In the four years since the Great American Cross Country Festival has returned to North Carolina – WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, to be specific – there have been a tremendous number of outstanding boys’ performances. Individually, the course record has been reset three times by some of the country’s top runners and, team-wise, great programs from Florida to New Jersey have come in here and captured top honors.
But if you look closely, something’s been missing. The Triangle area (Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill) has a lot of talent, as does – of course – the entire state of North Carolina. But when it comes to that state and local talent grabbing Boys’ Race of Champions titles here, it hasn’t happened. You could come up with various explanations, including competition from the Wendy’s Invitational in Charlotte (often the same weekend).
There’s a big opportunity for that to change in 2013, however, and opportunity knocks particularly loud Saturday for the boys of Broughton HS (Raleigh) and Terry Sanford senior Philip Hall.
Broughton, indeed, has earned the favorite’s role in the Race of Champions. The 2011 and 2012 4A state champs have started strong this fall, winning the Knights Crossing Invite (Va.) and the adidas Challenge on Wake Med two weeks ago. They’ve earned a US#10 (DS) and #11 (MS) ranking, as well as #1 in the Southeast. “Wake Med is our home course (as it is for many Wake County schools), and host to many important meets – GACC being one,” said Broughton coach David Chastain. “So I know there is a pride factor that plays a part in the local schools’ hopes to perform well every time they race at Wake Med.”
Broughton has the pride, and this year, too, it seems they have the horses to potentially pull it off. They are the highest ranked team in the field and, with previous best finishes of 6th in 2009 and 2012, seem primed to at least make a big jump. But who are the other prime contenders that will give Broughton the biggest fight?
The strong, diverse field includes:
- US#11 (DS)/US#7 (MS) Brentwood (Tenn.), whose 1-2-3 finish (all in 15:05-06) at the Trinity/Valkyrie (Ky.) Invite a few weeks ago caused many fans to do a double take.
- Two more national top-25 teams from Saratoga Springs (N.Y.), Tatnall (Del.) – both usually more revered for their perennially national championship-contending girls.
- Philadelphia, Pa. power Cardinal O’Hara, which won here in 2011 and was 3rd last year.
- Belen Jesuit from Miami, Fla., fresh off their threepeat at the flrunners.com Invite, the Sunshine State’s premier event. Florida teams went 1-3 here in 2010, including Miami Columbus’ 3rd.
- A St. Xavier (Louisville, Ky.) squad which was 2nd here last year (and also in 2008) after a 5th in 2011.
- Four more teams that were regionally ranked at season’s start, and a total of 22 teams from 10 states.
Like several of the schools from the Southeast that are here, Broughton plans to come back in November and, hopefully, earn a bid to the NXN Finals in Portland. “Although we successfully defended our 4A title last fall, the post season was a letdown,” said Coach Chastain. “As a coach, you look at those moments as an opportunity to learn and you hope that the young men you are working with find motivation from it.” To that end, he added, “patience would be the focus and the guys have bought into that plan and made it their own.”
Broughton opened their competitive schedule later this fall to allow for more base-building, and hopes to peak in November and (hopefully) December. Coach Chastain was pleased with results of the two major wins, the hard work and focus paying dividends, and knows he has a “low stick,” a strong front-runner type in William Roberson – who was 4th at the Adidas Challenge in 15:19.
Coach Chastain is interested in seeing how his runners down the line respond to the challenge of Great American, even as it’s part of the long-term commitment of being “patient” for later in the fall. “We plan to show this weekend that our depth and #5 runner is our strength, no longer a weakness,” he said. “Our plan is to have William continue to test himself in the front pack of individuals and see our pack (#2-7) continue to work toward the front throughout the race ... I know the guys are excited to compete and test their training/fitness. It will serve as a measuring stick against some of the top talent in the Southeast and the nation for our team."
Meanwhile, Brentwood (Tenn.) has redefined terms like “top-heavy” and “Big Three.” At the aforementioned Trinity/Valkryie race in Louisville, their top three of twins Alec and Aaron Thomas, and Taylor Caldwell, all ran 15:05-06 in sweeping the first three spots of a major invite (by comparison, now-graduated national class star Jacob Thomson, who ran 14:43 for 2nd at Great American last year, won the 2012 T/V meet in a CR 14:52).
The flipside is that Brentwood’s 4th ran 15:47 and their 5th 16:27. Still, that left them in a tiebreaker situation with highly-ranked Carmel IN (which they lost).
The school was preseason US#12 and coming off an NXN SE 4th-place finish and state title, so it’s not like Brentwood has been a complete surprise. And the three top guys ran between 9:10 and 9:21 for 3200 last spring. Still, it was impressive.
“Our top three boys have been excellent in their entire approach this summer and fall thus far, and they have been gradually cultivating their racing ability by training smart for three years now and things are coming together very nicely,” said Coach Derek Youel. “While going 1-2-3 at Trinity was a lot fun, the field at Great American will be significantly better so it presents a great opportunity for us to test ourselves ... we certainly feel we have a good shot at (winning) if we race our best.”
“Our top trio are the leaders of our team, but we all know that our 4th and 5th men will determine how well we do as a team,” he added. “With the relatively small group of runners we have to work with, we have taken small success steps each meet, and our goal was to see if we can be a team with the potential to be a national contender by season-end ... Our team intention is to race our best at Nike Southeast and, hopefully, Nationals.”
As for the rest of the top teams, the Saratoga Springs (N.Y.) boys last had a top 10 ROC finish in 2010 with 8th (the Toga girls have won nine titles here), but it’s a program under veteran coach Art Kranick that is always a potential threat. In 2005, they won Great American here and then won NXN a few months later. This year’s team is US#14 (DS) and NY#3 after barely finishing 2nd to Liverpool (tiebreaker) in the Sept. 21 Queensbury Invite. Outstanding soph Aidan Tooker led them there in 3rd, but the team overall has five experienced seniors – led by Jay Navin – to go with Tooker and another talented soph.
Tatnall (Del.) is another school whose boys have not yet experienced the success – here and otherwise – that their girls have. The boys have been 8th here the past two years. But that could change in 2013.
“This is probably our strongest boys team in our school's history,” said Coach Pat Castagno. “They have been focused and working hard all summer ... We are off to a little slower start (by design) and Great American will be only our second 5K this season ... In our first 5K last weekend (runnerup finish at Carlisle (Pa.) Invite to US#9 West Chester Henderson PA), we had junior Stephen Garrett and senior Jack Hagood working well with each other to run 15:36 and 15:38, respectively. Our next group of runners combined with Garrett and Hagood for a 16:11 team average. The boys have very high expectations and are very excited to see where we are on the Wake Med course and against the great teams that we will race this weekend.”
Like Broughton and Tatnall, St. Xavier (Louisville, Ky.) is another program (preseason SE#6) that leads its state and will very likely be back here in November trying to make it to Portland. With two seconds and a fifth in the last five years, no one else has come as close without winning. This is their 3rd big weekend in a row, as they were 4th at Trinity/Valkyrie two weeks ago and 2nd to York at the Palatine (Ill.) Invite last weekend. Seniors Chris Striegel and Max Mudd have been their leaders.
Belen Jesuit (preseason SE#5) not only has been dominating the flrunners.com meet, as mentioned above, but they’ve won three straight 3A titles in Florida. Junior Ryan Rodriquez and senior Fabian Tomas have been their leaders. They are newcomers to Great American.
While pretty much every team bears watching in this race, it’s noteworthy that preseason regionally-ranked teams LaSalle RI (NE#5), Midlothian VA (SE#7), Cardinal O’Hara PA (NE#8), St. Pius X GA (SE#11), and Marist GA (#13) are in the field. O’Hara won in 2011 and was 3rd last year, though they may not be as deep this year.
So what individuals might give the Tar Heel State its first champion at Great American since it moved back to Cary? Forest Lyerly of Ronald Reagan HS was a surprise runner-up in 2009 and after that, three others have finished fifth in different years.
How about Terry Sanford junior Philip Hall? The NSAF Emerging Elite of the Week two weeks ago, he stunned with a 15:08.5 victory here in the Adidas Challenge. When asked if he might be the guy to beat at Great American after his Adidas win, he said, “Wow, I never really thought of myself as a favorite. I know there are some guys out there who are really excited for that race, as am I. I just want to go into the race with the same attitude I had walking into Adidas. The race is definitely going to be competitive. I just have to trust God, my parents, my coach, and myself in saying that I am ready to compete in such a prestigious race.”
Hall had been 5th in the Providence Invite earlier in the season before his breakout win. As a soph on the track last spring, he had run 1:52.84 for 800, 4:13.03 for 1600 and 9:13.72 for 3200.
At least as likely to challenge for the win are three other newcomers to the event.
Mentioned above, Porter Gaud SC sr Brent Demarest won that Hare and Hounds Invite in 15:09 on McAlpine. Even more impressively, reminding one of Lukas Verzbicas and Tony Smoragiewicz a few years back, he competed in the World Junior Triathlon Championships in London in September, placing 17th. Last fall, he was 10th at Foot Locker South and 25th in the Finals, then came back last spring and ran bests of 9:12.64 for 3200 and 15:03.92 in the NBNO 5,000.
Contacted about the race, he said, “I knew I wanted to increase my mileage over the summer to prepare for a more competitive senior year, so I was resolved to do a more aggressive schedule. Of course, with my triathlon training, it became a bit of a challenge to work in all the mileage along with my cycling and swimming but I managed ... I have been racing very light this fall (intentionally) ... the lack of any cross country races was planned by my coaches so I could focus solely on the world triathlon championships. I do hope that my late start will enhance and not hinder my racing later in the season.
“Great American is a very large meet and has attracted some very fast runners. I do believe my chances of doing well are the same as any other runner wanting to PR, but I am aware that every day and every race is different. I have all trained very hard up to this point, I hope that the work I have done allows me to perform that way I know I am capable of racing.”
Another major name to watch is Edison VA sr Louis Colson, who has gotten off to a blazing start this fall with a 14:43 for 2.98M at the Monroe-Parker (Va.) Invite (Burke Lake) and a 15:16 5k win at the Oatlands Invite. Last winter, he had made major headlines when he upset 2012 Great American champ and Foot Locker runner-up Sean McGorty in the Virginia AAA 3,200 with a 9:06.61 – one of a number of outstanding runs he had as a junior.
“I am totally shocked how well my season is going,” Colson said this week. “My races have all gone the way I wanted--other runners have chosen to lead the race for the first half and then I battled for the win ... I am also running faster than I did last year in both races and training runs ... This summer, I really focused on gradually building strength and endurance, while maintaining flexibility and balance. I think my inflexibility caused most of my sub-par races junior year. So this summer I really stretched and did more of the little things that will be very beneficial this year.”
Also, Providence Day School NC sr Ben Huffman is coming off a huge 15:13.95 win at the Greensboro Invite, a time at Hagen Stone 2nd historically only to Alan Webb. With track PRs of 9:08 3,200 and 4:17 1,600, and being another 2012 qualifier to NXN Finals from the SE regional on this course, he’s another major contender here.
Consider also, however, the two top-10 returnees from last year’s race:
- Lexington SC sr Zach Langston (8th, 15:18.7) – He was 3rd, beating Hall, in that Providence Invite. He won the Jenkins Coaches Classic (S.C.) in September as well, running 15:10.69. He made NXN Finals individually last fall, and has a 2M best of 9:17.46 from NBNI.
- St. Pius X GA sr Austin Sprague (10th, 15:20.4) – Has a pair of strong runner-up finishes this fall, to Porter Gaud SC sr Brent Demarest (also in this meet) at the Hare and Hounds Invite at McAlpine in Charlotte and in the Clara Bowl Invite (Ga.) ... 2M best of 9:11.00 from NBNI.