Cheserek winning his 2nd straight Northeast title. (Photo by Don Rich)
Foot Locker Finals Boys Preview: Lightly raced Cheserek still formidable
Twelve months ago, St. Benedict’s (Newark, N.J.) junior Edward Cheserek was bound for San Diego atop a towering wave of momentum that would dwarf any surfers’ swells from the nearby Pacific Ocean. Coming into the Foot Locker Finals, he had smashed seven course records during a season for the ages, including becoming the first under 12:00 at Van Cortlandt (Eastern States), taking down Joe Rosa’s Holmdel Park record in Jersey, and a host of others.
And it was not only Cheserek’s season credentials that were driving pre-meet excitement, but his first-time clash with unbeaten NXN champ Futsum Zeinasellassie was at hand, creating message board debate over whether he would dominate and break another standard, or whether Futsum would give him a rare test. Of course, the latter proved to be true as the Kenyan had company all race before his kick prevailed, 14:52-14:53, in one of the most memorable duels in Balboa history.
Fast forward a year and, not surprisingly, Cheserek is back in San Diego and the favorite to defend his title. But a lot has changed since then. First, Cheserek had many outstanding performances in track, but a pair of losses (New Balance Nationals Indoor mile and adidas Dream Mile) made him seem less invincible.
Then there was the plan Ches and Coach Marty Hannon embarked upon this fall. Dr. Hannon said in August that his star pupil would be focusing on his SATs and academics, and wouldn’t compete until after October testing. Said test turned out to be the week before Easterns and, when it was announced Ches would defend his title there, fans eagerly waited to see how fit he’d be. Very fit, it turned out, as he won with another sub-12 for the 2.5M layout, just missing his CR.
As for the rest of the season, the senior clipped his Essex County meet CR with a 14:18.7 on a very fast course and won the state prep school champs in 14:42 – and that was it other than his Foot Locker Northeast triumph in a relatively modest 15:21.8.
Bottom line: the Cheserek vibe going into Foot Locker Finals is, well, odd. There’s almost none of the record hype that accompanied last year’s meet and there’s a sense that other top runners out there – Sean McGorty and maybe a few others – could beat him. But the truth is that for the few races he has won, Cheserek HAS been running pretty much as fast as last year, practically matching or beating two of his marks, and really should be viewed as no less formidable than in 2011.
“At the regional, he ran a little slower than I thought he would, but it was pretty windy,” said Dr. Hannon. “But he ran very well at the state prep championships.” He added that he thought Edward is “a little fresher” than at this time last year, but raised the question of whether there was a “proper balance” of being fresh versus having a desirable number of races under his belt.
The academic mission has gone well. “He has a couple of weeks to go until finals, and we’ve talked about reaching the academic finish line,” Dr. Hannon said, rattling off Edward’s successes in math, chemistry and English. And he passed that SAT with room to spare. “He’s done great; he’s a great kid ... And I’ve kept the coaches away (Cheserek won’t visit any colleges until after this semester).”
As far as his pupil’s fitness? “He’s been training pretty good. He hasn’t had super duper workouts or done huge mileage, but he’s had good, solid workouts.” But they aren’t taking victory for granted. “There are no gimme’s out there.”
Finally, interestingly, there’s the matter of chasing ... another record. Is it possible that Cheserek could get the one record he missed last year – the Foot Locker Finals record at Balboa? His time last year, in nipping Futsum, was 16 seconds off Reuben Reina’s 1985 standard, chased by so many. No one’s talking about it, but you look at the weather – which should be mostly sunny, upper 50s to low 60s, with light wind – and you say ...
Well, why not?
But yes, there are several other harriers, as we said, that could challenge Cheserek or battle for a finish in the top three. Here are six others who are the top contenders for the highest spots (in order of MileSplit Dec. 5 ranking):
US#2 Sean McGorty, 12, Chantilly HS, VA
McGorty won the South regional in dominating fashion. (Photo by John Olson)
1st FL South, 1st AAA State, 1st Great Am ROC, 1st Glory Days, 10th 2011 FL Finals
Comments: Has anyone had a more impressive overall season than McGorty? In leading his team to a state title campaign, the senior broke records at Great American (14:43) and the State AAA (14:47) and Glory Days Grill (14:45) meets, and just missed others held by greats like Alan Webb, Bobby Lockhart and Solomon Haile. Then at Foot Locker South, he took down Andrew Bumbalough’s standard with his 14:29. Figuring in a 14:19 2.98M at his region, McGorty basically has broken 15:00 five times. This from a guy whose previous creds were very good – 10th at FL Finals last year, then a 9:05.27 2M best in track – but not quite foreshadowing these eye-popping performances.
When asked, McGorty’s coach Dr. Matt Gilchrist searched for a key factor for the improvement before admitting it was really just McGorty’s commitment to training and increased experience (several duels vs. Ahmed Bile in 2011-12 helped). “I believe that every time Sean has raced this fall, he has sought to stretch the boundaries of what he (or I) thought he was capable of, and then expand his capabilities,” he added. “As he has had increased success at bigger and bigger meets, he has been able to run with more confidence, see the results of his training, and race more aggressively, to his tastes.” While his admitted goal is top five, there’s little doubt that McGorty has the best chance to unseat Cheserek.
US#4 Sam Wharton, 12, Tippecanoe HS, OH
Wharton (headband) was 2nd in the Midwest but then won NXN. (Photo by Kane Baker)
2nd FL MW, 1st NXN Finals, 2nd NXN MW, 1st D1 State, 1st Culver, 1st Alliance
Comments: He was surely on many pre-meet top-five lists, but how many folks had Sam Wharton winning last Saturday’s NXN Finals? The senior was the best mudder, when many favorites were faltering, but it’s not like he didn’t have great creds coming in – runnerup at both NXN and Foot Locker Midwest, a CR at state (he was unbeaten coming in), and track PRs of 9:01.24 3,200 and 14:46.31 5,000. Still, the victory and its’ aftermath have blown Wharton away. “In the last three days, I have been overwhelmed with support, congratulations, and am trying to take everything in stride – although it has been very cool to receive this attention,” he said. “It has been a bit surreal. I love flying under the radar, but I can't stay that way forever if I want to be successful.”
Wharton said his legs are recovered and he’s ready. “To do well in San Diego, it will definitely require me to change my mindset from Nike and, running-wise, my coach has been doing an awesome job, so I am not worried. The course and race strategy will definitely be much different than Nike and I am prepared.” He said he’s mindful of the adjustments of two cross-country flights, but enjoys flying “immensely ... This will be my last XC race as a high schooler, so I am prepared to do whatever it takes to have a great race.”
US#5 Josh Brickell, 12, Peachtree Ridge HS, GA
Brickell getting 2nd to McGorty at the South Regional (Photo by John Olson)
2nd FL South, 1st 6A State, 1st Bale N Trial, 3rd Great Am ROC, 8th 2011 FL Finals
Comments: If Wharton wants lessons on flying under the radar, he might take them from Brickell, who despite being on his way to a likely second straight top-ten finish here, is not widely known beyond Georgia and the Southeast. He was third at Great American this year, and has wins in two of Florida’s biggest meets, but hasn’t hit a super fast track time yet (9:12.91 2M best). He was happy with Foot Locker South, where he improved from fourth in 2011. “I accomplished the big goal of making it back,” he said. “A little past halfway, I put in a surge to distance myself from the pack. From there, it was just making sure I kept up the intensity and didn't let anyone run me down in the last mile ... Training (since) has been up and down. I got sick early this week and lost a couple days of training. Hopefully, I'll be back at 100 percent Saturday. My goal is a top 5 finish. To do that, I have to stay smart and realize where key competitors are in the pack early on. Physically, it's just about staying relaxed and maintaining my form.”
US#14 Andrew Gardner, 12, Mead HS, WA
Gardner 5th to earn his 3rd trip to nationals. (Photo by Margot Kelly)
5th FL West, 1st 4A State, 1st adidas Classic, 1st Mtn. West, 6th 2011 FL Finals
Comments: If Gardner can work his way into at least the first half-dozen runners again this fall, he’ll become the only male harrier ever to make the top six three consecutive years. His fourth as a soph in 2010 really opened eyes and came after a spring where he ran 9:01 for 3,200 as a frosh. Since then, Gardner has most maintained, with some minor ups and downs. He dropped two spots last fall, though the field was arguably tougher. He ran his first sub-9:00 at state last spring. This fall, he was unbeaten until Foot Locker West, where he seemed to cruise home after getting overtaken for the lead. Course record wins at the adidas Classic (breaking a Trevor Dunbar mark) and the Mountain West Invite were highlights for Gardner, as was claiming the state 4A title in the meet’s fastest mark.
US#15 Jake Leingang, 12, Bismarck HS, ND
Leingang won the Midwest Regional over Wharton. (Photo by Kane Baker)
1st FL MW, 59th NXN Finals, 1st NXN HL, 1st ‘A’ State, 1st Griak, 4th 2011 FL Finals
Comments: Last year, Leingang was moderately disappointed with his eighth-place finish at NXN Finals – though he ran well against a very deep field – and was spurred on to really lay it all out in San Diego. The result was a much more pleasing fourth-place performance. This year, unfortunately, the NXN disappointment factor was amplified considerably as Leingang dropped back all the way to 59th in the swamp that was Portland Meadows – and that after a tremendous last calendar year that included monster track PRs, a New Balance Outdoor 5,000 track title, and an unbeaten XC campaign with NXN HL and FL MW triumphs. “Last Saturday’s race was a good experience, but it is over with and I am feeling great,” he said. “All it did was give me more motivation to do well at Foot Locker. I am fortunate enough to have one race left and it will be my best. I look forward to the great competition and being back in San Diego!”
US#11 Jacob Thomson, 12, Holy Cross HS, KY
Thomson (Holy Cross) was 4th in the South Regional (Photo by John Olson)
4th FL South, 1st ‘A’ State, 2nd Great Am ROC, 1st Trinity/Valkyrie, 19th 2011 FL Finals
Comments: If you thought Thomson would have placed a little higher FL South and hadn’t heard what happened, here it is from the man himself: “I fell at the start and got pushed back down when I tried to get back up. When I got back on my feet, I was in the very back.” After unsuccessfully trying to bull through the pack, Thomson “took off to the outside and did a big semicircle to the front.” He then realized McGorty – who he battled to the finish at Great American during his only other defeat – was long gone. So he ran just to qualify.
“I had every intention of running with Sean, so I was a little disappointed,” he added. “But I was still happy to qualify and break 15 with so many things going wrong.” And Thomson still feels fit and confident. “My number one goal is to not be disappointed after the race. If I run a smart, aggressive and relentless race, and someone beats me, then hats off to them. I would say there are 4-5 guys capable of winning. It will all come down to who has a good day and is willing to grit it out.”
Six more to watch
US#11 Aaron Templeton, 11, Hardin Valley Acad., TN
3rd FL South, 1st AAA State, 1st K.I.L., 1st Wendy’s, 24th 2011 NXN SE
Comments: One of the most surprising revelations this fall is also likely the top junior in the field. Templeton really joined the national elite when he broke 15:00 at Wendy’s and has backed it up ever since. Don’t be surprised if he’s top 10.
US#14 Ben Saarel, 12, Park City HS, UT
1st FL West, 1st NXN SW, 1st 3A State, 3rd Firman, 11th 2011 FL West
Comments: Fast, but not as consistent as a junior (when he just missed making it), Saarel has been a force this fall. His only loss was in the tough Firman race to Washington stars Kai Wilmot and Joe Hardy. He nearly beat Luke Puskedra’s state meet record in Utah.
US#19 Robert Domanic, 12, Lewisville Hebron HS, TX
5th FL South, 5th NXN Finals, 1st NXN South, 1st 5A State, 20th 2011 FL Finals
Comments: Domanic’s season was geared toward a later peak and he was unbeatable at the end of his Texas season. After winning NXN South, his fifth at McAlpine made him a nationals doubler and he survived the mud in Portland well last weekend with his fifth.
US#21 Jonathan Green, 12, Saint John’s HS, MA
2nd FL NE, 1st D1 State, 1st Bay State, 1st Ocean State, 2nd Wachusett, 22nd 2011 FL Finals
Comments: Green was pretty unknown beyond Mass. last fall when he made it to San Diego, but in 2012, he’s been dominant in New England save for one race. Only Cheserek could beat him at Van Cortlandt and he should move deep into the top half this time.
US#25 Nick Raymond, 12, Erie Mason HS, MI
3rd FL MW, 1st D3 State, 1st Mid-East Champs, 1st Dave Bork, 33rd 2011 FL MW
Comments: Raymond was far off the national radar at season’s start, but by state meet was showing the development of his low-15s talent. His Mid-East champs win prepped him to be able to lead, then fight to third in Kenosha. Could shock with a very high finish.
US HM Grant Nykaza, 12, Beecher HS, IL
5th FL MW, 1st 1A State, 1st Palatine, 1st New Prairie, 33rd 2011 FL Finals
Comments: After finishing outside the top 30 last year, Nykaza is back in San Diego and ready to be nationally competitive. Though in the state’s smallest class, he handed 3A champ Jack Keelan his only in-state loss at Palatine. Should be top 10-15.
Top 15 Predictions
1. Edward Cheserek NJ
2. Sean McGorty VA
3. Jacob Thomson KY
4. Andrew Gardner WA
5. Jacob Leingang ND
6. Sam Wharton OH
7. Josh Brickell GA
8. Robert Domanic TX
9. Nick Raymond MI
10. Aaron Templeton TN
11. Jonathan Green MA
12. Ben Saarel UT
13. Grant Nykaza IL
14. Ryan Kromer WI
15. Troy Fraley MT