Photos by Cheryl Treworgy/PrettySporty.com (action), and Christopher Shawn Coleman and Joy Kamani/NSAF (awards, team)
The lead pack of boys around halfway includes Brentwood's lead trio and many others - including (obscured) eventual winner Ben Huffman.
When the New Balance Race of Champions Boys took off last year at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C., you pretty much knew that (barring injuries or something crazy) then-US#1 Christian Brother Academy was going to dominate the team race and that the individual race was in all likelihood going to come down to Sean McGorty and Jacob Thomson.
In the same race during this past Saturday’s Great American Cross Country Festival, there was a lot less certainty. There was a storyline to the effect that perhaps home state North Carolina athletes could sweep both titles. But really, slight favorite junior Philip Hall of Terry Sanford (Fayetteville) was just one of several who had a good chance to win individually. And team-wise, US#10 Broughton (Raleigh) was going to have to overcome US#11 Brentwood (Tenn.) – that team which had stunned the prep XC world with its eye-popping 1-2-3 at the Trinity/Valkyrie (Louisville, Ky.) meet and just needed to improve its depth a bit to become a national championship contender.
Less than 20 minutes later, there was a champion from Carolina – for the first time since the meet moved back to Cary in 2009 – but it wasn’t Broughton or Hall. With several runners still contending on the final hill – including Hall and Brentwood’s entire top trio – Providence Day School (Charlotte) senior Ben Huffman reached the top with the most energy and had a great kick on the run-in to the finish to grab the individual crown in 14:59.4.
And, in the team standings, it was really the top four for Brentwood (photo at right) that ate the rest of the field alive. The Tennessee school’s #5 lost limited ground and the other contenders at that point only succeeded in making the final score a little more respectable. Brentwood scored 99 to 170 for runner-up St. Xavier (Louisville), with only two other teams under 230.
In the 15-year history of the meet, only CBA in 2012 won by a bigger margin and Brentwood’s 15:28 average also trailed only CBA’s record 15:24.
So what was your reaction when you saw the top three for Brentwood had gone 1-2-3 in the Trinity/Valkyrie Invite on Sept. 21, and had each run 15:05 or 15:06 for 5k? Typos? Short course? Shortened course (bad weather, etc.)? Accidental course cutting?
Unless you were from Tennessee and pretty familiar with the upward arc that the Brentwood program was taking – and knew that Alec and Aaron Thomas and Taylor Caldwell had each run between 9:10 and 9:17 for 3,200 the previous spring – you had no reason to anticipate this. But these guys were for real and they certainly confirmed it Saturday. A 1-2-3 again? No, but how about 2-3-5 with times of 15:00.1 for Caldwell, 15:00.2 for Alec Thomas and 15:07.4 for Aaron Thomas against a deep field at WakeMed – and on a pretty darn warm morning to boot?
And Brentwood’s #4 was nearly as impressive. Senior Coleman Churitch finished 20th, scoring 13th, with a PR 15:31.3. No other school’s 4th runner was within 45 seconds of him. In 86th, #5 man Francois Llorens was more than a minute behind Churitich. Still, in scoring 77 points with his 16:41, he allowed just three teams to gain ground back on Brentwood.
The bottom line is this: Brentwood almost certainly has the best top four in the country and a 5th that’s not bad. With continued progress, they will be one of the favorites the first Saturday in December at Portland Meadows.
Alec Thomas, the fastest of the twins on this day, was asked if they were out there to make a statement ... and his reply morphed into a description of the conservative strategy that was a key to victory: “Yeah, I guess so, that’s kind of the goal (making a statement) with every team out here, but this race always goes out way fast at the beginning. We wanted to hang back as a pack ... it ended being about 4:40 for a downhill mile, and then we just kept picking it up. Once we got the lead, we just held it. We didn’t try to push the pace too much in the uphill section of the course. It went perfect really.”
Llorens and Churitch actually hung back and moved up well in the final 3k, too, passing 26 and 15 runners, respectively. Last year, most of Brentwood’s runners lost ground in the race’s second half here as they finished 5th.
When asked, Thomas added that he thought another 1-2-3 finish Saturday was “absolutely” realistic. “The goal today wasn’t necessarily 1-2-3, but it was to compete for 1-2-3. And whether it wound up being 4-5-6, we wanted to minimize the first three spots.”
What this “Big Three” are doing “inspires the other kids on our team to run faster,” said Aaron Thomas. “Our 5-6-7, every race they drop PRs.”
Amazingly, Brentwood was in just 5th at 2k, their 144-point total trailing La Salle (Providence, R.I.) by 13 and with Broughton, Tatnall (Wilmington, Del.) and Cardinal O’Hara (Philadelphia) also ahead. But among that contending group there were two key DNFs and huge chunks of ground lost in the final 3k, while Brentwood’s 4th and 5th were moving up.
Broughton was 2nd at 3k, three points back. But shortly thereafter, their #1 William Roberson had to drop out. “Unfortunately, he had a quad strain and he made the right decision to step off,” said Broughton Coach David Chastain. “We had an off day, and with William going out, that took us out of the mix.” Broughton finished 7th with 265 points. He added that Roberson has since gotten physical therapy and should be back in the lineup soon as the NC 4A power shoots for another state crown and NXN bid.
Similarly, La Salle lost Dan Paiva at some point during the race for an unreported reason, also affecting their team score by potentially close to 100 points. They went from 1st to 12th in the final 3k. However, La Salle freshman David Principe was outstanding, leading their effort and finishing as the fastest 9th-grader in the race at 15:41.5 in 28th (scoring 20th).
At the other end of the team spectrum, runner-up St. Xavier (Louisville, Ky.) (photo at upper left) had a tremendous second half of the race, moving up more dramatically than Brentwood. They were 10th at 2k and seemingly out of it. But St. X knows how to run this course. They killed it during the second half in 2012 en route to finishing 2nd behind CBA. Saturday, their seven runners moved up a total of 156 places in the second half of the race, with seniors Chris Striegel 22nd in 15:34.5 and Max Mudd 32nd in 15:46.7 (scoring 15-24) leading the way. St. X will be another top contender for an NXN Finals bid in November.
Finishing 3rd through 6th were Tatnall 185, O’Hara 205, Saratoga Springs (N.Y.) 233 and Bishop Hendricken (Warwick, R.I.) 235.
At the 2k point of the ROC Boys race, there were 15 runners within a second of the lead, and 23 total within four seconds. They included individual favorites like the aforementioned Philip Hall, Edison (Alexandria, Va.) sr Louis Colson, Lexington (S.C.) sr Zach Langston, George Washington (Charleston, W.V.) sr Matthew Brafford, and Porter Gaud (Charleston, S.C.) sr Brent Demarest, and leaders of top contending teams like the previously mentioned Brentwood trio, Broughton’s William Roberson, Cardinal O’Hara’s sr Jim Belfatto and jr Kevin James, Tatnall’s sr Jack Hagood and jr Stephen Garrett, and others.
Some were pretenders and would fade badly, a few – notably Roberson and Langston – would have to drop out, and several others were still contending during the ascent of the final, seemingly endless hill.
Providence Day senior Ben Huffman (photo at right) was among the latter. Just a week earlier, Huffman had reset his PR with a dominating 15:13.95 at the Greensboro Invite at Hagen Stone Park. The time was the second-best ever on one of the state’s most historic and well-traveled layouts, trailing only Alan Webb’s Hagen Stone Classic win there in 2000, and ahead of stars like Jake Hurysz, Thomas Graham, Jack Bolas, Bobby Mack and many more.
“(Last week’s win) definitely gave me a lot of confidence to be close to the front guys and just stick with that lead pack through the whole race,” said Huffman. “And then I just told myself, ‘You gotta go for it,’ at the end.”
The “end” was the short, final straight to the finish after cresting the hill. Huffman just hung in there until that point, helping to stretch the final contenders down to four: Brentwood’s Taylor Caldwell and Alec Thomas, and Colson. “I get really excited whenever I come up that hill,” he said with a smile.
Then, Huffman just sprinted as hard as he could. “I was definitely surprised,” he reflected later. “It was just in the last 200 maybe, where I told myself ‘You gotta go for it,’ like ‘You’re gonna regret it if you don’t at least try for the win.’” So I just went for it and got it! I’d been working a lot on my finishing strength, but I didn’t think I had that much of a kick.”
It was enough, with Caldwell 15:00.1, Thomas 15:00.2 and Colson 15:00.9 in that order, crossing the line within 1.5 seconds after the champ.
While the Brentwood trio would have their team title to celebrate, Colson (photo at left) definitely had mixed feelings. “I was feeling slightly off, but I don’t want to make any excuses; they just ran a better race than I did, a smarter race. I tried to make a move with 800 to go, and tried to do a gradual buildup, but I think I waited a little too long to just put the jets on. And I suffered from that and I got 4th. But I’m still happy and it’s still a PR.”
After Brentwood’s 2nd Thomas, Aaron, finished in 15:07.4, the Hall took 6th with a 15:11.8 – not what he wanted, but in truth just three seconds slower than his adidas Challenge time here and on a much warmer day. O’Hara’s James was 7th in 15:14.6, Porter Gaud’s Demarest 8th in 15:16.9, GW’s Brafford 9th in 15:16.9 and Tatnall’s Garrett 10th in 15:21.1. An unfortunate DNF came from Lexington’s Langston, who reportedly got clipped and fell with 500 meters left while in the lead.