Photos by Cheryl Treworgy/PrettySporty.com (action), and Christopher Shawn Coleman and Joy Kamani/NSAF (awards, team)
Assumption's #3-#7 runners together at mid-race.
For Hannah Long, the solution was straightforward. For the girls of Assumption (Ky.), it was a little more complex.
The top returning individual and team for the girls’ New Balance Race of Champions at the 15th Annual Great American Cross Country Festival each had problems to solve if they were to claim their destined places at the top Saturday at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C.
Long had suffered from a significant lack of energy in her 2nd and 3rd races of this season, losing twice in September by large margins to top in-state rival Taylor Werner. Early this past week, the Eureka (Mo.) junior was diagnosed with having “too much iron” in her blood and began treatment. By Saturday, while not yet 100 percent, she was feeling a lot more like the runner who was 2nd here in 2012 and had gone on to take 10th in the Foot Locker Finals. She moved decisively away from the field in the second half of the race to a 17:38.0 victory, more than 19 seconds up on runnerup Bowling Green (Ky.) frosh Madisyn Peeples (who had a fantastic race in her own right) and the rest of a field of 139 runners.
Assumption, meanwhile, began the season ranked as high as US#2 by some analysts and considered by all as one of the exciting national championship contenders to watch in 2013. But Coach Barry Haworth had been without his top two runners during the first half of the season and, while he and his girls had their focus on the post-season, three early-season losses in major invites had still stung a bit. Coming in here though as defending champs and finally with #1/2 Bailey Davis back in the lineup, Assumption had a good chance if everyone could “hang on.”
When the dust cleared, the mission had been accomplished. The Rockets grinded it out against an equally determined SE#1 Blacksburg (Va.) team and the rest of the field, with Davis and #1 Emily Bean playing major roles, and emerged 1-point victors – the closest team finish in GACC history.
The Race of Champions events were two of 15 races on the day at Wake-Med, including the two Robert Shumake HBCU Challenge events for collegians. Athletes running in the four early morning Invitational Blue and Red races enjoyed cool to mild conditions, but things heated up thereafter and it was downright hot (upper 80s) for the valiant competitors in the Invitational Seeded and JV races which followed through the mid-afternoon.
After a dominant victory here last fall, and with the talent they had returning, Assumption (award photo at right) looked on the surface like they’d be an overwhelming favorite to come back to Cary and roll the field again this fall. The only problem was, that talent wasn’t really “returning” – at least not yet. Coach Barry Haworth’s 1-2 standouts, Katherine Reveceur and Bailey Davis had both suffered injuries in track and began the fall on the sideline, competitively. Meanwhile, other athletes had stepped up, helping Assumption to solid runner-up finishes in their first two major invites, even if they weren’t winning.
Now, Coach Haworth maintains his team has purposely brought it along slowly, with their focus on the post-season. But with Davis finally returning to the varsity lineup and others running well, there was a chance to win at Great American. Several other teams also had their eyes on victory, though, most significantly a Blacksburg (Va.) crew piloted by veteran Coach James DeMarco that had worked their way to SE#1 after major wins at the Knights Crossing Invite and the adidas Challenge two weeks ago on this course.
Coach Haworth hoped Davis could keep pace with soph Sarah Crawford, who had been a key to Assumption’s 2nd place finish at Palatine with a surprise 18:22 3M. As it turned out Saturday, Crawford faded to the team’s #7 in the second half, but Davis worked off teammate Kenzley Defler as they ran 26th and 28th (scoring 16-17). But then senior Emily Bean, 12th overall (scoring 7th) made another strong statement.
“Emily’s been in the shadow of our top two, and now she’s had to step out of that shadow and get up and perform,” said Coach Haworth. “She decided she was going to lead today and I’m very proud of her ... And Bailey finished phenomenally well.”
At the 2k split, Assumption had Bean and Defler about six and 12 seconds off the lead, respectively, but then the next five (another 10 seconds back) were all within a second of one another. The Kentucky power was in the lead at that point and while they had to withstand a big charge from Blacksburg, that start set the tone.
“My comments to the girls before the race were, ‘You have to hang on,’” said Coach Haworth. “It’s just a matter of either you stay with someone, or in effect, you give up ... and they decided they needed to stay with people. So they had a group that ran together today and that made all the difference in the world.”
Meanwhile, Blacksburg (team photo at above left) was only 6th at 2k, more than 60 points down. But they moved up an average of 18 spots per girl in the final 3k. Junior Bonnie Angermeier moved up 12 places to 13th (scoring 8th), while junior Emily Beatty advanced 22 spots to 17th (scoring 11th). They just came up one point short.
Naturally, the defeat stung a bit, but Coach DeMarco knew his girls had run well. “Assumption’s an absolutely terrific program, they won this meet last year, absolutely dominated, and returned most of their team back. They’ve had some injuries, but coming into the season I didn’t think we had a shot at competing at their level,” he said. “But we definitely thought we had a shot at top two in the region ... so we did well. We’ve got a long way to go, but we’re looking good and competed hard in the heat. We’re up in the mountains (in Blacksburg) and not used to this heat ... I know we were hurting bad, but we kept picking people off.”
Coach DeMarco knows his team does better in the colder meets and on the tougher courses likely to be faced later in the year. “Our girls are hungry to do what the boys did last year (qualified for NXN Finals) ... To be close to Assumption here and ahead of Saratoga, that speaks volumes for where we’re at right now. I’m excited because I know we have a lot of upside.”
Running impressively to third place was local power Green Hope (Cary, N.C.) with 139 points. They moved up from 8th at the 2k mark. Nine-time champion Saratoga Springs was just five points off Assumption’s lead at 2k, then wound up 4th at 144. They had just a 26-second 1-5 spread, which bodes well for the future.
Rhode Island powers Barrington and La Salle Academy finished 5th (146 points) and 7th (195), respectively. Both were impressive at the front, with Barrington soph Emma McMillan and senior Abigail Livingston taking 5th and 7th (scoring 2-3), while La Salle soph Eliza Rego and soph Karina Tavares were 3rd and 13th (scoring 1-9). But they just didn’t score high enough after that.
Like they had with Assumption on the team front, recent developments had seemingly brought ROC top returnee Hannah Long back to the pack. After a dominating season-opening win at the Memphis Brooks Twilight, the Eureka (Mo.) junior was soundly beaten in her Forest Park Festival showdown with rival Taylor Werner on Sept. 14. And seeming to indicate that result wasn’t an anomaly, Long was even further behind Werner and also lost to a second runner at the Hancock Invite Sept. 28.
Hardly the way for the #10 finisher at the 2012 Foot Locker Finals and preseason US#13 runner to start her campaign. But Long, her coach and family knew something was off. “My iron levels were actually way too high,” she said. “It’s kind of odd, but I got that tested (last Monday) and we figured it out.”
Treatment began immediately and Long began feeling better quickly. By the time she got to Cary, she knew a ROC victory was still on the table. She got out well and battled with the pack in the first half of the race (photo at upper right) as 9 girls were within two seconds of the lead at 2k. But past the midway point, Long slowly turned up the volume and began pulling away, with plenty left on the final run up the never-ending hill to finish 19 seconds in front.
“I think I’m back on track now ... maybe 80 or 90 percent ... I definitely felt a lot better in this race,” said Long (winning at left). “I actually had the same plan as last year. I wanted get out controlled and easy up that first really long hill, and then really start to push that second part so I could really finish strong. And that felt really good.”
The runner-up to Long ended up being quite the impressive surprise. Bowling Green frosh Madisyn Peeples (below, right) was really a fringe candidate to contend for the win, though as an 8th-grader here in 2012, she was 38th in the ROC then a pretty good 16th in the NXN Southeast race. Saturday, she was in 15th, seven seconds back, at the 2k mark. From that point, she kept moving up, but her finish stunned even her.
“I really had no clue I was in 2nd place going up that last hill,” she said, “but I was just having a lot of fun. I know there was a lot of good competition out here, but I had to be a little conservative (first half of race) and draw back, since the heat was really bad and the hills are just murderous if you do them wrong. So I had to draw back, but I just keep encouraging myself and God really blessed me with my time today.
“I really did not expect to be this far up, this soon!”
Behind Peeples, the previously mentioned Rhode Island girls had three in the top seven. LaSalle soph Eliza Rego sprinted in 3rd at 18:02.0 ahead of Ravenscroft NC jr Ryen Frazier 18:02.9. Then the Barrington 1-2 punch of soph Emma McMillan 18:07.0 and sr Abigail Livingston 18:16.3 finished 5th and 7th. Livingston’s finish was particularly surprising and she did it with a great rally in the final 3k, moving up 19 spots.
The rest of the top 10 included Broughton NC sr Megan Sullivan in 6th at 18:10.9, Carolina Forest SC jr Lisa Pieterse in 8th at 18:16.5, Cardinal Gibbons NC sr Mary Grace Doggett in 9th at 18:25.6 and Green Hope NC soph Elly Henes in 10th at 18:29.5.
Pieterse is the daughter of Zola Budd Pieterse, who wowed the running world with her stunning accomplishments and world records back in the 1980s while a South African and British teen. Showing she’s still got it at 46, Budd-Pieterese had the second fastest female time of the meet with a 17:47.0 to win the Robert Shumake HBCU Challenge.
And Green Hope’s Henes is the daughter of former NC State elite distance runners and coaches Bob and Laurie Henes.