The 2012 team champion and individual runner-up (top returnee) are slated to come back to the 15th Annual Great American XC Festival Girls Race of Champions Saturday.
But what kind of shape each is in, while hoping to return to the top, is another question.
The Assumption (Ky.) girls won last year’s GACC ROC with an 88-point total, topping 3-time defending (9-time overall) champion Saratoga Springs (N.Y.), which scored 136. Assumption was ranked as high as #2 preseason in the nation by some analysts, but injuries and a conservative approach to the season’s start by Coach Barry Haworth have, in effect, brought them back to the pack. While they certainly could still win, there are at least four other schools that belong in the conversation, too:
- Saratoga, of course, is always in the conversation and don’t let all the talk about the Kinetic ones being down this year (with graduation losses and transfers in and out) fool you. This team is still very good and could win here.
- Blacksburg (Va.) right now is the team to beat. Coach James DeMarco says this might be his best squad since the Stevens twins were seniors four years ago.
- Barrington (R.I.) was 4th here last year and is a program on the rise with lots of returnees and a strong sophomore leader. Fellow Rhode Island power La Salle is also a force and likely top-5 finisher.
- Cardinal Gibbons (Raleigh, N.C.) – like Broughton on the boys’ side – is the team with the local cachet.
- Florida powers Oak Hall and Holy Trinity. Oak Hall is the top small school in the state, while Holy Trinity - led by Julia Wollrath - has a good history here.
Individually, 2012 champ Maggie Drazba has moved on to the collegiate ranks, but 2nd-place finisher Hannah Long – a Eureka (Mo.) junior – entered early and loomed as a big favorite, especially after a fast season opener. But since then, she has finished a well-beaten 2nd and 3rd in invitationals won by in-state rival Taylor Werner. Whether or not she’s ready to run a 17:30 like she did last year is up in the air.
That leaves a long list of suitors to the individual crown. Some who stand out:
- Cave Spring (Va.) senior Katie Fortner, who no doubt has the best previous GACC creds coming in with a 4th in 2012 after finishing runner-up in 2011.
- Ryen Frazier, the Ravenscroft (Raleigh) junior with the famous sibling (you know you) who hit 17:50 on this course in the college/open division of the Adidas Challenge
- Durham Academy (N.C.) junior Eliza Dekker, another sub-18 local talent who was runner-up in the recent Adidas Challenge on this course.
- Mary Grace Doggett and Emma McMillan from team contenders Gibbons and Barrington, respectively. Both have improved tremendously since taking 18th and 32nd last year, and Doggett’s teammate Sophie Ebihara has also gone sub-18 here.
- Madisyn Peeples, Bowling Green (Ky.) frosh who was 4th in the Trinity/Valkyrie race.
- Julie Wollrath, the Holy Trinity (Fla.) junior who was just 17th last year but 5th in 2011.
- Unproven (at 5k) megatalent Maddy Berkson, the Classical (R.I.) senior in her first year of full-time XC with track PRs like 2:06 for 800, 4:50 mile and 9:53 3k.
- Yet another local favorite, Megan Sullivan of Broughton, also is much better than 2012 (28th) and was a spot behind Fortner in the Knights Crossing race in Va.
So let’s break it down further:
When you’re shooting for peaking in November and (hopefully) December, it allows a team to deal with September injury recovery with a little different perspective –and that’s what Assumpion Coach Barry Haworth has been trying to do. His top two returnees from last fall’s GACC champs (and NXN Finals 10th), Katherine Receveur and Bailey Davis got injured in the spring and “have been coming back very slowly,” he said. “Part of that is by design, and part by the fact that it’s just been a fairly tentative road.”
Given that, the approach to some pretty competitive early-season meets has had to be tempered. Assumption was beaten badly by Carmel at the Mason (Ohio) Invite, said Coach Haworth, with “3 of our 6 returning girls leading the way and a couple sophs backing them up.” Then the trip to the Palatine Invite in Illinois last weekend was “a real rust-buster kind of race with very few of the varsity girls having a good day. The bright side is that we had a sophomore (Sarah Crawford) step up to run 18:22 in what is actually just her 2nd HS CC race.” So with Davis still just running tempo in the JV race and Receveur out with a new injury, Assumption still got a solid runner-up finish to Palatine there.
Davis will rejoin the varsity at GACC and Coach Haworth is hoping for another step forward. “The goal has been to run an ok race at Palatine, a better race at Great American, and then really try to go for it at Manhattan (next weekend). When it comes to Great American, I think we’re ready to run a good, but not great race ... Pretty much our entire season has been spent focusing on November, though.”
Speaking of November and December, Coach Linda Kranick always has her Saratoga girls ready at NXN, where they won in 2004, finished 2nd in 2005 and from 2009-2011, and were 5th last year. Even with losing their top two to graduation and another scorer to transfer, Toga showed in the Queensbury Invite that their combo of young rising talent (four 8th-graders) and returning veterans is fit for the victory stand. No school has a Great American tradition like these New Yorkers and they’ll no doubt contend here.
Tradition is a word that can be tossed around with confidence at Blacksburg (Va.), too, where Coach James DeMarco has won five AA state titles in the past seven years. His best team came back in 2009, when senior twins Joanna and Kathleen Stevens led them to runner-up finishes at both Great American and NXN Southeast, not to mention a NBNO distance medley relay title and national record the following spring.
This fall, Blacksburg has won the Knights Crossing and adidas Challenge races en route to a SE#1 ranking and the early favorite’s role to get back to NXN Finals through this region. “This is definitely our best girls team since the 2009 team that made NXN Finals and placed 6th,” said Coach DeMarco. “We have a great team that is also young and gaining experience each meet. We have one senior (Claire Ewing Nelson) and the rest are three juniors, two freshmen and one sophomore ... We are off to a good start, but definitely have a lot of improvement to make ahead. We are very excited for Great American, as it always offers great competition and a chance to see where we are at mid-season. We averaged 18:46 at adidas two weeks ago and hope to be down to an 18:30 team average.”
And, in an intriguing plot twist, Rhode Island’s two best teams – Barrington and La Salle – will meet for the first time this season way down here in Cary. In fact, with designs on state and NXN Northeast competition well into the future, both teams have limited their action to league meet and one major meet nearly a month ago and will enter GACC relatively untested – but highly regarded.
Two-time state champ Barrington was 4th here in 2012 and returns almost everyone for Coach Annemarie Marino. Barrington also won New Englands last year and was 3rd at NXN NE. Four seniors back up the aforementioned sophomore McMillan and this weekend will really set the campaign in motion.
For La Salle, five times the state champs before Barrington’s 2011-12 titles and runner-up since, there’s plenty of motivation, too. This is their first Great American since 2010 and Coach Kelly Martin has also limited racing for her chargers up to this weekend. Junior Sheridan Wilbur and sophs Eliza Rego and Karina Tavares have mad up the top three, though Wilbur is reportedly recovering from a hip injury.
The big question here is whether the aforementioned 2012 runner-up, Eureka MO jr Hannah Long, will be ready to roll with the mid-17:00 type-time it will probably take to win – and if not, who will take her place as the top contender.
Long, who went on last fall to take 7th at Foot Locker Midwest and 10th in the Finals, started the fall with a 17:35 win at the Memphis Twilight meet. But then she ran just 17:37 on the fast Forest Park Festival course and was 50 seconds behind rival Taylor Werner’s CR effort. Then last week at the Hancock Invite, she was 3rd behind Werner, this time by a margin of 1:08 with a 18:51 on a tougher layout (Werner 17:43). Whether or not Long will be back in form this weekend remains to be seen.
The next best creds here at GACC certainly belong to Cave Spring (Va.) senior Katie Fortner. She was 2nd behind Haley Pierce’s winning effort in 2011, then 4th after Maggie Drazba, Long, and Taylor Driscoll last year. Early season results so far in 2013 don’t say a lot for her as she traditionally hasn’t gone sub-18 before this meet.
If it’s not Long or Fortner, maybe it will be Ryen Frazier, the Ravenscroft junior who has a chance to do something here that her sister never did. Now at Duke, Wesley Frazier had an incredible prep career, but the highlights were most often on the track and when she raced at thtis meet, it was always in the college/open division.
Ryen has been mainly a trackster, too. “Two weeks ago was my first high school XC race,” she said of a 17:50 in the college/open division of the Adidas Challenge. She explained also that after her 17:36.28 5,000 at NBNI in March, she discovered she had a “pretty bad stress fracture” in her tibia. Thus, she didn’t really start running until August.
“My fitness felt pretty good except for my muscles...my strength, which I kind of expected,” she said of the Adidas effort. “I just felt weak in the last 1000-600m, but I was, overall, pleased with how the effort felt. Going forward, I think my strength will continue to improve and the focus of my attention in training will be on strength building. All things considered, I'm pretty much where I want to be.”
Frazier describes having a sister like Wesley “fortunate,” adding “You get to see how things work, what it takes to get into races, how you must train, understand sacrifices you must make. And I've been able to meet, get to know and learn from many other successful high school runners along the way. With Wesley at Duke, I have total one-on-one training with my dad that has helped me eliminate distractions, enabled consistency, and taught me to focus more while I'm training, all of which should help with the racing.”
And speaking of neophytes in cross-country, fans are fascinated to see how Classical’s Maddy Berkson will fare. No one in the field has her 2:06.67 800 and 56-second 400 speed, let alone the ability to long jump 19 feet or throw the javelin 107 feet. But the fact that she has also ran as fast as 9:53.34 for 3k and probably a healthy level of curiosity led Berkson to forego the soccer pitch this fall and embark on a full season of XC.
Thus far, she’s limited her racing to Rhode Island’s Injury Fund race, where she ran a solid 18:33. Only LaSalle’s Eliza Rego ran faster during any of the class races that day, so it was a respectable start. A month later against a deep field, who knows how she can do? As is the case with many others mentioned here – Long, Assumption, etc. – there are lots of intriguing questions to be answered!