NXN Boys Team Preview

CBA goes out hard at the NXN Northeast Regional, earning a title defense tomorrow in Portland! (Photo by Kyle Brazeil)

NXN Boys Team Race: CBA favored, but showdown could go to several

It’s fascinating how the history of Nike Cross Nationals has evolved in terms of comparing the girls’ and boys’ championships.  With the girls, you had a program in Fayetteville-Manlius which has won six titles in a row -- not to mention another in the same state, Saratoga Springs, which has claimed three consecutive runner-up finishes.  For the boys, however, there has not only never been a repeat champion, but no club has won two titles overall in the 8-year history of the event.  Eight different NXN boys’ championships, eight different winners.

There was a time, a few years back, when the anyone-can-win-it nature of the boys’ championship started to ever-so-subtly feel like it was inferior to the girls’ event – even though, to be fair to the boys, their top teams are typically senior-dominated, making a dynasty harder to sustain at this level.

Flash-forward to 2012: There is finally, truly, a strong chance for the boys’ championship to have its first repeat and two-time champion in Christian Brothers Academy (Lincroft, N.J.).  And know this for a certainty: There is absolutely no sense that the boys’ team race is an undercard to another F-M coronation.

Not only are the boys from Lincroft XC to thank for that, even though they are favored; they are far from the only title contender.  To their immense credit, the 2011 runnerups from Southlake Carroll, losers by just four points, are every bit as much in the hunt this year.  And, when you throw in Arcadia, North Central, American Fork and York – that’s three other previous champions and a dozen more top 10 finishes between them.  

Is it fair to say this should be the best boys’ championship race in NXN history?  It is.

And, even better, the drama factor has been ratcheted up a few notches, thanks to something that happened at the NXN Northeast Regional last week: US#1 CBA almost lost.

Huh?  You mean the unbeaten defending national champs, with team course records at Great American, the Manhattan Invitational and Holmdel Park, were nearly toppled?  Uh-huh.  “Last weekend was a tough race,” said Assistant Coach Chris Bennett. “We had some sickness on the team and some poor race tactics early.”  As other accounts noted, the Colts went out harder than usual, suffered for it and found their pack disintegrated, and had to rally hard at the end to win by 17 points.  

“They are trained in a way that allows them to throw out plan A, B, and C and still race,” added Bennett. “That is the beauty of fitness. It allows you to make some mistakes.”

Until last Saturday, CBA’s season had a magical quality to it and, despite the great national competition, it looked as if they could steamroll the field at NXN.  Though leading senior George Kelly was gone, along with Tim Gorman and Conrad Lippert, Jack Boyle would pace a super group of returnees – so super, in fact, that five of the harriers coming into 2012 sported 3,200 PRs of 9:20 or better.  Mike McClemens and Will Bragg were ready to step up and there were many behind them.  The program’s first trip to Great American was a smashing success, as they won by more than 100.  Beating the 2004 team mark by F-M at Eastern States was a crowning achievement.  Lowering their own CR at Holmdel was a given.

Of course, Coach Bennett and head coach Tom Heath knew it could be this way.  “We have really had a terrific season so far,” said Bennett. “The only thing harder to do than be extraordinary is to be extraordinary again. That is basically what all these teams that are here at NXN with us are asking of their kids. Mr. Heath and I sat down on the flight home last year and started working out how we could line up this Saturday and be in a position to win this again. It is a year-long process to get back to NXN and be able to compete.”

The team has had this weekend in its sights since they returned to Lincroft with their trophy last November, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been struggles along the way, even before NXN NE.  In track, CBA came home from New Balance Nationals Indoor empty-handed in the distance relays and their DMR was beaten at the Penn Relays, too.  But redemption came at NBNO, when the 4x800 crew took home a national title and this fall had been pretty spectacular until the regionals.

Still, CBA did finally prevail last weekend, and it would hardly be a stretch to say that almost losing will be looked at later as having been a welcome wake-up call for the powerhouse.  “We are where we want to be,” said Coach Bennett.  “This Saturday we will need to be our best. I don't think anyone who is lining up believes that they can win this with anything less than that. It is the greatest HS field ever assembled for a team championship. In any other year, you would have 4 or 5 of these teams as clear favorites. It is going to be an amazing race.”

 

Let’s take a look at seven other top contenders for the crown.

(names are school, followed by NXN Finals name and regional name, if applicable)

 

US#2 Southlake Carroll TX (Carroll XC)

Major meets:  1st NXN South, 1st 5A State, 1st Nike South, 1st Chile Pepper.

Previous NXN: 2011(2nd), 2010(17th), 2007(15th), 2006(11th), 2004(4th).

Comments:  To have teams finishing 1-2 in the boys championship and have enough firepower coming back to be ranked in virtually the same spots most of the next season, then enter the next NXN Finals battling for the title, is almost unheard of.  Yes, Carroll lost three seniors (CBA, see above, also lost three), but with current seniors Joe Sansone, Nate Sullivan, and Connor Hendrickson, the Dragons had three very high scorers to build around in an attempt to rise up one spot higher than last year’s difficult four-point defeat in Portland.  An unbeaten season has been the result.  

“Coming into this season, we knew it was going to be a tough task to not only go back-to-back in the state of Texas, but also shoot for a national championship,” said Coach Justin Leonard.  “The kids set their goals and worked extremely hard ... We have had some ups and downs this season, but for the most part we have stayed healthy ... Our number five runner (Jacob Pickle) got injured heading into state, which was a big blow to the team.  However, we have had several people step up and take on that role for us.  We tell the kids all the time that if the journey is too easy, then the reward is not worth having.  Without a doubt, I’m most proud of the leadership and consistency that our senior class has shown ... We have to run our race this weekend.  We can’t control other teams or other factors that come into play ... If we run the way we have all year and each kid is willing to lay it all on the line, then we will be successful.”

 

US#3 North Central WA (North Spokane XC)

Major meets: 1st NXN NW, 1st 3A State, 1st Bob Firman, 1st Richland.

Previous NXN: 2011(7th), 2010(6th), 2009(7th), 2008(1st), 2007(6th).

Comments:  Few schools have matched this Northwest power’s record at NXN the past five seasons as North Central claimed the 2008 title and finished in the top seven four other times.  This fall, looked like it was going to be a banner year for Coach Jon Knight’s squad, with all seven of its state and NXN varsity coming back and led by super junior dynamo Kai Wilmot, who truly became a national-class star last spring with 8:57.66 3,200 and 14:44 5,000 track times.  In late September at the Bob Firman Invite, Wilmot was second to fellow WA junior star Joe Hardy, but North Central hammered a good field that included eventual CA state champ and NXN Finals qualifier Arcadia.

It’s been a rougher go since then, however, even as the winning has continued.  Wilmot and the team took the big Richland meet, but Wilmot has mostly on the shelf since.  “We’ve overcome a lot of injuries and sickness,” said Coach Jon Knight. “With our depth, we have been able to cobble state and NXN titles together. I suspect that if we do well Saturday, it will be because one of our back guys has a breakout day. This has been our life-line all year; hopefully we have one more rabbit in the hat, so to speak.”  Regarding Wilmot, he added, “Kai is going to try to run, though he's not 100 percent.  Even at 75 percent, if he can get all the way around the course he could help us.”

 

US#4 American Fork UT (American Fork XC)

Major meets: 1st NXN HL, 1st 5A State, 1st BYU Classic, 1st Grass Relays.

Previous NXN: 2011(6th), 2010(8th), 2009(8th)

Comments:  The Cavemen roll into Portland for the fourth consecutive year, a program that keeps on reloading, even as they’ve occasionally started being under-ranked to start the next season.  Clayton Young and MacKenzie Morrison departed from the 2011 crew, but Brayden McLelland, Connor McMillan and others have stepped up to lead the Fork to an unbeaten season – and that’s even with rival Davis pushing them at almost every turn.  Coach Timo Mostert’s crew has had the talent to make the podium before and, even in this most competitive of seasons nationally, could finally achieve that goal this year.

 

US#6 Arcadia CA (Arcadia XC)

Major meets: 1st D1 State, 1st Mt. SAC, 2nd Bob Firman, 1st Stanford, 1st Woodbridge.

Previous NXN: 2011(4th), 2010(1st), 2009(20th).

Comments:  This is the Apaches’ fourth straight trip to Portland, with the 2010 Ammar Moussa-led national champions highlighting the run.  However, as Coach Jim O’Brien points out, that team lost five of its top seven and, after taking that fourth in 2011 here, again lost five of seven.  “Re-loading wasn’t an option; re-vamping the training process was required to accelerate the learning curve,” he said. “It’s been quite a ride and very challenging at times for a variety of reasons.”

The team let its guard down early the season in losing a league meet to Crescenta Valley, said O’Brien, then was beaten by 80 points at Firman to North Central.  But the team started really rolling soon after, with senior Mitchell Pratt and junior Estevan De La Rosa becoming one of the best 1-2 punches in the country and frosh Phillip Rocha adding unexpected power.  In addition to fast triumphs at Stanford and Mt. SAC, they went to their league final at CV and beat the CR established by their 2010 squad.  “I believe (then) that I finally allowed the realization of our true potential to seep into my dreams,” said O’Brien.  Southern Section and D1 state titles followed, with the state aggregate time trailing only their 2010 legends.  The connection to that group is strong, with the younger brothers of Moussa and 2010-11 star Sergio Gonzalez part of this crew as well.  Don’t expect the weather to intimidate them.

 

US#7 Cardinal O’Hara PA (Philadelphia XC)

Major Meets: 2nd NXN NE, 2nd AAA State, 3rd Great Am ROC, 1st Briarwood

Previous NXN:  First time.

Comments:  Of all of the top contenders, O’Hara is least experienced at this level, making their first trip to Portland.  But that doesn’t mean this program hasn’t been elite; indeed, they are a perennial and historic distance powerhouse in the Northeast, spanning all three seasons.  O’Hara is one of the few programs here that didn’t win its state meet, and the rest were runnerups to programs that also beat them in their NXN regional.  In this case, CBA won the Northeast, with Pa. AAA state champ West Chester Henderson taking third behind state runner-up O’Hara.

Of course, the bottom line is that both O’Hara and Henderson are very good and the NXN committee definitely noticed in taking Henderson as an at-large pick.  O’Hara was just five points better than Henderson at Bowdoin and O’Hara had won state on a sixth-man tiebreaker.  In the regional race, O’Hara had CBA “on the ropes” after hammering the big hill on the course, noted Coach Tom Kennedy.  Added Henderson coach Kevin Kelly, “Both teams can be in the top five (here) Saturday.”

 

US#9 York IL (Elmhurst XC)

Major meets: 1st NXN MW, 1st 3A State, 1st Richard Spring, 2nd Palatine

Previous NXN: 2011(13th), 2010(14th), 2009(13th), 2008(2nd), 2007(9th), 2006(10th), 2005(2nd), 2004(1st).

Comments:  While this edition of the Long Green Line may not quite be podium-ready, it could place higher than any York team since 2005 – and that’s saying something.  No one else besides the men of Elmhurst (or Kroy, if you will)  – not CBA, Southlake Carroll, The Woodlands, Fayetteville-Manlius, Saratoga Springs, or North Central – has competed in every NXN Final.  

York doesn’t have quite the star power up front of some previous squads, but senior Scott Milling has kept getting better every week and now is a legitimate threat to finish in the top 15-20 overall and get a very low team-scoring stick.  Coach Charlie Kern has taken the reins post-season, as he often has from legend Joe Newton, and gotten the crew ready for Portland.  The team has five seniors, with Alex Mimlitz being another key, but juniors Kyle Mattes and Alex Bashqawi also need to step up big.

 

US#10 St. Xavier KY (Louisville XC)

Major meets: 1st NXN SE, 1st 3A State, 2nd Great Am ROC, 1st Palatine, 1st Trinity/Valkyrie

Previous NXN: 2005(17th).

Comments:  This program has been to Portland before, back in the pre-regional days of 2005, but this is probably the best, deepest St. X squad ever.  “We knew we were going to have a very good team this year,” said Coach Chuck Medley.  “We had 5 out of our top 7 coming back this year (Connor Sheryak, Sam Lewis, Thomas Cave, Nick Reader and Mark Johnson) ... The boys set the top goal of going to Nike Nationals this year because #1, they knew they wanted to be part of this great event; #2, they thought they should have went last year; and #3, out of jealousy because Assumption (also in Louisville) made it and they were rubbing it in.”

Motivation doesn’t get much better.  St. X avoided major injuries and had a consistent top 7 all year.  With an ambitious schedule, they won major meets like Trinity/Valkyrie KY (beating IN state champ Carmel) and Palatine IL (beating IL state champ York), and were second to US#1 CBA at Great American.  At state, they tied the all-time record low score of 20, then got it done in Cary last weekend. “They are very confident right now and are hoping for a top 5 finish,” added Coach Medley.  “We're a team that likes to come off the pace and finish strong.  That might be a challenge considering the course at Portland Meadows ... I'm confident that they can race from the front as well as the rear.”

 

Additional team rundown: 

(quick hits of remaining teams by region)

 

NY#1 Fayetteville-Manlius NY (Manlius XC)

Major Meets: 1st NXN NY, 2nd Class A State, 4th Eastern States

Previous NXN: 2011(12th), 2010(2nd), 2009(9th), 2008(16th), 2005(3rd), 2004(2nd).

Note: Finished in top three in three of six appearances.

 

NY#2 Saratoga Springs NY (Kinetic XC)

Major Meets:  2nd NXN NY, 1st Class A State, 1st NY Feds

Previous NXN:  2005(1st).

Note: First time to meet since victory in meet’s second edition.

 

SE#2 Blacksburg VA (Blacksburg XC)

Major Meets: 2nd NXN SE, 1st Class AA State, 7th Great Am ROC, 1st adidas Challenge.

Previous NXN: First time.

 

SO#2 The Woodlands TX (The Woodlands XC)

Major Meets:  2nd NXN South, 2nd 5A State, 2nd Nike South, 1st Kingwood/Wells.

Previous NXN: 2011(21st), 2010(20th), 2009(3rd), 2008(4th), 2007(4th), 2006(12th), 2004(7th).

Note: Has made finals every year but 2005. Three top-four finishes.

 

MW#2 Carmel IN (Carmel XC)

Major Meets:  2nd NXN MW, 2nd Carmel Semi-State, 2nd Culver, 2nd Trinity/Valkyrie.

Previous NXN: First time.

 

HL#1 Bismarck ND (Bismarck XC)

Major Meets:  1st NXN HL, 1st Class A State, 2nd Roy Griak.

Previous NXN:  2008(14th).

 

HL#2 Dowling Catholic IA (West Des Moines XC)

Major Meets:  2nd NXN HL, 1st 4A state, 1st Roy Griak, 1st Heartland Classic.

Previous NXN:  2007(14th)

 

SW#2 Davis UT (Davis XC)

Major Meets:  2nd NXN HL, 2nd 5A State, 4th Bob Firman, 2nd BYU Classic, 2nd Grass Relays.

Previous NXN: 2011(3rd), 2010(11th).

 

NW#2 Kamiakin WA (West Kennewick XC)

Major Meets: 2nd NXN NW, 2nd 3A State, 2nd Richland, 1st Sundodger.

Previous NXN: First time.

 

CA#2 California (Whittier XC)

Major Meets: 2nd D1 State, 1st Clovis, 3rd Mt. SAC Team Sweeps, 3rd Apache.

Previous NXN: First time.

 

At Large #1 Summit OR (Central Oregon XC)

Major Meets: 3rd NXN NW, 1st 5A State, 1st Adidas Classic, 2nd New Balance

Previous NXN: First time.

 

At Large #2 Carlsbad CA (Carlsbad XC

Major Meets: 3rd D1 State, 1st SD Section, 2nd Mt. SAC Team Sweeps

Previous NXN: First time.

 

At Large #3 St. Xavier OH (Cincinnati XC)

Major Meets: 3rd NXN MW, 1st D1 State, 1st Culver Invite, 1st Tiffin

Previous NXN: First time.

 

At Large #4 West Chester Henderson PA (West Chester XC)

Major Meets: 3rd NXN NE, 1st AAA State, 2nd Eastern States, 2nd Briarwood, 1st Carlisle

Previous NXN: First time.

 

 

Top 10 Predictions

1. Christian Brothers Acad. NE/NJ

2. Arcadia CA/CA

3. Southlake Carroll SO/TX

4. American Fork SW/UT

5. York MW/IL

6. North Central NW/WA

7. St. Xavier SE/KY

8. Cardinal O’Hara NE/PA

9. Fayetteville-Manlius NY/NY

10. Bismarck HL/ND

 

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