2014 Foot Locker Finals Boys’ Preview: A Race for the Ages

By LetsRun.com
December 10, 2014

We hope you’re not busy on Saturday because this year’s boys’ race at the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships could be one of the best races in the storied event’s 36-year history. The top three finishers from 2013 return (this is the first time ever that even two of the top three have come back); in all, nine of the top 16 boys will be back in 2014.

On the girls’ side, the most intriguing name is Indiana’s Anna Rohrer, who was denied a chance to defend her title last year due to two navicular fractures in her feet. Rohrer didn’t run a step this summer apart from a few runs on an Alter-G treadmill but she looked great in winning the Midwest Regional by 30 seconds two weeks ago and will enter Saturday’s race as one of the favorites. Our girls preview appears here.

We give you the relevant details for Saturday’s races below, followed by a detailed preview of the boys’ race below.

What: 2014 Foot Locker Cross Country Championships

Where: Morley Field at Balboa Park, San Diego, California

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When: Saturday, December 13. Girls’ race begins at 12:15 p.m. ET, boys’ race at 1:00 p.m. ET. Free live webcast begins at 11 a.m. ET at this link.

Boys’ results: 2013 FL finals * 2014 FL West * 2014 FL Midwest * 2014 FL Northeast * 2014 FL South

Girls’ results: 2013 FL finals * 2014 FL West * 2014 FL Midwest * 2014 FL Northeast * 2014 FL South

Boys’ Race

Last year’s race was awesome because of the epic final-straight duel in which Michigan’s Grant Fisher edged out Washington’s John Dressel to become just the second male American junior to win Foot Lockers. This year, both Fisher, Dressel and 2013 third-placer Matthew Maton of Oregon are back, leading one of the best senior classes in meet history.

The 2014 crop compares well to the seniors in 2007, a class that included Chris DerrickGerman Fernandez, Luke Puskedra, Donn Cabral and Ryan Hill. The top-end talent may not be quite as good as the fabled Big Three of 2000 (Dathan RitzenheinAlan Webb and Ryan Hall) but if you were going to score every edition of Foot Locker cross country style (i.e. top seven runners), this could be the best class since 2003 (Matt Withrow, Galen Rupp, Shadrack Kiptoo, Josh McDougal, Ben True). That was only the second time that more than two runners broke 15:00 at Balboa Park (Withrow, Rupp and Kiptoo all went under with McDougal and True at 15:01 and 15:02), with the only other occasion coming in the ridiculous 1985 race where Ruben Reina set the course record of 14:36 to lead nine boys under 15:00.

There’s enough talent in the boys’ field to see three or more sub-15:00s on Saturday, though there’s always a question about whether those times will be attained in a championship race. We’re not expecting a sit-and-kick affair to the degree of the men’s race at NCAAs (Edward Cheserek won that 10k race in 30:19) but Fisher, the favorite, is not known for pushing the pace and tends to rely on his kick. However, that could actually encourage fast times as some of the other guys in the field might be afraid to let it come down to a kick with Fisher (he won the adidas Dream Mile in June in 4:02.02 and crushed everyone over the final 200 to win the Brooks PR 2 mile in 8:51 a week later) and push the pace from the get-go.

Fans of American distance running should be really excited for this one as several of the boys in this race could be top pros five or 10 years down the line. We’ll give you a bit of background on the top runners below.

Grant Fisher and Tessa Barrett 2013 Foot Locker Champions Fisher will look to become just the fifth boy to repeat as Foot Locker champion

Grant Fisher • Senior • Grand Blanc, MI • 4:02.02 mile • 8:51.28 two-mile

Regional result: 1st Midwest, 15:00
Previous FL finishes: 1st (2013)
College choice: Stanford (MB: Grant Fisher commits to Stanford)
Major results this fall: 14:43 5k win at Portage Invitational on 10/4 (1 second off Ritzenhein’s course record); 14:52 5k at Michigan state meet on 11/1 (won by 27 seconds)

July 14, 2013. That’s how far back you have to go to find the last time Fisher lost to an American high schooler — a span of 28 races. It’s been even longer — over two years — since he lost a cross country race. In a field of studs, Fisher stands out over all of them.

Not only is the defending Foot Locker champ, but he ran the fastest two-mile in the country last spring and the second-fastest mile (the nation’s fastest miler last spring, Garrett O’Toole, has since graduated) and both of those performances came on big stages, at the adidas Dream Mile in New York and the Brooks PR Invitational in Seattle. On both occasions, Fisher made it look easy against some of the best runners in the country, exploding for wins over the final lap. In June, competing against a field that included college freshmen, he made the U.S. team at 1500 for the World Junior Championships. He’s an excellent tactician who has proven unbeatable domestically over the past two years. And, unlike 2013, he’s no longer playing soccer in the fall — he’s exclusively focused on running.

It’s easy to make comparisons between Fisher and Ritzenhein. In some ways, comparing the two makes sense. Both are monumental talents, Michigan prep legends and the only two American school boys to win Foot Lockers as a junior. However, the comparison doesn’t really fit in one key way as Ritz and Fisher are two totally different types of runners.

Ritzenhein was an aerobic monster that ground people into the ground. He was born to run cross country and is the greatest high school cross country runner this nation has ever produced. During Ritz’s senior year, he beat Webb — who would run a 3:53 mile the following spring — by 20 seconds at Foot Lockers and Hall — who’d go on to run a 2:04:58 marathon — by 24 seconds. That winter, Ritz then nabbed the bronze in the junior race at the World Cross Country Championships, behind a guy named Kenenisa Bekele (MB: Ritz and Bekele at 2001 Junior World Cross).

Fisher, on the other hand, has much more speed than Ritz, and as a result, is not interested in breaking people or crushing fast times; all he cares about is getting to the finish line first.

Both are great runners, but it’s very difficult to compare them because the usual methods of comparison — times and margin of victory — are slanted toward Ritzenhein’s style. It does seem pretty clear that Ritzenhein was stronger than Fisher while Fisher’s kick was superior. But unless someone invents a time machine between now and Saturday, we can’t accurately compare 2000 Ritzenhein vs. 2014 Fisher. Perhaps the best way to analyze them would be for Fisher to run the World Cross Country Championships in March. Ritzenhein’s third-place finish in that event was arguably more impressive than any of his domestic accomplishments and is probably the best evidence that he was a better runner than Fisher. If Fisher could match (or exceed) that result, then the debate would get a lot more interesting.

Another way to compare Fischer and Ritz in XC is via the Tully Speed Ratings – a speed ratings service much like the Beyer speed ratings in horse racing. The four greatest performers at Foot Lockers in terms of Tully ratings all are famous names in U.S. distance circles:

Fastest Performances At Foot Locker According to TullyRunners.com

Dathan Ritzenhein 12      Rockford  MI           14:35       213.7    214    2000
Adam Goucher  12          Doherty  CO            14:41.7     213.1    213    1993
Chris Solinsky   12       Stevens Point  WI      14:40.5     212.5    212    2002
Dathan Ritzenhein 11      Rockford  MI           14:29.83    211.7    212    1999 ** Orlando FL course record
Marc Davis      12        San Diego     CA       14:38.1     211.3    211    1986

For comparison’s sake, last year Fisher’s win garnered a 203 Tully rating. Since each rating point is worth three seconds, it’s clear Fisher has a lot of work to do to equal Ritz at Foot Lockers.

But as we mentioned above, Fisher doesn’t care about time, just place and a “speed rating is just a corrected race time” so unless someone else pushes the pace, his speed rating won’t reflect Fisher’s brilliance.

Of course, before we start comparing him to the all-time greats, Fisher first has to win on Saturday in San Diego, no easy task considering the opponents he’ll be facing. In addition to having to face the second- and third-placers from last year, Fisher will also have to face two regional winners who won their regions by more than 15 seconds each.

Want to learn even more about Fisher? Check out our June profile on him here.

Grant Fisher and John Dressell Battled (click for photo gallery) Dressel led with 100 meters to go last year but couldn’t hold on

John Dressel • Senior • Colbert, WA • 4:10.95 1600 • 8:58.38 two-mile

Regional result: 4th West, 15:37
Previous FL finishes: 2nd (2013), 14th (2012)
College choice: Colorado (MB: John Dressel commits to Colorado)
Major results this fall: 14:51 5k win at Stanford Invitational on 9/27; 14:57 3-mile win at state regional meet on 11/1 (defeated NXN champ Tanner Anderson); 14:47 5k for second at Washington state meet on 11/8 (lost to Anderson); defeated Anderson and Maton at BorderClash on 11/23

Dressel has come the closest of anyone to defeating Fisher the past two years, as he led with under 100 meters to go last year before Fisher pulled away late. But unlike Fisher, who has been dominant since that race, Dressel has suffered his share of defeats. He was only 15th in the 3200 at the Arcadia Invitational (sixth non-senior) and was seventh in the two-mile at the Brooks PR Invitational. He’s been better in cross country, with his only loss before FL West coming to Tanner Anderson, who won the NXN meet last week, at the Washington State meet. We wish Anderson was in San Diego for Foot Lockers but since NXN and FL West were on the same day, he had to choose and picked NXN.

MB: Petition to let Tanner Anderson race Foot Locker

On paper, Dressel’s biggest win would appear to be his November 23 victory over Anderson and Maton at the Oregon-Washington BorderClash, but we don’t put a ton of weight on that win considering that in the middle of the race Anderson and Maton tried to get Dressel to agree to finish together with them before Dressel’s late move caught them off guard. Dressel does have one other loss on his resume, as he placed fourth at FL West last weekend.

If it sounds like we’re trying to take Dressel down, we’re not. His 14:47 5k at states was a terrific performance and he would have won that race by 26 seconds were it not for a historically great performance (14:32 course record) by a guy that won’t be racing on Saturday. Dressel was only third at states last year and finished second at Foot Lockers so he’s certainly proved he can rebound from a defeat and come up with his best race in the biggest race of the season.

Matthew Maton • Senior • Bend, OR • 4:03.23 mile • 8:18.66 3000

Regional result: 3rd West, 15:36
Previous FL finishes: 3rd (2013)
College choice: Oregon
Major results this fall: 14:45 5k win at Oregon state meet on 11/1, breaking Galen Rupp‘s course record by 10 seconds; second at BorderClash on 11/23, behind Dressel but ahead of Anderson

Maton is probably the best bet to upset Fisher. After finishing third at Foot Lockers last year, he was second behind Fisher at the adidas Dream Mile (4:03.23) and won the mile at the Brooks PR Invitational. He was undefeated this year until his last two races — the kinda sorta loss at BorderClash and his fourth-place finish at Foot Locker West. It’s the latter result that’s more interesting. The top 10 runners from each region qualify to nationals, and neither Maton nor Dressel were in remote danger of missing out (they ran 15:36 and 15:37; 11th place was 16:02). But history shows that runners that failed to win their region rarely win nationals.

Since 1997, only one boy — Chad Hall in 2006 — has won Foot Locker finals after failing to win his regional meet (and Hall was still second in his region). We can’t definitively say how hard Maton — or Dressel — was going at regionals (Dressel spoke to DyeStateCAL and said that his focus was simply on qualifying, not winning; we couldn’t find an interview with Maton) but a win by either of them would buck the trend.

Still, anytime you’re smashing a record set by Galen Rupp, you’re doing something right (Editor’s note: That being said, we thought we read somewhere this fall that Rupp purposely didn’t go all out at states his senior year, but can’t find it. If you know, please email us). Maton looked great until FL West, was third last year and has run 4:03 for the mile. Those certainly sound like Foot Locker champion credentials. If you disagree, then consider this. There’s one other thing on the bottom of his CV. Maton’s mom, Michelle, was the NCAA champion in 1988 for Indiana (Michelle Dekkers).

Finally, it should be noted that Maton is clearly all in for this race as he’s one of two big names who elected to run Foot Lockers over NXN (Maton’s Summit High team took 17th at NXN without him on Saturday).

Alex Ostberg • Senior • Darien, CT • 4:14.66 1600 (4:06.52 1600 split in DMR) • 8:52.64 3200 • 14:16.61 500

Regional result: 1st Northeast, 15:17
Previous FL finishes: 11th (2013)
College choice: Stanford
Major results this fall: 15:45 5k at Woods Trail Run on 10/4 (course record by 19 seconds); 11:57 for 2.5 miles at Manhattan Invitational on 10/11 (joining Cheserek as the only runners to break 12:00); 14:58 5k at Connecticut state meet on 10/31 (course record was 15:31 before Ostberg broke it on 10/25); 15:07 5k to win New Englands by 32 seconds on 11/8

Ostberg spent much of the fall blasting course records around the Northeast. He became the first runner to break 16:00 on the notoriously tough Thetford course at the Woods Trail Run, broke the course record twice at Wickham Park, site of the Connecticut state meet, lowering it from 15:31 to 15:21 and finally 14:58 (Cabral ran 15:32 as a senior) and ran 11:57 for 2.5 miles to win the Manhattan Invitational, joining Edward Cheserek as the only members of the sub-12 club at Van Cortlandt Park. But disaster struck in November. After a commanding victory at New Englands, Ostberg came down with an injury (he didn’t specify what kind of injury, but spoke about it here) and in the two weeks leading up to FL Northeast on November 29, he ran just twice — the two days immediately preceding the race. Ostberg admitted that he had considered not even running regionals, but proved that he made the right choice as he won comfortably in 15:17 to book his ticket to San Diego.

The pre-injury Ostberg looked like one of the three best runners in the country, perhaps even a threat to take down Fisher. He remains one of the nation’s elite — he won FL Northeast by 16 seconds, after all — but it’s tough to back a guy that missed the better part of two weeks of training in November. To defeat a field this good, a runner needs every possible advantage; even if Ostberg didn’t lose a ton of fitness, the opportunity cost of not running meant that he didn’t gain any while he was hurt either.

Still, Ostberg will enter a confident man; he won the 5k at New Balance Outdoor Nationals last spring in a quick 14:16 and has yet to lose a race all fall. He’ll be in contention for the win.

Andrew Hunter • Junior • Purcellville, VA • 4:10.04 1600 • 8:53.81 two-mile

Regional result: 1st South, 14:36
Previous FL finishesnone
College choice: N/A (junior)
Major results this fall: 14:46 5k win at Great American XC Festival on 10/4 (2.5 seconds off Sean McGorty‘s course record); 14:41 5k at Virginia state meet on 11/14 (course record)

Hunter’s 2014 season is strikingly familiar to the 2012 campaign of another Virginia standout, Sean McGorty (who just finished 20th as runner-up Stanford’s second man at NCAAs). Hunter has spent the fall blitzing fast 5ks and threatening McGorty’s course records. He fell short of McGorty’s bests at Great American (by 2.5 seconds) and FL South (by eight seconds) but took down McGorty’s CR at the Virginia state meet at Great Meadow. McGorty ended that 2012 season with a second-place finish at Foot Lockers behind Cheserek, so Hunter’s performances this year are certainly a good sign.

That said, South region runners have a poor history at Foot Lockers. Since the inaugural 1979 meet, only twice has a boy from the South won the national championship: Charles Alexander in 1981 and Ruben Reina in 1985. There are likely multiple reasons for this fact, but Hunter’s experience crushing fast times on flat courses (he has five sub-15 5k clockings this year) may not be that important on the more challenging Balboa Park layout.

Still, Hunter has a bright future and has another shot next year as a senior to take a shot at McGorty’s remaining course records. No matter how he runs on Saturday, he will enter 2015 among the favorites for the national title.

Elijah Armstrong • Senior • Pocatello, ID • 4:09.04 1600 • 8:55.92 3200 • 14:28.97 5000

Regional result: 1st West, 15:24
Previous FL finishes: 6th (2013)
College choice: Boise State
Major results this fall: 15:06 5k for third at Bob Firman Invite on 9/27 (lost to Conner Mantz and Anderson); 15:01 5k win at Clovis Invitational on 10/11; 15:25 5k win at Idaho state meet on 11/1 (won by 54 seconds); 16:28 for third at NXN Northwest (lost to Anderson and Levi Thomet)

Armstrong defeated the best field of individuals in any race this season at FL West (which was probably slightly stronger than NXN) and as we mentioned earlier, it’s rare than a non-regional champion rebounds to claim the national title. With that said, there are holes in Armstrong’s resume. He has lost twice already this season and he may not be as recovered as guys like Dressel and Maton, who didn’t run as hard to qualify out of the West. Yes, we know we just said that guys that don’t win their region rarely win nationals, but in a region as stacked as the West was this year (four of the top seven from FL finals last year, making it perhaps the strongest region in Foot Locker history), whoever won that race was going to have to work for it. His regional win means that Armstrong demands respect, but it’s not a guarantee that he’ll be the highest West finisher on Saturday.

Conner Mantz • Senior • Smithfield, UT • 4:07.63 mile • 8:52.90 3200

Regional result: 5th West, 15:39
Previous FL finishes: 7th (2013); 12th (2012)
College choice: undecided
Major results this fall: 14:51 5k win at Bob Firman Invite on 9/27 (missed CR by two seconds; defeated Anderson and Armstrong); 15:18 3-mile for second at Utah state meet on 10/22

Mantz, like Ostberg, has struggled with injuries this fall, though Mantz’s have had a greater effect on his running. Mantz missed large chunks of October and November dealing with a stress reaction and he was only second at the Utah state meet. He was healthy enough to qualify at FL West, placing fifth in 15:39, but that may not be enough for the three-time FL qualifier to challenge for the win on Saturday (he and Dressel are the only three-time qualifiers in this year’s field).

The pre-injury Mantz was shaping up as a legitimate threat to Fisher — Mantz beat Armstrong and NXN champ Tanner Anderson on September 27 — but after getting second at the Utah state meet on October 22, he clearly wasn’t the same runner. As we said with Ostberg, it’s really tough to beat a field this strong if you’re anything less than 100 percent. Mantz’ injury seems to have affected his training even more than Ostberg’s, so it’s tough to envision Mantz breaking the tape on Saturday.

For anyone more interested in Mantz, be sure to check out his online training log. In it, Mantz, who is Mormon, says that he will be serving a two-year mission before running in college.

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Other names to watch

  • Olin Hacker (Madison, WI) was second at NXN last weekend, just two seconds behind Anderson. He ran 14:59 for 5k at the Wisconsin state championships (five seconds back of Chris Solinsky‘s course record) and has a strong pedigree: his father, Tim Hacker, is a former NCAA/USA XC champ.
  • Trevor Reinhart (Ross, CA) took second at FL West (defeating Dressel, Maton and Mantz) and ran 14:59 for 5k to win his division of the California state meet by 20 seconds. He was 12th last year.
  • Austin Tamagno (Brea, CA) won his division of the California state meet in 15:09 and set the course record at Mt. SAC in October, running 14:23 for the historic 3-mile course. Tamagno, only a junior, helped his team qualify for NXN through his performance at the California state meet (they wouldn’t have qualified without him) but elected to run FL West instead of NXN. His school, Brea Olinda, finished 20th at NXN. Ran 4:11 for 1600 as a frosh.
  • Other returners from 2013 Foot Lockers include: Thomas Pollard (Ames, IA; 13th in ’13), Levi Thomet (Kodiak, AK; 16th), Ben Barrett (Norman, OK; 29th) and Jesse Reiser (McHenry, IL; 33rd).
  • Other runners pulling the FL/NXN double include Reiser (6th at NXN), Ben Veatch (Carmel, IN; 7th), Stuart McNutt (Overland Park, KS; 10th) Carter Blunt (McKinney, TX; 20th), Zack Snider (Carmel, IN; 53rd) and Alexander Rogers (Braunfels, TX; 83rd).

Thanks to DyeStat TFX for the stats.

Discuss the race in our world famous messageboard: It’s FINALLY here. So who’s going to man-up at Foot Locker? (Boys predictions). Our main forum (which has everything) is here but we also have a high school only forum.

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