Footlocker 2005

The eyes of the cross country world will be on hand in San Diego as America's top runners compete in the Footlocker National Championship. Through the years, the race has seen many of the greatest American distance runners compete and has acted as a springboard to even international competition. Bob Kennedy, Dathan Ritzenhein, Alan Webb, Adam Goucher, Meb Keflezighi, Deana Drossin (Kastor), Carole Zajac, Amy Rudolph, Jen Rhines, and Suzy Favor Hamilton make up just the short list of noted runners who competed here.

After years of training and competition including invitationals, state meets, and regional qualifiers, it all comes down to this race to determine our national champion for the 2005 season. It is an impressive credit just to be here to run, for this is the Tiffany showcase of the sport. The field here is full of state champions much less invitational champions. To be here is analogous to being an elite student in the Ivy League: Everyone has been at or very near the top of their class often well ahead of everyone else. Now, they are here together to see who really is number one.

Balboa Park, where the meet happily is being held, is one of the sport's premier courses with a fine history. Its hills are to be respected, if one is to win, so a successful runner has to have strength and endurance as well as pure speed. When the runners toe the line on Saturday morning, they will have devoted much preparation and they will be on a quality course to match themselves against the best this nation has to offer in this 27th running. Given the quality of the field, it is a challenge to predict success, but it can make it a bit more interesting to have a preview based on past performance.

As noted, the race always has quality, and this year's group of girls is no exception. They are in point of fact a highly accomplished group, and many are veterans of this race. Only 3 girls have ever been repeat winners: Erin Keough, Melody Fairchild, and Erin Sullivan. The latest trend has been to see the returning champion fail to repeat, and one wonders, if out returning champion Aislynn Ryan can buck that trend. She was 2nd last year in the Northeast Regional as she also was last year, so that is one thing going for her in a way. This year has witnessed one stellar performance after another with victories in the Great American, Eastern States (3rd fastest time ever in the slop), and the New York Federation meet. She appears to be even stronger than last year. Marie Lawrence of Nevada is another with a brilliant record. Only a junior, she is making her 3rd appearance and was 2nd in the nation her first two tries. Already this year, she has won the Clovis and Mt. SAC Invitationals as well as her state title. She placed 2nd in the Western Regional and is looking to rebound.

Megan O'Reilly of Spokane, WA, is healthy this year and running extremely well. When finally healthy, she ran the Carlsbad 5k in 15:17 and has since won the Danner Invitational, the Washington state meet, and the Oregon-Washington Border Clash (broke the record). She placed 3rd in the Western Regional but also appeared to be holding back. She also enjoys hills so Upas hill should be a friend.

Freshman Jordan Hasay is the new kid on the block, but she has been making her own fireworks. She won the Western Regional tying the course record. There is no question that she is for real, and she too is good on hills as she proved on poop-out hill at Mt. SAC.

Annie St. Geme is another California flash with a brilliant season upon which to draw. She placed third at Stanford, 2nd at Clovis, and won state. She qualified placing 1st in the West and 2nd overall at the Nike Team Nationals. She clearly was not comfortable hurdling the hay bales on the course and can be expected to do better this week. Keara Sammons of Colorado is returning to San Diego after winning her state title and running an excellent 17:26 on the Kenosha course for a regional title. She should have much to say about the outcome of the race. Betsy Bies of South Dakota followed her state victory with a strong 2nd place finish at the regional - losing by only 3 seconds. Last weekend, she was most impressive as the victor in the Nike Team Nationals over St. Geme. She is capable of a surprise.

The South is always difficult to figure as the Southern course regularly produces unreal times which rarely translate well at nationals. Nichole Jones of Texas, Kate Niehaus of South Carolina, and Aurora Scott of Virginia went 1-2-3 in the region. They, however, were not all that far ahead of Miranda Walker and Brooke Upshaw who placed behind St. Geme at Nike. They also were ahead of New York's Lindsay Ferguson, who will be returning for the 3rd time. Ferguson for her part was 2nd to Ryan in the Eastern States and the New York Federation meets. As she has to be considered as a possible winner, the southern runners must be viewed in a different perspective.
And then there is Nicole Blood. No matter how she does this weekend, she will own one of the truly most outstanding high school records of all-time. She is one of the very few four-time Footlocker finalists and is a 3-time Northeast Regional title holder. She has a trophy case greater than Secretariat. Can the 4th time be the charm? It very well might be for beyond the affable personality is a dedicated worker and fierce competitor. There would be a certain poetic justice to her victory.

This is a quality field and there are any number of runners who could surprise. Allison Eckert of South Dakota and Elizabeth Yetzer of Minnesota are returning and have added experience. Bria Wetsch of Minnesota, Briget Franek of Ohio, Kathy Kroger of Tennessee are just three more in this field of running gems. There is so much talent that one feels guilty to leave anyone out, and the predictions as to the outcome could change by the day as well as the mood of the prognosticator.

All of course is subject to change due to conditions of the race and how the race itself unfolds. The guess here is to give a slight nod to Jordan Hasay, whose times on a challenging course and against quality opponents is hard to knock. Nicole Blood is a slight choice over Ryan and Lawrence who should be right in the thick of it. Keara Sammons, Megan O'Reilly, Betsy Bies, Nichole Jones, Annie St. Geme, and Bria Wetsch should follow close behind with Lindsay Ferguson in tow. It could be a classic race!

The boys do not have as much Footlocker experience at nationals, but that is to be expected. Seniors are almost always stronger and in reality relatively few juniors, much less sophomores, make it. That said the returning gray-beards are A.J. Acosta of California, Kenny Klotz of Oregon, Mohamud Ige of Colorado, Dan Roberts of Colorado, Jack Bolas of North Carolina, Justin Harbor of Florida, Mike Eaton of Kentucky, and Diego Mercado of California. With that experience alone, aside from the others, we are not likely to see a junior crowned champion this year.

Last year, it was Mohamud Ige, who took out the pace. His lack of tactics may well have cost him a chance at a victory, as he faded at the very end. Still he looked surprisingly well and quite fluid as he reached the halfway mark and it was a bit surprising to see him to fade. With a more tempered approach, he is one to fear and the fact that he is a state champion at altitude makes him a likely suspect. He also blistered the Kenosha course on the way to a regional victory.

A.J. Acosta is the highest finishing returner from last year and coming from the San Diego area, he has a home course advantage. He also won the Stanford meet as well as his state division prior to his regional triumph. He should be at least close at the finish. California, as usual has several threats with Ben Sitler, who placed 2nd in the regional, one runner of note. He won the Mt. SAC Invitational and was 2nd at state. Michael Coe had the best time of all divisions at state, while Diego Mercado placed 2nd at Stanford, dropped out at state due to hamstring problems, and then took 7th in the regional. It's hard to figure what to expect but he, as well as his brother Danny, is very capable. Matt Tebo of New Mexico is another possible contender after taking both his state and the Arizona-New Mexico Border War titles. Also making it harder to calculate is that the leaders did not seem to fight for a victory at the regional.

Michael Eaton is the Southern champion, who defeated Daniel Gerber of Texas and Jack Bolas of North Carolina. Bolas allows us a real comparison as he made a fine effort against Kenny Klotz of Oregon at the Nike Team Nationals meet. That effort alone makes the three runners a factor. Eaton is the Kentucky champion while Gerber was 2nd in the Texas A&M meet and 1st at the Chillipepper Invitational. Bolas was the winner of the Western North Carolina Carnival. The Northeast threats would appear to come from the Taye brothers, Ayalew and Sintayehu. The immigrants to the US, originally from Ethiopia, now from Massachusetts easily defeated the best in the Northeast.
Other likely suspects are Landen Peacock, the Michigan title holder, and Noah Shannon also of Colorado, who placed 3rd at the Nike Championships.
The wild card in the race is Oregon's Kenny Klotz. He is a two-time state champion, who is now on a roll having also won the Oregon-Washington Border Clash as well as the Nike race. As noted earlier anyone who saw his kick at the Danner meet has to feel that, if the race is close toward the end, he will be a great threat. He is certainly capable of hanging with the leaders.

Even more than with the girls, how the race plays out in various stages will more than likely determine the results. If there is a group at the end, Klotz is the likely winner. The guess, however, is that Mohamud Ige is the one to beat while A.J. Acosta is a close 2nd. Klotz get the nod for 3rd ahead of Ayalew Taye, Landon Peacock, Michael Coe, Matt Tebo, Mike Eaton, Jack Bolas, and Sintayehu Taye would appear to be the next group.