Footlocker Finals 2015
Sat December 12, 2015 (Morley Field, Balboa Park, San Diego, CA)
San Diego is a beautiful city and the Hotel Del Coronado, where the Foot Locker people board the elite runners for the long weekend is fabulous. Making it even more pleasant is fine weather, which is especially appreciated where it's winter almost everywhere else in the country. Though it rained a bit the night before the course was fun and the rain actually kept any dust down for the harriers. With the temperature in the low sixties conditions were fine for a 5K race. There is plenty to do here in Southern California but Saturday morning it is all business, as the best athletes in America challenge each other on a classic course. The girls' race got under way at 9:15 AM and as expected Weini Kelati of Virginia cut the pace.
Originally from Africa Weini qualified for Foot Locker last year. She placed twentieth last year but this year the Virginia runner has been dominating races. She won the South and appeared in San Diego quiet yet on a mission. Though technically she is a junior in the program, she is older (19) for her age and will be too old for this event next year. If she were going to win this was the year & today the day and she ran with the intent being obvious to all. She led the field down the hill that faces the museums and then held sway on the way back. She made the turn at the bottom in 1:30 and then led the field at the 800 Meter mark, which was reached in 2:34. The pace served to whittle down the pack but Taylor Werner of Missouri, the Midwest champion, & Maryjeanne Gilbert of Illinois gave chase & made sure she Weini did not get too far ahead. It was an experienced group up front as Werner is a three-time finalist while Gilbert came intent to improve on last year's twelfth place finish. She came to the race "wanting no regrets" and ran with a determination to "hold nothing back."
Still Kelati was determined too and she picked up the pace at the 3:46 mark as if challenging anyone to stay with her. The South champion opened up a meter lead at one point but, while her pursuers would bend they would not break. They had reeled her in by the mile which was covered in 5:13 and now it was not just two runners as Judy Pendergast of Illinois had made the chase pack a trio. Also making a move to stay in contention were Nevada Mareno of North Carolina & Libby Davidson of Virginia. This was not going to be a wire to wire victory & Gilbert made a bold move at the 6:20 mark to take the lead. She surged past the leader & continued to lead her back down Upas Hill. For a brief time it looked to be a two-person race as the others fell back a bit.
Half way through the race Kelati & Gilbert still dueled and their time was 7:59. Pendergast & Davidson held third & fourth place while Stephanie Jenks of Iowa & Hannah DeBalsi were noted as jockeying for position further back. The two leaders continued to race for the next two minutes & passed the Two Mile mark essentially together in 10:55. Meanwhile Pendergast closed in a so did Nevada Moreno, who had reversed her tactics from the South meet two weeks ago. Kelati & Gilbert were still working but soon both Mareno & Pendergast seemed capable of taking the lead. As they neared the twelve minute mark the race could still go to a number of possible competitors and it would remain that way for another minute.
Kelati was relentless, as she began the ascent of Upas the second time but Nevada Moreno was now making a concerted effort. Those two had a five yard lead over Pendergast & Gilbert. Race-styles can make a world of distance on hills &, while Mareno made it interesting going up Upas Hill, it was Kelati, who had the advantage going down again. Kelati pulled away from Moreno, who gave way to a resurgent Gilbert, who began closing the gap on the leader late in the race. In the end Kelati won a hard-fought race in 17:09 by a second over Gilbert, who turned in a valiant effort. Nevada Moreno placed third in 17:17 with Judy Pendergast following three seconds later. Taylor Werner finished fifth in 17:29 and Libby Davidson placed sixth for the second straight year - this time with 17:37. Madison Troy of Michigan took seventh in 17:41 by nipping Sarah Leinheiser of Indiana, who shared the time, at the line. Logan Morris of South Carolina earned ninth in 17:47,as she edged Sage Hurta, who was credited with the same time. Jessica Lawson of NY followed in eleventh with17:49.
Northwest runners had a challenging day with Jordan Oakes of Holy Names leading the region with her twentieth place time of 18:12. Of course it should be noted she placed eleventh in the West Regional last fall & was the first alternate. This year she joins the Foot Locker family of runners as All American - Honorable mention. Annie Hill had an off day and finished 22nd in 18:18 but then she has qualified for nationals her freshman & sophomore campaigns, which is no small feat. Kristen Garcia was 32nd in 28:29.
The Midwest girls had a tight pack with their fifth runner taking eighth with 25 points. The South had great firepower up front but had to settle for second with 34 points. The Northeast gals placed third with 60 points while the West struggled with 104 points.
Going into the boys' race Drew Hunter, The South Regional champion, appeared to be the prohibitive favorite. He had openly admitted that his entire XC campaign had been geared with Foot Locker in mind. He remained undefeated after a course record at Foot Locker South, so many eyes were seeing him improve on last year's fourth place finish. Still many runners are good, because they are both determined & have faith in themselves. Hunter was going to have to prove his mettle, if he were going to hoist a national championship platter. Jonathan Davis expressed the optimism of many, when he noted before the race that he liked his chances if it came down to a kickers race as a few of his race had this season.
The Balboa Park course offers a very wide stating area, which remains quite open for a good 500 meters, so there is not the priority to jockey for position as at various other venues. The guys took advantage of that and, although Hunter was the titular leader prior to the two minute mark, he was engulfed in a huge pack probably twenty runners. They had made the turn & headed up the eucalyptus tree-lined hill towards the tennis courts and pool area. It was a brisk pace of 2:13 for 800 meters with Hunter towing the field behind him. It was at this point, as the runners went out of sight rounding the pool, that Drew put in a remarkable surge, which broke apart the field. In less than 150 meters he opened a gap on the field. The race was less than 1000 meters completed yet it was this point that runners had to decide whether to answer the surge or let him go. Phillip Rocha, California's fastest runner this fall at State at Mt SAC Invitational winner admitted that he assessed his chances at this point & gambled not to counter the surge but to adjust gradually. It was the defining moment in the race for Hunter continued to push the pace as he forged ahead alone.
Drew roared through the mile in 4:50, which gave him an eight second lead over Ben Veatch, the Indiana State champion & another return runner. Just behind him were Garek Bielaczyc of Utah, the West champion, as well as Noah Affolder of New York & Phillip Rocha. Justin Janke, the Washington State champion was in about tenth place at this time but Hunter was far ahead & forcing the field to jockey for second place well behind him. The leader swiftly cruised up formidable Upas Hill for the first time and then headed back down and he was still widening his lead. Hunter's dominance was so great that the banter switched from can he be caught to 'is it possible he could break the record set by Reuben Reina in 1985 of 14:36. Still Reina was challenged by a stunning fast field that year while Hunter was off on his own. That said Drew rolled past the Two Mile mark in 9:25 Phillip Rocha also ran alone in a distant second and reached 2M 9:42. He was running an exceptional race yet was not in contention. He was trying to finally move up on the leader but was not gaining ground.
The South champion had the race well sewn up by the time he cruised up and down Upas Hill, which is often the place where the race is won or lost. Garek Bielaczyc had vowed he would give a better account of himself on the downhill but it was moot. The leader passed three miles in 14:25 & it finally seemed that Rocha was closing a bit but there would be no challenge. His final time was an impressive 14:55 and he was unchallenged. Phillip Rocha, who had been sick earlier in the week, finished second in 15:07 for a two second margin over Ben Veatch, who closed well at the end. Garek Bielaczyc ran a fine race to earn fourth in15:14 & Paul Roberts of Colorado took fifth in 15:15. Andrew Jordan, the Ohio State champion, claimed sixth with15:16 with Conor Lundy of Yonkers crossing the line four seconds later. Pennsylvanian Jake Brophy garnered eighth in 15:21 and Seth Hirsch of Omaha ran 15:27 to follow in ninth. Tenth went to Michael Verna of California, who check in at 15:28 - a second ahead of Finn Gessner of Wisconsin & Dylan Scarsone of California.
The Midwest guys had finishes of third, fifth & sixth for their leaders as the five man total was a low of 38 points. Going into the race they seemed like the strongest team, especially with the times the top four displayed at Kenosha and they showed it on Saturday. The West runners placed second with fifty points to sixty-seven for the Northeast. Jackson Mestler of South Eugene led the Northwest guys with his 22nd place time of 15:44. Justin Janke of North Central placed 25th in 15:45 & Tibebu Proctor of Northwest ran 15:50 placing 28th.