2015 Foot Locker Finals Girls’ Preview: 19-Year-Old Eritrean Weini Kelati Of Virginia Is The Favorite But She’ll Be Tested By Undefeated Taylor Werner And Annie Hill
December 9, 2015
Last year’s Foot Locker Cross-Country Championships were about two transcendent talents — Grant Fisher and Anna Rohrer — etching their names into history as each secured their second Foot Locker titles. Both Fisher and Rohrer graduated last spring, so no one will be gunning for a repeat title, but once again there are two athletes who have separated themselves from the rest of the country in 2015 — and they go to school 11 miles apart in Loudoun County, Va. Drew Hunter, of Loudoun Valley High School, an Eritrean Weini Kelati, of Heritage High School, have rolled through the competition this fall and both took commanding victories at Foot Locker South, Hunter by 33 seconds and Kelati by 22.
Athletes from the same state have only swept Foot Lockers once (Californians A.J. Acosta and Jordan Hasay in 2005), so it would be would certainly be unique if two athletes from the same county could accomplish the feat on Saturday. We give you the details on Foot Lockers below, followed by a look at the top contenders in the girls’ race. Our boys’ preview is in a separate article here.
What: 2015 Foot Locker Cross Country Championships
Where: Morley Field at Balboa Park, San Diego, California
When: Saturday, December 12. Girls’ race begins at 12:15 p.m. ET, boys’ race at 1:00 p.m. ET. You can watch the race for free on LetsRun.com here. The free live webcast begins at 11 a.m. ET..
Weini Kelati • Sophomore • Leesburg, VA • 9:12.32 3000
Regional result: 1st South, 16:43
Previous FL finishes: 20th, 2014
College choice: N/A
Major results this fall: 1st at Third Battle Invitational on 10/17 (U.S. #2 16:29 5k; won by 1:07); 1st at Virginia 4A West Regional meet (16:56 5k; won by 1:20) on 11/5; 1st at Virginia 4A state meet (17:22 for 5k; won by 29 seconds) on 11/13
Officially, Kelati is a high school sophomore, but in terms of age and experience, she’s more similar to a college freshman. Kelati turned 19 years old on December 1, making her a year older than most high school seniors, and, as a result, she will be too old to participate in high school sports for the next two years. That doesn’t make a difference right now though, as she enters her final high school cross country race as the favorite for the national title.
An Eritrean immigrant who moved to the United States in 2014, Kelati lives with her third cousin, Amlesom Teklai, himself a former Foot Locker finalist. When Kelati enrolled at Heritage High School in Leesburg, Va., we predicted big things for Kelati. After all, she took eighth in the 3,000 at World Juniors last summer in a time of 9:12.32. That converts to around 9:56 for two miles, a mark that would rank her in the top 10 all-time among American high schoolers.
Though Kelati ran some good races in 2014-15 — she was 20th at Foot Lockers — she did not dominate in the way you might expect a 9:12 3,000 runner to do. She was only seventh in the 5,000 at New Balance Indoor Nationals and 9th in the 5,000 outdoors. She never even broke 5:00 in the 1600.
Of course, Kelati can be excused for taking some time to adapt to the U.S.. It’s hard enough to move to a new country where you are unfamiliar with the culture and don’t speak the language; it’s harder still to do it at 17 years old. Now that Kelati has her feet under her, her talent has shone through. She blitzed a 16:29 at the Third Battle Invitational on October 17 (only NXN champ Katie Rainsberger ran a faster 5k this year) and clocked a 16:43 to win FL South, her third sub-17:00 on the year. When you account for the fact that the FL South course was 70 meters longer than in years past, that’s a performance that is close to anything anyone has ever run on the McAlpine Greenway layout (the same pace converts to 16:29 for the shorter course; the course record is 16:24). Her Tully Speed Rating of 159 from that race is tops among FL qualifiers, tied with her 159 from the Virginia 4A West Regional champs on November 5; add in her run at the Third Battle Invite and Kelati has the top three speed ratings on the season (among FL qualifiers).
The Serious Challengers
Kelati has some impressive credentials, but unlike Drew Hunter on the boys’ side, it would not require a huge upset to defeat her. Unlike the boys’ field, where everyone outside of Hunter has suffered at least one defeat this season, there are several undefeated runners in the girls’ field, which could make for an exciting race on Saturday.
Taylor Werner • Senior • Bloomsdale, MO • 4:44.26 1600 • 10:19.15 3200
Regional result: 1st Midwest, 16:57
Previous FL finishes: 13th, 2012; 10th, 2013
College choice: Arkansas
Major results this fall: 1st Missouri Class 3 District 1 Champs (16:58 5k; won by 1:29); 1st Missouri Class 3 state meet (17:14, won by 1:19)
Most years, a girl with Werner’s resume would be the favorite. And even with the brilliant Kelati in the field, Werner, who has not lost in 2015, has a chance to win in San Diego. Here’s what she has going for her:
- She’s a three-time Foot Locker finalist, taking 13th as a freshman in 2012 and 10th as a sophomore in 2013 before missing FL regionals due to injury last year.
- Her best speed rating of 157 (FL Midwest) is tied for #2 in the field, behind Kelani.
- Her 21-second winning margin over Judy Pendergast at FL Midwest was almost as large as Kelani’s 22-second margin at FL South.
- She ran 16:57 at FL Midwest, the same time Anna Rohrer ran before winning Foot Lockers last year.
Put it all together and you’ve got an extremely talented runner on the top of her game. And unlike 2012 and 2013, when Werner pulled the NXN/FL double, she decided to skip NXN this year, leaving her totally fresh for Foot Lockers.
Nevada Mareno • Junior • Raleigh, NC • 4:43.23 mile • 10:19.15 3200
Regional result: 2nd South, 17:05
Previous FL finishes: none
College choice: N/A
Major results this fall: 1st Cap 8 Conference champs (U.S. #5 16:36 5k; won by 1:51) on 10/20; 1st North Carolina 4A Mideast Region champs (16:47 5k, won by 1:24) on 10/31; 1st North Carolina 4A state meet (17:46 5k; won by 44 secs) on 11/7
Mareno has just one loss on the year, though it was a big one: Kelati spanked her by 22 seconds to win FL South two weeks ago. Apart from that, Mareno has put together a tremendous 2015 season, highlighted by her 16:36 to break the high school course record at WakeMed Park (site of NXN Southeast and the Great American XC Festival).
Mareno’s season is reminiscent of another Raleigh native: Ryen Frazier, who went on to take second at Foot Lockers last year. Mareno ran faster than Frazier at WakeMed (16:36 to 16:44) and, like Frazier, ran a pair of track races at the end of the season. Mareno’s times of 4:43.49 (mile) and 10:02.89 (3200) were both faster than what Frazier ran last year (4:44.20 and 10:12) and Mareno ran them both on the same day — November 21 (that may have taken something out of her for Foot Locker South the next weekend). Frazier does have Mareno beat in one respect: FL South performance, as Frazier won in 16:27 while Mareno was 2nd in 17:05, an inferior performance even with a longer course.
At the top of her game, Mareno could give Kelani a run for her money; with two weeks of rest after FL South, hopefully she’s up for the challenge on Saturday.
Annie Hill • Sophomore • Glacier, MT • 4:48.32 mile • 10:31.54 3200
Regional result: 1st West, 18:12
Previous FL finishes: 8th, 2014
College choice: N/A
Major results this fall: 1st Montana Class AA state meet (16:30 3-mile; won by 17 seconds) on 10/24; 1st NXN Northwest (17:31 for 5k; won by 2 seconds)
Like Kelati and Werner, Hill, who was 8th at Foot Lockers as a freshman last year (the highest finish by a freshman since Emily Sisson in 2006), is undefeated in 2015 and she has claimed some major scalps in the process. Hill was far and away the best runner in the state of Montana this year, and though it may not seem like much, that is actually quite meaningful. Hill, from Glacier, has raced 4:16 1500 runner Christina Aragon, from Billings, five times this year and beat her soundly on four occasions (by an average of 23 seconds) and narrowly once (by two seconds at NXN Northwest). Hill similarly owned Tiahna Vladic (also of Billings; 23rd at NXN) and beat Ella Donaghu (2nd at NXN) at NXN Northwest as well.
All that means we have yet to see Hill’s full potential. Kelani, Werner and Mareno should coax it out of her in San Diego.
Madeleine Davison • Senior • Wexford, PA • 4:47.07 1600 • 10:27.20 3200
Regional result: 1st Northeast, 17:39
Previous FL finishes: 40th, 2014
College choice: Syracuse
Major HS results this fall: 1st FL NE (17:39)
Davison, who is headed to Syracuse next year, has run unattached this year as she’s currently taking a full load of college classes at Pitt. As a result, the Foot Locker NE meet was her only HS race of the season but that doesn’t mean Davison, who is coached by former sub-4 miler Sam Bair, is untested. She’s been racing against collegians all year. She was 8th at Penn State’s Spiked Shoe Invite, then 7th at Eastern Michigan, then 2nd in the Open Race at Notre Dame (in a time that would have placed her 50th in the big race), then 2nd in the women’s division at the NYRR’s Fred Lebow XC meet (17:47 at VCP) before winning FL NE in 17:39.
While the NE champ, none of her results this year indicate she’s likely to win Saturday. Her Tully Speed rating from Foot Locker NE was 153 and five girls in the field are ranked higher than that on the year.
Best of the Rest and Other Notes
- Stanford-bound Hannah DeBalsi (Westport, CT) is the highest returner from last year (5th) and was second as a sophomore in 2013. She won her third straight New England championship on November 14 but the fact that she finished lower at Foot Locker Northeast than last year (4th vs. 2nd) suggests she is unlikely to win on Saturday.
- Sarah Leinheiser (Carmel, IN) is the highest finisher from NXN (she was 7th), though she was only 5th at Foot Locker Midwest. FL Midwest runner-up Judy Pendergast (Naperville, IL) was one spot back of Leinheiser in Portland and has run some impressive times (15:53 3-mile CR at Detweiller Park; 17:00 CR at LaVern Gibson) but has also been racing a lot recently. How much did NXN take out of them?
- Returners from 2014 Foot Lockers include: Hannah DeBalsi (Westport, CT; 5th in ’14), Libby Davidson (Lynchburg, VA; 6th), Annie Hill (Glacier, MT; 8th), Lauren Gregory (Fort Collins, CO; 11th), Maryjeanne Gilbert (Peoria, IL; 12th), Stephanie Jenks (Aurora, IA; 15th), Weini Kelati (Leesburg, VA; 20th), Emma Grace Hurley (Roswell, GA; 24th), Logan Morris (Inman, SC; 32nd), Abby Gray (San Antonio, TX; 36th) and Madeleine Davison (Wexford, PA; 40th)
- Runners pulling the FL/NXN double include Sarah Leinheiser (Carmel, IN; 7th at NXN), Judy Pendergast (Naperville, IL; 8th), Madison Troy (Grandville, MI; 12th), Gray (21st) and Jenks (25th).
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It’s very tempting to go with Kelati, especially considering how fast she has run this fall. Many high school boys are happy to break 17:00; Kelati has done it three times. But Werner’s history at this meet (13th as a freshman, 10th as a sophomore) plus her 16:57 at FL Midwest makes it a tough choice. Like Kelati, Werner is undefeated on the year, and like Kelati, she crushed everyone else at her regional (winning by 21 seconds to Kelati’s 22).
But let’s not overthink this. Kelati was 8th at World Juniors and has run 9:12 for 3,000. That’s worth around 9:56 for 3,200, 23 seconds better than Werner’s PR. She’s a 19-year-old Eritrean running against American high schoolers — that’s the same age that fellow Eritrean Ghirmay Ghebreslassie was this summer when he won the marathon at the World Championships. Comparatively, Ghebreslassie is clearly a superior runner to Kelati. But it still makes no sense not to pick the older, faster runner in a race like this. Kelati FTW.
Foot Locker vs. NXN / Kelati vs. Rainsberger
Since the start of NXN in 2004, every year people have wondered if Foot Locker would slowly fade away but the facts are the best boys’ runner has always been at Foot Locker (in 2010, Lukas Verzbicas won both meets). On the girls’ side, the winner of Foot Locker has been better than NXN nearly every year as well but most would certainly agree that NXN champ Alexa Efraimson was a better runner than Tessa Barrett in 2013 and the speed ratings backed that up (Barrett 162, Efraimson 165 — one point is worth three seconds on a 5k). Some thought Sarah Baxter was better than Molly Seidel in 2011 but the speed ratings didn’t back that up (Baxter 156, Seidel 160). This year may be the second year that the NXN champ is greater than the Foot Locker champ but it’s close. NXN champ Katie Rainsberger had a pre-meet 160 speed rating and ran a 161 to win NXN last week. Kelati has a 159 speed rating heading into Foot Locker.
Discuss the race on our world famous message board:
MB: Foot Locker predictions
MB: Foot Locker admits to adding 70 meters to South Regional course
MB: Calling it now… NY is going to be dominant at Footlocker
MB: Andrew Hunter will win Foot Locker by ___ & when will he leave the pack for second place?
MB: Rocha 2nd at FL west regional…tamagno 24th at NXN. Safe to say Hunter is on top?