RICHMOND, VA -- With a total of 11 states represented, 9 Nike Team Nationals ranked squads, and a countless number of returning state champion teams and individuals, the 2006 McDonald's X-Country Festival at Maymont in Richmond, Virginia had nothing but great expectations as it headed into the fourth running of the event and the meet delivered. The meet had an epic clash between two of the top distance runners in the Southeast region and potential Foot Locker Nationals qualifiers in West Springfield (VA) senior Mike Spooner and Abingdon (VA) junior Griff Graves. The meet was also loaded with some of the nation and Southeast region's top cross country teams as US #5 Eleanor Roosevelt of Maryland came to town to impress the field and the nation in their opening 5K race. Behind Eleanor Roosevelt, a total of 13 teams toed the line that had made Nike Team Nationals ranking appearances this fall with nine current ranked teams and several other teams that were counting on Maymont as their rocket launcher into the top ten. Thanks to the recruitment by new meet director Dan Ward of these top teams and individuals and the great resources and people that make of the Richmond Sports Backers, the 2006 Maymont Festival was elevated to new level as it turns a corner into joining a group of some of of the nation's largest and best cross country events.
Teams from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina joined a strong representation of schools from the home state of Virginia in competing on a beautiful and scenic 5K course layout found on the grounds of one of the Old Dominion's finest parks at Maymont.
West Springfield was already set to compete at the Maymont Festival to begin with as the captains of the Spartans had head coach Vic Kelbaugh pencil in the September 30th to date to go head-to-head with some of the best teams in the Southeast region. West Springfield were ranked #8 in the NTN Southeast pre-season poll. With West Springfield entering in the meet, also came a pre-race favorite and one of the state's top returning distance runners in Mike Spooner. Spooner was the 3A state runner-up last fall in cross country as a junior and won two state titles during track in both indoors and outdoors for 3200 meters. Spooner wanted to get a strong individual challenger to face at Maymont along with the stiff competition his team would be facing as well at the meet. When asked who he wanted as a challenger, he responded quickly with two words, "Griff Graves".
Ask and you will receive as meet director Dan Ward was able to get Graves to committ and make the haul from Southwest Virginia to pit together Virginia's top two returning cross country runners and possibly the state's strongest hopes as Foot Locker Nationals qualifiers. Graves is the son of Tom Graves, who was a legend in the state of Illinois during his high school running days and he still holds the Illinois state course record at Peoria. His son, Griff, recently made the trip to Peoria to compete in an invitational two weekends ago to see how he measured up to the old man and came away with a runner-up performance of 14:41 on the three mile course.
Neither Spooner or Graves are considered speedsters or at least sit-and-kick style runners, so as expected the race was a barn burner as the two led a field surprisingly still in tact through the first mile mark in a hot 4:38 on a cool day with overcast through much of the meet. Graves tried to put some distance on Spooner as they broke away from the field in the second mile around Shields and Swan Lake, but Spooner kept him close with only a 20 meter gap ever existing between them. As they hit a steep downhill into a short uphill, Spooner made a move to gain an advantage and lead on Graves as they turned left out of a narrow gate into the longest downhill of the course, which leads into the 4K mark. Graves still kept Spooner and appeared to be in decent position with half a mile left in the race, but Spooner proved too tough on this day as he pulled away in a season state best, course record, and meet record time of 15:35. Graves finished 11 seconds back in second place at 15:46 after a valiant run at Spooner.
Spooner was very pleased with the outcome and the fact that Graves was just as willing to race him as he was to face off with Graves. "I've been training through all of our races, so I was surprised I still managed to win. I just raced smart today, but Griff is a good guy. He pushed me when my body didn't want to." The two will next race against another while working together at Foot Locker South in late November as they hopefully will push each to tickets to San Diego to represent the state of Virginia.
It was expected that the team battle in the invitational division for the boys would be a dogfight as it the results summed up what has been the case all season long for the Southeast region. Plenty of evenly matched teams that have just as great a chance to win as the other teams on any given Sunday. While the Southeast girls has two national caliber and NTN returning squads in Eleanor Roosevelt of Maryland and Episcopal of Florida that are in a class of their own with teams like Midlothian of Virginia and Tatnall of Delaware right on the fringes and then everyone else appears to just be dreamers, there is no such dropoff or level of security of teams' standings among the boys in the region. Maymont was clear evidence of that.
Coming into the meet, a total of five boys' teams were ranked in the top ten in the NTN Southeast Region with SE #3 Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, SE #4 Fork Union of Virginia, SE #6 Chapel Hill of North Carolina, SE #8 Hermitage of Virginia, and SE #10 of Oak Ridge would be racing at Maymont. Add onto that number were three teams that had been ranked earlier in the season such as preseason SE #2 Trinity of Kentucky, preseason SE #3 Clarke County of Virginia, and preseason #8 West Springfield of Virginia.
The ranking order from Friday's newest NTN regional rankings certainly did not hold together among the grass and hills at Maymont as they literally fell apart and turn the rankings upside down on their head. Chapel Hill was the only currently NTN ranked team to finish in the top three as last year's NTN representative for the Southeast region showed its still got the strength to be in contention for a free ride to Portland, Oregon once again by coming out on top in the dogfight with 110 points and a team average of 16:47.85. Chapel Hill was led by a third place run by sophomore Taylor Gilland in a time of 16:09.22, which also went under the old course record of 16:13. The team also got big individual races from Miles Rampel (16th, 16:40.09) and Jack Marshall (21st, 16:44.03) to put nearly three runners in the top 20. Kent Pecora (38th, 17:08.41) and Peter Anderson (17:17.50) closed out the win for Coach Olsen's squad. Coach Olsen did not know what to really expect of his team coming into Maymont. "We didn't have any (expectations). We'd never run here before or race against these Virginia teams. We were happy today. This place is gorgeous. The weather was good."
While his rave reviews of the weather and grounds of Maymont were pleasant, so were those of how his guys performed against the majority of the region's top teams. However, he has not let his guys get too carried area with the NTN process and just focus on taking care of the tasks at hand before the thought of Oregon crosses their mind, such as the defending their state title in North Carolina. Olsen feels he is working with a different group this year than last as he does not have the outstanding national caliber runner such as Jack Bolas, who had to gear his training and goals greater than the Tar Heel state. "This team has a different mindset. I told them to stop wasting your time thinking about Portland or you're not going to go anywhere. Its just a matter of what they got to do from now and then." After stopping at McDonald's, Chapel Hill will be going "biggie sized" next week at the Wendy's Invitational in Charlotte at McAlpine Greenway Park against some of their best in-state competition.
The big question for Jamestown head coach Howard Townsend is what he had his guys do from last week to this weekend as the currently #9 ranked team in the state of Virginia scored a handful of major upsets in taking runner-up honors (130 pts) by 20 points to Chapel Hill at Maymont after finishing 61 points behind SE #4 Fork Union of Virginia last weekend at the William & Mary Invitational. At Maymont, Townsend's troops not only defeated highly ranked Fork Union (7th, 172 pts) by a 43 point margin, but also beat three additional NTN ranked teams in SE #3 Thomas Jefferson of Virginia (4th, 156 pts), SE #8 Hermitage of Virginia (8th, 176 pts), and SE #10 Oak Ridge of Tennessee (9th, 180 pts).
One answer was the return of preason projected #2 runner John Holt, who had been absent all season with ankle injury. Holt was part of a 38 second spread of Jamestown's top five as the Eagles were led to the line by sophomore Andrew Coley's 15th place run of 16:39.54. Andrew Mearns, the only senior on Jamestown's top five, was not far behind in 20th place at 16:43.69. Meanwhile, Holt (33rd, 17:04.32) crossed the line with freshmen teammate Russell Hornsby (34th, 17:05.00) as the lack of a front runner was beginning to be made up with putting four ahead of any team's fourth runner including Chapel Hill's. Jamestown had the best fifth man on the day as well with their second freshmen in Colin Mearns (49th, 17:17.09). Jamestown's stock certainly rises in this fall's NTN rankings, but more so sets them up well for next year with such a young squad.
West Springfield has possed one of the best top fours in the entire region all fall, but have continually been killed by a distant fifth runner. However, the fifth runner did not hurt them as bad as usual at Maymont with the restricted size and elite fields assembled for the invitational race division. The Spartans took advantage of the field size as their usual cast of a strong four did just that in running strong as usual. Led by "King of the Festival" in race champion Spooner, West Springfield also had great races from their next three in Alex Martis (11th, 16:34.97), Leo Walker (29th, 16:58.79), and Loring Ross (36th, 17:05.95) in almost becoming the only team to put four runners under 17 minutes on the moderately challenging 5K course. Maybe in a larger race, a 18:02.73 time from fifth place runner Tom Crompton would add on well over 100 points to West Springfield's team score, but with only 103 finishers in the elite 14 team invitational field, Crompton finished in 88th place with the time. Thus, West Springfield was able to sneak away with a third place finish against the quality ranked opponents with 147 points.
The absence of Thomas Jefferson top runner Brian Landry figured to be tough for the team to overcome this season, but with their great depth, it did not seem to be an impossible task for Coach Matt Ryan's squad to still be a NTN berth caliber squad. However, Maymont showed they are vulnerable without their top returning ace still sitting on the shelf with injury as the SE #4 team finished fourth with 155 points in the middle of a close team race. Paul Norland certainly ran well in the top spot for Thomas Jefferson finishing fourth in a time of 16:10.12. However, the rest of the team's performances were subpar after that with over 50 seconds existing until the next team finisher in Aiden McHugh (32nd, 17:01.73). Richard Prevost soon followed in 35th place at 17:05.51. Aaron Bernstein (43rd, 17:11.51) and Taylor Bostick (59th, 17:27.48) rounded out the team's scoring five. Insert a healthy and fit Landry, knock off at least 40 points off their team score to make them competitively close with Thomas Jefferson S&T. However, it was Chapel Hill that was cleaning house on Saturday and no one else.
Both Oakton and Western Albemarle moved ahead of three NTN Southeast ranked teams in finishing fifth and sixth overall respectively to showcase the great depth of Virginia boys' teams this fall. Both Oakton and Western Albemarle shared the same team score of 159 points with the sixth man tiebreaker going to Oakton. The defending AAA state champions, Oakton, has quickly retooled from last year's graduation losses as they were led to the line by Joe LoRusso's (10th) top ten run of 16:29.84. Alex Nissen (27th, 16:52.61) also ran under 17 minutes for coach Phil Tiller's squad, while Matt Saunders (39th, 17:09.19), Chris Weil (51st, 17:17.81), and Russel Fielding (54t, 17:19.13). The Northern Region was well represented at Maymont as three of the top five teams come from the Northern Virginia AAA region.
After being handed two decisive early season defeats by local Charlottesville area rival Fork Union to start off their cross country season, the returning Virginia 2A state runners-up from Western Albemarle turned the table and their fortunes finishing 13 points ahead of FUMA. Coach Lindy Bain's team was led by the sophomore duo of Kyle Satterwhite (14th, 16:36.79) and James Howard-Smith (18th, 16:42.46) picking up top 20 finishes. Will Massie (44th, 17:12.00), Tyler Stutzman (46th, 17:14.50), and Chris Post (58th, 17:26.88) sealed the deal for their first victory of Fork Union this fall.
Unfortunately for Fork Union, their NTN eggs were all in one basket with Maymont being their only meet they would face considerable competition as a Virginia private school and all the eggs fell out of the basket. The separation from glory to disappointment was very thin with the evenly matched teams dropping team positions in a matter of seconds and strides and Fork Union was one of the teams that found disappointment in those tight battles.
Coach Winston Brown's top finisher was Axel Mostrag as the 1:50 half miler finished eighth in 16:21.63. Fork Union actually had a solid front three with Szymon Rola (26th, 16:50.01) and Jeremy Haney (30th, 16:59.10) both cracking into the top 30 and under 17 minutes, but loss ground at #4 David Johnson (53rd,17:18.46) and #5 Jamie Reichlen (77th, 17:41.95).
Hermitage had their top runner John Vial collapse and struggle into the finish (25th, 16:47.49) as a bad omen for the day that would be for the SE #8 squad. Ben Hendrick stepped up though with his best race yet to run #1 for Coach Joe Pardue's team in 13th place at 16:36.29. Completing the team scoring for the Panthers were Nathan Puckett (40th, 17:09.60), Walter Kidd (57th, 17:21.91), and Kieran Lee (63rd, 17:29.59).
Oak Ridge was probably the best gauge to showcase how the improved the quality of the competition found at this year's Maymont Festival stacks up to another large cross country festival in Great American, which was held last weekend in Hoover, Alabama. The SE #10 from Tennessee finished tenth at last weekend's Great American in the Nike Race of Champions and took ninth in this weekend's Invitational Race presented by POWERade at Maymont. Three teams that finished ahead of Oak Ridge at Great American were from the Northeast region while all eight teams ahead of them at Maymont were from the Southeast region, including seven Virginia teams to showcase the depth of Virginia and quality of the meet.
Oak Ridge is definitely a team on the rise and is positioning themselves like Jamestown to be one of the top returning teams in the region as Coach Allen Etheridge's squad has no seniors on their top seven. Oak Ridge had two finishers in the top 20 in Chris Cole (12th, 16:35.93) and Maclean O'Donnell (19th, 16:43.15). Their front two was actually a surprise as Oak Ridge had been thought to be more of a pack squad, but the pack did not move up enough with Cole and O'Donnell to knock off the Virginia squads as Phil Riemer (45th, 17:12.93), Ben Shassere (55th, 17:19.59), Emerson Peacok (72nd, 17:35.58) rounded out Oak Ridge's top five.
Trinity of Kentucky and Fort Mill of South Carolina got a nice Welcoming to Virginia as two of the top respective program in their states shared team scores of 192 points, but Trinity's sixth man put them ahead of Fort Mill for tenth place overall behind the Chapel Hill, the eight Virginia teams, and Oak Ridge.
Eleanor Roosevelt, the #5 ranked team in the country, and top ranked team in the Southeast region opened with their first 5K race of the season and Coach Desmond Dunham's girls looked sharp even with the lack of the races. Eleanor Roosevelt eased last year's #1 runner Dominique Lockhart back into her first race of the year with a conservative race. "She's been training pretty well, but we wanted to make sure the runners safety came first. A lot of focus was on making sure she was comfortable and able to execute the strategy properly and do it pain free, so we were happy with the overall outcome," said Dunham. The outcome was very good and promising for Lockhart as tied the course record of 19:01, yet the scary fact was she was only Eleanor Roosevelt's third fastest runner on the day in finishing sixth overall.
Marika Walker was honored as the top runner of the meet for the second invite in a row as she also posted the top split at the Brentsville Relays two weeks ago. Walker broke away in the last half mile from a trio including Tatnall sophomore Juliet Bottorff (2nd, 18:28.7) and teammate Teshika Rivers (3rd, 18:34.93) for a 18:25.33 meet record victory. Eleanor Roosevelt's front three was amazing and can only get better as Lockhart works herself into form. While the meet did not have Eleanor Roosevelt's two biggest challengers in the region in Episcopal and Midlothian, perspective can be gained in the fact that Eleanor Roosevelt could have had three runners ahead of defending Virginia 3A 3200 meter indoor state champion Sarrah Hadiji of W.T. Woodson. Hadiji was the top finishing Virginian in the invitational division with the fastest time at 18:41.21. For Midlothian fans in Virginia, a team with three Sarrah Hadiji's appears to be an impossible team to beat.
While concerned with how Lockhart would do in her first race back, Coach Dunham also wanted to see his girls drop their spread from their 2005 NTN team. "We wanted to try and decrease our spread from last year. We were pretty much 2:06 from first to fifth last year, and we were 1:18 today. We think our fourth and fifth runners could run a little bit more aggressive on the second half of the race for us, so 1:18 at this time of the season with a great front runner, we're really happy with it." Behind their front three, Jennifer Redman (16th, 19:37.11) and Tyreka Arrington (18th, 19:42.61) had solid runs to break 20 minutes and finish in the top 20 overall as the team's fourth and fifth runners to give Eleanor Roosevelt a team score of 39 points and 38 point difference from SE #4 Tatnall (77 pts).
Do not write off the girls from Delaware just yet. Tatnall looked significantly better than last week at Great American in which they finished fourth. Juliet Bottorff ran tough up front for Coach Patrick Castagno's team for the third week in a row as she challenged race winner Walker to the line with a runner-up time of 18:28.70. Joanie Castagno (7th, 19:05.33) and Jenna McCartan (13th, 19:26.26) joined Bottorff in the top 15. Running just off the 19 minute bracket for Tatnall were Annie Castagno (27th, 20:02.71) and Kallie Fehr (34th, 20:15.03) to finish out their top five. Tatnall still continues to compete not at full strength, but a positive sign is top returning runner Katie Kershner did race at Maymont, but in one of the unseeded races as a workout since she is still very limited to cross training. Coach Castagno's best case scenario is Kershner will be ready by Manhattan in two weeks, but may not ready to really race at a high level till end of October.
Two other Nike Team Nationals ranked squads also competed alongside Eleanor Roosevelt and Tatnall at Maymont in SE #8 Blacksburg of Virginia and SE #9 Chapel Hill of North Carolina. The meet also featured SE preseason #8 Morgantown of West Virginia, who was coming off a recent third place finish at last weekend's Spiked Shoe Invitational behind NE #2 Saratoga Springs of New York and SE #7 Colts Neck of New Jersey. Morgantown actually finished relatively close to Colts Neck, which was ranked #2 at the time despite the New Jersey team running without their Foot Locker finalst front runner Brianna Jackucewicz.
All three teams were well matched with another at Maymont as only ten points separated the three teams. Blacksburg squeaked by in third with 125 points as Coach James Demarco's team was coming off a big weekend at Great American last week in knocking off former SE #5 and Virginia 2A rival Brentsville. Coach Demarco felt his girls did not run as well as they could have last weekend as their strong front three was to spread to his liking. The spread decreased at Maymont as sophomore Allison Homer took eighth in 19:10.84, but teammate Laurel MacMillan was much closer to their top runner this week in 11th place at 19:14.18. Meanwhile, senior Cate Berenato had a solid finish in 17th place at 19:41.67. The Blacksburg girls benefited much like the West Springfield boys did from a smaller field to decrease the negative effects of a weak fifth runner. However, Avery Mattingly stepped up as a fifth so much that she ended up running as the fourth runner for the team in 42nd place at 20:46.51 and ahead of usual #4 Hannah Barrow (55th, 21:33.15).
While two stress fractures look to sideline and prevent defending Virginia 3A state champion Rachel Rose from winning her second state title in cross country, the state title could stay at Albemarle if sophomore teammate Liz Barclay continues to run the way she did at Maymont as she finished 16 seconds off of new favorite Hadiji taking fifth in the invitational field. Barclay was one of only six runners to break 19 minutes among the girls as Heritage's Laura Rapp also dipped under 19 minutes to win the bronze division race earlier in the day.
The course actually ran faster than most had expected with a handful of girls breaking 19 minutes, a pair of sub 16 boys, and two solid meet and course records of 18:25 for girls and 15:36 for boys being established. The Eleanor Roosevelt girls certainly showed runners can role on the Maymont course as Maymont was definitely a better option for them as far as competition as well as easier course compared to the likes of their state course at Hereford as the challenging three mile course hosts the Bull Run Invitational this weekend as well. However, Coach Dunham feels Hereford makes a Maymont course seem fairly conquerable. "Being from Maryland and have to endure Hereford, it makes all courses along the lines of easy to moderate. Thats one reason we choose not to run Hereford during the season because its a brutal course. We like it. Its a course made for champions and those who want it the most. We don't shy away from it. We think you have to do a lot of things to prepare for it to do well at the end of the season. But it helps when you come to other meets when you run on a moderate to easy course."
Many of first timers at Maymont including coaches of team champions Chapel Hill (Ron Olsen) and Eleanor Roosevelt (Desmond Dunham) rated their first Maymont Festival very highly as anticipation grows for what future Maymont meets hold. Dunham thought very highly of the meet and its new meet director Dan Ward. "Maymont was great. Dan Ward is a class act guy. We follow him with the Southern Track Classic and Virginia Tech indoors. Anything he is a part of, we'll attempt to do. Just with the organization and his ability to bring in top level individuals and teams, we think it is just a great experience. With this being his first go-around being a part of this Festival, we anticipate we will be establishing a great relationship with Dan Ward and the Maymont Festival for years to come."