2015 GACC Early Preview: Three defending champs return from VA

by Steve Underwood

Defending New Balance Race of Champions individual winners Andrew Hunter, Libby Davidson and girls’ team champ Blacksburg, VA head up the entries so far to the 17th Great American Cross Country Festival, set for October 3, 2015, at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, NC.

Registration is STILL open for the meet and teams and/or individuals can GO HERE to register.  The absolute deadline is September 27.

The top of the awards stand in last year’s New Balance ROC had a distinctive Virginia flavor, with both individual champs and the girls’ team winners being from the Old Dominion state.  All will be back to try and repeat.  Hunter will certainly be heavily favored to become the first boy to win twice in the ROC at WakeMed, but Davidson is actually one of three Virginia girls who could engage in an incredible individual battle.  Weini Kelati, the soph from Leesburg Heritage by way of Eritrea, and Kate Murphy from Lake Braddock both have powerful opportunities to win.  And as for the Blacksburg girls, they have a shot to repeat, but 9-time champ Saratoga, NY and Murphy’s team at Lake Braddock, VA are among those in their way.

Here’s a quick look at both ROC team and individual races (deeper previews next week):

Girls Individual:  Tough road to title defense for Davidson

Libby Davidson (E.C. Glass, VA junior) crushed it as a sophomore last year, running a 17:07.3 that ranks #3 in course history.  But even if she can duplicate or better that time, it won’t be easy for her to defend her title.  In fact, it will be rivals from her home state that could provide the biggest challenge.  Weini Kelati (Heritage, VA soph) was slated to race here last year, but her school could not travel here due to a religious holiday.  Kelati – runner-up to Davidson in their state 4A showdown last year – will be at WakeMed this time and she is coming off a 17:11 at the Oatlands Invite that is said to be the fastest time in state history (on Virginia courses).

Then there’s also Kate Murphy (Lake Braddock, VA junior), the state 6A runner-up last year.  Murphy was good last fall, but became a superstar last summer when she blasted an eye-popping 4:16.98 1,500 meters (#10 in U.S. history) to win the USATF Juniors – a stunning breakthrough off a 4:46 1,600 PR and followed by a Pan-American Junior title a month later.  Murphy also US#2 in the 2M indoors (NBNI runner-up 10:20.22) and in the outdoor 3,000 (Penn Relays champ 9:32.82), demonstrating her range.  She is slated to debut with her team for XC at the Roy Griak Invite this weekend. 

This Davidson-Kelati-Murphy matchup might be the most compelling in the nation so far this year.  But the top-end talent for the girls’ ROC goes deeper yet.  The 3-4-6-8 finishers from last year return in Elly Henes (Green Hope, NC sr), Eliza Rego (La Salle Academy, RI sr), Rafella Gibbons (Winter Park, FL soph) and Rego’s senior teammate Karina Tavares are all back and can be expected to battle for spots in the top 5 – at least. 

Girls Team:  Challenging task faces Blacksburg

After finishing 2nd by one point in 2013, Blacksburg achieved a long-sought goal with their triumph last year – and by a huge 49-point margin, yet.  Repeating this year will be tough, though.  Coach James DeMarco, who is retiring at the end of this year, lost three of his best runners to graduation.  It helps, however, that Sophia Link has stepped in as a freshman to become one of the leaders and that others who ran outside the top 3-4 last year have improved.

On the other hand, how about the girls of Saratoga, who have captured a record 9 ROC titles under legendary mentor Linda Kranick?  The New Yorkers last won in 2011 and have finished outside the top 3 the past two seasons.  But they will bring a young and balanced team to WakeMed, full of talented underclassmen.  Most websites have them ranked in the top three, nationally.

Then again, you could also bet on teams like Lake Braddock VA, La Salle Academy RI, Green Hope NC or Centerville OH.  Lake Braddock hasn’t run here recently, but has a strong group headed up by the aforementioned Murphy.  They are ranked #1 in the Southeast by both DyeStat.com and Running Times.  La Salle was 2nd here last year and is led by Rego and Tavares – who are both running here for the 3rd time.  They also captured the 4x1 mile relays this past year at both NBNI and NBNO.  Green Hope has been 3rd each of the past two years and is paced by Henes.  And Centerville will make their first Great American appearance, coming off a monster win at the Spartan Invite in Michigan and having been the runner-up in last June’s NBNO DMR.

Boys Individual: Hunter chasing history

Not only is Andrew Hunter (Loudoun County, VA sr) the defending champion – having dominated by 26 seconds last year with the #3 performance in course history (14:46.1) – he’s also the nation’s top returning distance runner by almost every measure.  Going unbeaten until a 4th-place finish at Foot Locker Finals (all 3 ahead of him were seniors), he followed with a wondrous indoor/outdoor track campaign that included 2-mile triumphs at NBNI and the Brooks PR meet (both in nation-leading times), and a runner-up finish in the USATF Junior 1,500 (1st prep).  In all likelihood, the only questions at Great American for him will be how much will he win by and will he go for Sean McGorty’s course record.

Hunter’s toughest competition in the ROC could come from either Aidan Tooker or Luke Meade.  Tooker, a Saratoga, NY senior, was 17th in the ROC last year.  But a much better indication of his talent came on the track, where he was Penn Relays 3k runner-up (8:27.34), ran 8:51.52 for 3,200 at Loucks (5th in the year’s deepest race), and took 4th in the NBNI 2M at 8:56.16.  Meade (Sullivan East, TN sr), who was 8th in both the NBNI (9:06.58) and NBNI (9:08.64) deuces. 

Boys Team:  Ranked SE teams crowd field

With defending champ (and highly ranked) La Salle Academy, RI not accompanying their girls team to Cary, the boys’ race is looking for a favorite.  But there’s plenty of strong contenders including five schools that are ranked among the top teams in the Southeast at either DyeStat.com or by Running Times.  Lake Braddock, VA IS bringing both teams and, despite the graduation of #1 man Alex Corbett from last year, the Virginia squad is deep and strong and leads both sets of regional rankings.  St. Xavier, KY – ranked #2 in the SE by Running Times and runner-ups here in 2012 and 2013 – has another good group led by Matthew Thomas and Spencer HaydenBrentwood, TN – 2013 champions and 5th here last year – is ranked by DyeStat and features super soph Brodey Hasty, the top frosh in the ROC last year in 12th overall.

Broughton, NC is always one of the best teams in the host state and is coming off a narrow defeat last week in the Adidas Challenge at WakeMed.  Their senior Jeremy Brown was runner-up in that race with a scorching 15:08.3, suggesting he could challenge individual favorite Hunter.  New to Great American – and to the regional elite – is Dulaney, MD.  They are paced by senior Eric Walz.  The field will also feature some traditional powers from New York and the Northeast, like Saratoga Springs NY, Danbury CT and Cardinal O’Hara PA – the 2011 champs and 3rd in 2012.

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