last year (though she has still battled shin problems). Collins won the California Division I state meet in a quick 17:09, helping Great Oak to win with just 44 points, the lowest DI team score since 1997. Great Oak’s 17:51 team average also broke the all-division state record.
And yet it’s possible Great Oak isn’t even the best team in California. Rival Davis finished just two points behind Great Oak thanks to a heroic effort from senior Fiona O’Keeffe. The Stanford-bound O’Keeffe, the top returner from NXN last year (she was 4th overall; she was also 4th in ’13), has battled tendinitis much of the fall and hadn’t raced since October 7 but returned to take eighth at the state meet, finishing as the team’s top runner. With an extra week to get healthy, O’Keeffe could run even better in Portland. Or she may not race at all. The uncertainty surrounding O’Keeffe gives Great Oak the edge, but based on their California state meet speed ratings, those two teams are good bets to finish in the top three on Saturday.
Still, it’s hard to imagine either of them reaching F-M’s level. Collins and O’Keeffe could give them the advantage at the #1 spot, but F-M’s Neal is just as good as they are — if not better — and F-M is much stronger through five runners. Time and again, F-M has come to this meet and crushed it and considering how well they’ve been running in 2015, it would be foolish to bet against them.
The favorite here is Katie Rainsberger from Air Academy (CO), the daughter of 1985 Boston Marathon champion Lisa Rainsberger — the last American woman to win Boston. Apart from O’Keeffe, whom we know isn’t 100%, Rainsberger is the top returner from 2014, finishing in 6th place (she also took 6th in ’13). Rainsberger won her NXN regional by 20 seconds in 17:07 and her 17:05 at the Coronado Cougar Classic (a race she won by 2:14) produced the best single-race speed rating (160) of any athlete in the NXN field. How good is Rainsberger? She’s achieved a 156 speed rating or better three times this year. Only one other athlete has bettered 156 (Judy Pendergast has a 157 to her credit). Speed ratings aren’t exact, but the fact that no one has finished within 20 seconds of Rainsberger all year shows you how dominant she is. She also has 4:40 mile speed and has had two weeks since NXN SW to rest up for NXN (she’s not running Foot Lockers).
A few other women have a shot. Pendergast has the second-best speed rating (from NXN Midwest, a race she won by 28 seconds) but she’s lost twice this year, to Taylor Werner at FL Midwest last week (16:57 to 17:18, but maybe she was taking it easy) and to seventh-grader Grace Ping at Roy Griak in September (18:12 to 18:16). Yes, you read that right. Ping is a seventh-grader. That’s actually far less embarrassing than it seems — Ping is a 12-year-old prodigy who qualified for NXN by placing third at the Heartland Regional — but the fact remains that Pendergast hasn’t been steamrolling her competition, as Rainsberger has.
F-M’s Neal and Stephanie Jenks of Linn-Mar (IA) also have a chance (Jenks won NXN Heartland (156 speed rating) but was just 10th at FL MW last week — perhaps running to qualify?) to upset Rainsberger, as does Christina Aragon of Billings (MT), who was second at NXN Northwest (154 Tully – NXN NW champ Annie Hill is running FL West rather than NXN finals). Aragon, like Rainsberger, is the daughter of running royalty: father Chuck is a 3:51 miler and finished fourth in the 1500 (by a whisker) at the 1984 Olympic Trials. She’s got great mile speed herself as she has a 4:16 1500 pb (MB: HS girl Christina Aragon HUGE PR 4:16; #5 AT!).
Before we close out this preview, let’s backtrack one paragraph though. A 12-year-old is running in the girls’ race on Saturday. Grace Ping, of Cotter (MN) was born on July 7, 2003; she is almost two years younger than the iPod. She holds the world record for fastest road 5k by a 10-year-old (18:19; she ran 18:02 on the track) and an 11-year-old (17:28, which also beats the 12-year-old best of 18:01), per the Association of Road Running Statisticians. That success has translated to the cross country course this fall as she won Roy Griak as well as the Minnesota Class 1A state meet (by 50 seconds!) before taking 3rd at NXN Heartland. Ping won’t win on Saturday but she’s already shown her talent simply by qualifying for the meet. Could she finish in the top 10?
It should be noted that Ethiopian Weini Kelati of Virginia has twice put up a 159 this year but she’s running Foot Locker.
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