By Jonathan Gault
December 5, 2019
The fields at Nike Cross Nationals have always been strong — it is, after all, a national championship race. But the 2019 edition, which will be held on Saturday in Portland, Ore., is shaping up as one of the most competitive ever.
Some years, the US high school ranks are blessed with multiple top-tier talents — think Alan Webb, Dathan Ritzenhein, and Ryan Hall in 2000 or German Fernandez, Chris Derrick, and Luke Puskedra in 2007 — and 2019 could eventually join them as a high school cross country annus mirabilis. That’s not hyperbole. This year’s crop is that strong.
Not one, but two guys in this field — Nico Young and Cole Sprout (Stanford signee) — ran 8:40 for 3200 last spring to break the fabled Arcadia Invitational meet record. At last month’s Illinois state meet, Josh Methner (Notre Dame signee) took down the Detweiller Park course record held for 47 years by two-time World XC champion Craig Virgin. And there’s depth behind them.
In the team competition, the usual suspects are all there: Loudoun Valley (Va.) is seeking to build a dynasty on the boys’ side with an unprecedented third straight victory, while Fayetteville-Manlius (N.Y.) will try for their 12th girls’ title in 14 years against defending champion Summit (Ore.). Will those perennial powers get it done, or could the Newbury Park (Calif.) boys, led by individual favorite Nico Young, break through for their first title?
Oh yeah, and Katelyn Tuohy is trying to become the first woman to win three straight NXN titles. Is she vulnerable?
Here’s what you need to know before watching this weekend’s races.
When: Saturday, December 7. Boys’ race at 1:05 p.m. ET, girls’ race at 2:35 p.m. ET.
Where: Glendoveer Golf Course, Portland, Ore.
Regional results: Heartland * Northwest * Midwest * Southwest * South * Southeast * Northeast/New York * California state meet
California qualifiers/at-large team/individual qualifiers *2018 NXN results * All 2019 LRC NXN coverage * 2018 LRC NXN coverage
1) The boys’ individual race could be an all-time classic
Given the wild disparities between courses and competition in high school cross country, LetsRun’s favorite way to analyze performances is by using Bill Meylan‘s speed ratings, which he cranks out year after year for Tully Runners. And by that metric, this is the most loaded boys’ race in the 15-year history of NXN. The class of 2020 has been taking a sledgehammer to the record books across the country.
Consider the case of Cole Sprout who is, already, the greatest high school distance runner in Colorado history. As a junior, he finished 3rd at NXN, ran Colorado state records of 4:04 in the mile and 8:40 for 3200 meters, and ran 8:46 to win the 2-mile at the prestigious Brooks PR Invitational. This fall, he’s run one of the fastest XC 5ks ever (14:16 at the Desert Twilight XC Festival in September) and lowered his own course record at the Colorado state meet to 15:12. The latter performance earned him a 198 speed rating from Meylan, which last year would have ranked him first in the NXN field. This year, it’s only good for sixth.
From 2011, when Meylan began tracking the statistic, no NXN field featured more than four boys who had registered a speed rating of 198 or higher in the regular season. This one has six, led by Nico Young, who scorched a 202 by running 14:28.5 at last week’s California state meet, narrowly missing German Fernandez’s 14:24 course record (Each point in a speed rating is supposed to represent a three second gap in a 5k race.). Young has been on fire all fall. Back in September, he ran 13:39 to win the Woodbridge Cross Country Classic, the fastest 3-mile XC time ever by a high schooler. And before his 14:28.5 at the CA state meet, he ran 14:28.9 on the same course in October.
On its own, Young vs. Sprout at NXN would be a duel for the ages. The last time they met, at the famed Arcadia Invitational 3200 in April, produced a classic: Young ran down Sprout over the final 100 meters as both broke the previous meet record, Young running 8:40.00 to Sprout’s 8:40.73. Those times rank behind only Lukas Verzbicas and Drew Hunter on the all-time junior class 3000/3200/2-mile list (Verzbicas was 18, the age of a senior, when he ran that time).
Young has the edge on Saturday, and not just because he won at Arcadia. Sprout has one loss on the year, to Arizona’s Leo Daschbach (UW signee), who ran 14:14 at Desert Twilight to beat him by two seconds. Young has also raced Daschbach, at the Clovis Invitational, and won by two seconds (sadly, Daschbach, another incredible talent, is hurt and won’t run NXN).
And yet it’s possible that neither Young nor Sprout wins on Saturday. Josh Methner,
a high schooler best known for being a listener to the LetsRun.com Track Talk podcast who ran 13:49.9 to break Craig Virgin’s course record at the Illinois state meet, hasn’t lost all year, piling up wins at NXR Midwest and Foot Locker Midwest. Oregon’s Evan Holland (8:50 2-mile, Oregon signee) and Texas’ Ryan Schoppe (8:52 3200/14:27 5000 on the track) are also undefeated (though Schoppe was a DNF at Chile Pepper after losing his shoe); Schoppe blitzed a 14:14 5k at the Texas state meet, the second-fastest ever by a high schooler in an XC race.
So yes, this race is utterly loaded, which perhaps isn’t a surprise considering three of the top five last year — led by Sprout and Young — were juniors. It’s going to take a monster effort to win.
2) Can Katelyn Tuohy make history by three-peating in the girls’ race?
Katelyn Tuohy is the best high school girls’ cross country runner we’ve ever seen. She has spent the past three years rewriting course records and has won two NXN titles; on Saturday, she could make history by becoming the first girl to win three.
Tuohy hasn’t been quite as dominant as last year — her top speed rating in 2019 is 170, a mark she eclipsed five times in 2018 — but that’s okay, considering Tuohy’s 2018 campaign was the greatest ever by a high school girl. She is still the heavy favorite for the title on Saturday. Tuohy’s last six races comprise the six highest speed ratings earned by any girl this fall: 164, 168, 166, 165, 170, 168. Pennsylvania’s Marlee Starliper (NC State signee), at 163, is the closest to Tuohy. So even if you average Tuohy’s six best races (166.8) she is still, on paper, 10 seconds better than Starliper on her best day (each speed rating) point represents three seconds.
Could Starliper spring the upset? Well of course it’s possible. Sarah Baxter won NXN as a sophomore and junior only to lose to Alexa Efraimson as a senior in 2013. Starliper is coming off a huge run at Foot Locker Northeast last weekend where she ran the second-fastest time in Van Cortlandt Park history and beat reigning Foot Locker champ Sydney Masciarelli, who is only running Foot Locker, by 15 seconds. Starliper’s track PRs (4:37 1600/9:54 3200) aren’t as fast as Tuohy’s (4:33 mile/9:47 3200), but they’re still super impressive. And she has beaten Tuohy before; the last time they raced, at the 2018 Millrose Games HS mile, Starliper ran 4:44 to Tuohy’s 4:47.
Tuohy is the star, and Starliper the #1 challenger, but there’s plenty of depth as well. In total, eight women have recorded a speed rating of 157 or higher this year; in the last nine years, no other NXN field has had more than three such athletes. Taylor Ewert (3rd in 2018, Arkansas signee), Claire Walters (5th, NC State signee), and Brooke Rauber (6th) all return from last year and have been in fine form again in 2019. And Katelynne Hart (Michigan signee), who finished a close second behind Masciarelli at Foot Locker last year, is also entered — though she was only 4th at Foot Locker Midwest last weekend.
One more thing: while Tuohy may be the best runner in the country, it’s unfortunate she can’t definitively prove it by facing FL champ Sydney Masciarelli. Tuohy never raced two-time FL champ Claudia Lane (who graduated last year) and now it looks like she’ll graduate without racing Masciarelli either. And it’s not because Tuohy dodged them; it’s because of the sport’s dual national championship structure. While NXN has undoubtedly been a good development for the sport, this problem will persist until NXN and FL find a way to work together.
3) Boys team: Loudoun Valley aims for three-peat against loaded Newbury Park
While the F-M girls have strung together separate streaks of seven (2006-2012) and four (2014-17) straight NXN titles, no boys’ team had repeated until Loudoun Valley accomplished the feat last year. And LV did it in style, recording the two lowest scores in meet history — 89 points in 2017 and 77 last year.
LV is certainly in the running for a three-peat. While they lost four of their top six from the 2018 squad, LV has put together another strong season, scoring just 17 points at the Virginia Class 4 state meet, led by their top two returners from last year, seniors Carlos Shultz and Kellen Hasle.
The concern for LV is that they scored more points at the NXR Southeast meet (80) than they did in 2017 (72) or 2018 (52), but they also got a poor race out of Taylor Ney, who was their #6 after finishing as their #2 earlier in the year at the Great American XC Festival. If he runs well on Saturday, the three-peat could be on.
Two California schools figure to be LV’s top competition in Portland. Great Oak finished second last year with 114 points — the same score as when Great Oak won it all in 2015 — and returns four of the top seven from that squad, including the top two. But as good as Great Oak is, they may not even be the best team in California. That’s because Newbury Park set the all-time record for fastest combined time at the CA state meet last weekend (the two schools are in separate divisions, so they didn’t race head-to-head).
If Newbury Park sounds familiar, that’s because it is the school of Nico Young, the individual favorite. Since NXN began allowing individuals in 2008, no individual winner has also been part of the winning team (Sean McNamara and Chris Derrick both did it in the NTN era). With Young and Jace Aschbrenner, Newbury Park had two of the three fastest times of the day at the CA state meet, which gives them a huge advantage at the #1 and #2 spots. Their #5 was 11 seconds slower than Great Oak’s #5, however, and depth is important, especially at NXN, where 11 seconds could mean 20+ places.
Remember, last year Dakota Ridge (Colo.) had athletes finish 6th and 10th overall (3rd and 4th in team scoring); Loudoun Valley’s top two were only 30th and 31st, but that was still good for 8th and 9th in the team score as many of the top individuals at NXN are not on teams. Two great low sticks isn’t as big an advantage in high school XC as it is in college — but it is still an advantage. If Newbury Park is to win, Young and Aschbrenner both need to score in the low single digits.
4) Girls team: A new girls’ dynasty? Or an old one?
Meylan’s “morning line” projections predict a close battle in the girls’ team race, with three former champions all clustered within six points at the top: reigning NXN champs Summit (Ore.), 11-time NXN champs F-M, and the inaugural NXN champs, Saratoga (N.Y.). All six of Summit’s finishers at NXN last year were underclassmen, and though only four of those six suited up at NXR Northwest, Summit scored an impressive 59 points to win, just five points off their winning score a year ago. They will be dangerous, led by senior Fiona Max (11th at 2018 NXN).
Meanwhile, F-M holds the advantage in the battle of NY schools, but it’s very close. F-M won at the NY state meet (34-40) and NXR NY (47-49), but both of those performances are well within the margin of error. F-M’s biggest advantage is at #1 — their #1, Claire Walters (NC State signee), was 5th at NXN last year. But Saratoga can make it up on the back end; at NXR NY, their #5 was just 1.5 seconds behind F-M’s #4. Flip those two, and it would have been a tie at NXR.
To date, F-M is the only girls’ school to win multiple NXN titles. Will that change on Saturday, or can F-M climb back on top after a one-year absence?
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