Running into Greatness
US#1 Saugus | US#3 Shadle Park | US#2 Fayetteville Manlius
What Defines Greatness?
In every sport there sits a standard of excellence that rises above all others. In basketball the standard of excellence is Michael Jordan, the Lakers, the Celtics, baseball has Babe Ruth, the Red Sox, the Yankees, track & field seems to have found a new face in Usain Bolt with his eye popping and rational defying blitz of the record books. Within the sport of prep cross country teams have come and teams have gone leaving a lasting legacy that resonates through decades. More specifically, within the sport of girls prep cross country few teams have matched the seasons of domination and collective standards set by a few programs. A few of which would be '99 Bingham, UT; '04 Saratoga, NY; '08 Saugus, CA and the '08 Fayetteville Manlius, NY programs. Standards of excellence that redefine courses, meet records, and the national spectrum each year of who is and who may be the best programs and individuals in the nation. In the end, as a spectator, an athlete, and a fan we share in the moment as we watch what some may call greatness.
Back to the question on what defines greatness in the sport of cross country, is it an established history of dominance, a dynasty of prolonged victory of several years? Is it one moment where a team produces a moment of greatness that causes all to pause in reflection of a singular act that defies logic and reason? Or is greatness an unknown team who rises out of the shadows reaches beyond the boundaries of personal ability and what is thought possible to achieve unexpected success. What defines greatness? Is it the sheer domination of one team throughout a season? Is it winning? Is it championships? Throughout the chronicles of sports I believe we have seen all of these situations with each garnering the title of greatness. Only one can carry the title of greatest and this is the source of much prognostication and debate within the sport of girls prep cross country.
In 1999 Doug Speck coined the term "Field of Dreams" to describe the sheer dominance of the Bingham UT girls team as they destroyed the Great American XC Festival field. On that day it was argued that the Jeff Arbogast led Bingham UT girls team was the greatest all-time. Averaging 18:13 over the famed 5000m Foot Locker course, Speck called it, "the most significant day in the history of US high school cross country". In 2004 upon a Saratoga, NY Great American XC Festival victory John Dye posed the question, "Saratoga--best ever?". Saratoga ran a mind-boggling 90:15 over the 5000m course, 18:03 avg. They also ran a 18:12 avg at Bowdoin. These two programs have stood as the standard of excellence for girls teams, but that would all change in 2008.
Three events set the stage for what could be called the single greatest showdown of arguably the three top programs in US history. Three teams from three regions of the country who would each define themselves with extraordinary performances. Tatnall, DE who would run an impressive 90:30 total team time at the NXN Southeast Region to earn victory and put an explaination point on a 90:09 total team time run earlier in the year. Saugus, CA who would be coming off a runner-up '07 NTN finish winning the 2008 CIF State Championships in a meet record 90:06 total team time over the historic Woodward Park course, and the two-time defending National Champions Fayetteville Manlius who was coming off a 13 second 1-5 spread NXN New York Region Championship victory. These three programs would be destined for a collision course at Nike Cross Nationals.
Under the greatest of adversity Fayettville Manlius rose to the occasion and arguably proved once and for all that the definition for greatness ran through Manlius, NY. Against the greatest competition the sport had ever seen Manlius ran an eye popping 18:17 5000 meter average over the Portland Meadows Championship course. Utterly smashing the course record established by the '04 Saratoga team who traveresed the course with a 18:49 team average. To put Manlius victory into perspective, Saugus, CA was the runner-up in an equally impressive 18:40 team average with Tatnall, DE third in the 4th fastest team time only behind these programs and '04 Saratoga, NY with an 18:52 team average. On that day three teams, that under different circumstances could claim the title of greatest met on the field of battle and one team prevailed, thus we see the importance of NXN. On that day a banner was raised, a standard was set, and that standard of excellence went to Fayetteville Manlius, NY.
This year we are again privilaged to witness the convergence of what may be an encore to the 2008 season. Out of New York we have the 3-time defending NXN National Champions Fayetteville Manlius. From California we have the two-time consecutive NXN runner-up Saugus, CA. From the Northwest we have a national darkhorse and what is shaping up to be nothing less than a new face on the cross scene Shadle Park, WA. Three programs facing three different challenges and differing possibilities.
The Runner-up: US#1 Saugus, CA
For two years running Saugus, CA has finished second behind Fayetteville-Manlius, NY at the NXN National Championships. Each year the Rene Paragas coached team has improved by leaps and bounds. In what seems to be a team resolute on throwing the Fayetteville Manlius monkey off their backs this team has preped for potentially one of the geratest runs at the NXN National Champion in history. In '08 Saugus started the season with a 17:20 3-mile average victory at the Woodbridge Invitational. This meet has served as an indicator of things to come for the past three seasons in California.
This year was no exception as the team averaged 17:13 over the same 3-mile course. The challenges facing Saugus remain the same, there is debatably only one team capable of defeating them and the sting of ending a season two years in a row watching the NXN National Championship trophy hoisted by F-M has feuled a fire in their bellies. What we know is that Saugus is determined to finish this season on top of that podium and taste the sweet victory that is associated with being claimed for all time as NXN National Champions, a title that can never be taken away once earned. Should Saugus rise to the occasion they will have the opportunity to proclaim themselves as the greatest ever having defeated most likely the best team this country has ever seen in F-M.
In 2004 Nike hosted the first-ever team championship that has revolutionized the sport of prep cross country. In the inaugural race we witnessed the emergence of what was considered, at the time, as the greatest team in US history: Saratoga. In the final team national rankings as produced by Harrier Magazine, Flathead High School from Kalispell, Montana would be ranked 6th in the nation. A team that has been widely considered the best girls team ever to come out of the Northwest. For the Northwest, the standard of excellence and measuring bar, is the '04 Flathead, MT program. In 2004, the precursor for that season was an early season victory at the Mountain West Classic. In that meet, Foot Locker National Champion Zoe Nelson led her Flathead team to victory over a tough Bozeman program with an 18:38 team average. This moment established a meet that could stand as a standard for top teams to measure themselves.
Shadle Park did just that in 2009, travelling to face the largest collection of cross country teams in the Montana meet history. Against 43 teams, the Highlander's of the Greater Spokane League rewrote the Mountain West record books. Without a Foot Locker Champion, Shadle averaged 18:40 over the difficult 3-mile course. To put this "team" performance into perspective, if we plug the '09 Shadle girls into the '04 meet, Zoe's assistance on the average would not have mattered, as Flathead would have lost by over 20 points due to the tight Shadle pack! The 2009 Shadle Park girls are a true team and the strength of this team is superior to the '04 Flathead team. Some are calling this Shadle team the best the Northwest has seen in 20 years and perhaps the best chance that the Northwest has had at competing for a NXN National Championship. This is one team who stands on the precipice of a momentous opportunity to be a true national
The Champion: US#2 Fayetteville Manlius, NY
For the past three seasons, no team has received more accolades, tasted more victory, and stood at the top of the mountain as much as the Fayetteville Manlius girls program. Having a knack for seizing the moment, under any circumstances, F-M has rolled into the record books in a new era for prep cross country as the first true national cross country dynasty. For each of the past three seasons F-M has steadily improved, gotten better, deeper, and more confident. A confidence that can only be reared through competition and victory against the best that the country and history have to offer.
The 2009 season enters a new era for F-M where the opportunity presents itself to proclaim, with an NXN 4-peat, the greatest program of all-time. The challenge remains whether or not this team, perhaps the best of them all, still has the fire associated with climbing the mountain. If '08 was a precursor of things to come the '09 team will most likely face the greatest opponents of them all in what one has questioned, "could the '09 Fayetteville Manlius team defeat the '08 Fayetteville Manlius team". This is what it may take to take down Saugus, CA and carry the NXN National Championship home to New York which is looking more and more like the "Home of the National Championship."