A half dozen boys' teams and half dozen girls' teams from the state of Virginia will travel to Cary, North Carolina this weekend to compete against the best high school cross country teams in the entire Southeast Region at the Nike Cross Nationals qualifier held at WakeMed Soccer Complex. The Midlothian program, coached by Stan Morgan, leads the group of Virginia squads after sweeping the state team titles in the Group AAA races at Great Meadow two weekends ago. The last time which Midlothian swept both team titles back in 2006, both teams also advanced and were selected by committee to compete at the Nike Cross Nationals. The qualifying system is much different in 2010 as both teams will need to finish in the top two at the regional qualifier race on Saturday for an automatic berth, while a third or fourth place finish will make them eligible for at-large consideration.
The Midlothian boys come into the NXN Southeast Regional as the most impressive looking and most likely to qualify squad based off their state meet performance. Midlothian decisively defeated worthy challengers from the Northwest Region and Commonwealth District in Colonial Forge (2nd, 104 pts), Albemarle (3rd, 125 pts), and Stafford (4th, 144 pts). The Trojans had been favored to win the Group AAA state title, but not by as large of a margin as did in winning their fourth Group AAA state title in school history. Midlothian has a returning Nike Cross Nationals individual qualifier in Brayden Burleigh, but Burleigh has actually been the team's number two runner behind fellow senior Darren Barlow. Barlow finished third in the Group AAA state race with a time of 15:41 as both him and Burleigh figure to be racing among the top 10 individuals at the NXN regional.
Midlothian became the first team ever to average under 16 minutes as team in the history of the VHSL State Championships on a 5K course with a 15:55 average at Great Meadow. Following top ten finishers Barlow and Burleigh, Midlothian nearly had their entire top 5 among the top 25 with Sam Hush (17th, 15:56), Sean Willard (20th, 16:03), and Kyle Murray (26th, 16:11). Hush has been a late blooming senior without fast track times to back up his great cross country this performances this fall, while Murray ran strong as a sophomore and inside Midlothian's top 7 as a sophomore, but did not run much or well in his junior year and has returned to top form late in his senior season of cross country to move into Midlo's top five at the state meet. Willard was a Nike Indoor Nationals freshmen mile champion and will be the top returning for team next fall.
The Blacksburg boys were the pre-season #1 ranked team in the state and held the top ranking in the state prior to Midlothian's stellar second place finish at Great American, which was held on the same course for NXN Southeast at WakeMed Soccer Park in early October. The Blacksburg boys started out the season on fire including a Knights Crossing Invitational win in mid September with three runners under 16 minutes for 5K then winning the Maymont Cross Country Festival for a second year in a row. However, both their repeat wins at Maymont and the state meet two weeks ago in the Group AA race saw the Blacksburg squad receive real scares from being knocked off by Western Albemarle. Single digit point differentials have separated the two teams in both races including a mere single point separating state champion Blacksburg from state runner-up Western Albemarle at Great Meadow.
Blacksburg finished ninth the 2009 NXN Southeast Regional race and two places ahead of Midlothian. The two teams have not faced off head to head at all this season, so Blacksburg is hoping their first and only encounter this fall with Midlothian on Saturday will have them ahead and re-establish themselves as the top team within the state of Virginia. While Midlothian has traveled to compete against top out-of-state competition at Great American and Manhattan Invitational, Blacksburg opted to stay local with the exception of Maymont this season. Blacksburg has went undefeated as a result.
The key to Blacksburg's success will likely rely on their early season top 3 of seniors George Carter, Frank Locascio, and Caman Skelton running at their top form to match up with their next four who have been somewhat carrying them in the championship season with the Link brothers Nick and Zach, Anthony Noegel, and Matthew Paiser. Noegel was Blacksburg's top finisher at the state meet with a personal best time of 15:57 to finish seventh place. Coach James DeMarco has five runners in his lineup who have broken 16 minutes for 5K this season as only 15 seconds would be their top five spread if all matched their season best times in the same race with George Carter (15:44), Zach Link (15:55), Anthony Noegel (15:57), Frank Locascio (15:59), and Caman Skelton (15:59). The Blacksburg boys are looking to enjoy the same experience as their female teammates did last year in qualifying and competing at the Nike Cross Nationals in Portland, Oregon.
While the two state champion squads in AAA winners Midlothian and AA winners Blacksburg certainly appear to be the top contending teams from Virginia with the best shots at finishing as one of the top two automatic qualifiers, state runners-up Colonial Forge and Western Albemarle could make impacts and knock off a lot of higher ranked teams within the Southeast Region. If there were a strength of schedule rating to help determine or influence rankings, Colonial Forge would benefit greatly based off a very active and highly competitive season of races against top teams from Virginia and out-of-state. Colonial Forge traveled out-of-state to race at Great American to preview the NXN regional course then the next weekend went all the way down to Texas for Nike South, which they finished respectably close to several nationally ranked caliber squads from the Lonestar state who also qualified for the Nike Cross Nationals within the South Region last weekend as well as beating the defending NXN champions from Boerne Champion.
Western Albemarle is a team which seems to have never gotten an opportunity to run on a fast course or an ideal weather weekend to post quick times this fall, but have matched up well to a team which has run fast this season in Blacksburg. NXN Southeast will be the only and final opportunity for the crew from Crozet to put down quick times. Western Albemarle is led by Derek Armstrong, who won the Maymont invitational race earlier in the season and finished in the Group AA state race. Western Albemarle had five runners under 16:40 on the state course and will need to move their top five up further this weekend in order to place well inside the top 10. A better race from sophomore David Taylor, who finished fifth for the team at the state race but has finished as high as number two for the team in earlier races would help their team cause. Western Albemarle junior Ben Schiller joined teammate Armstrong on the podium as an All-State individual grabbing the 15th place overall two Saturdays ago.
The Commonwealth District proved itself to be the toughest district in the state of Virginia at the state meet with the four representatives in Colonial Forge, Albemarle, Stafford, and Riverbend taking the next four places in the Group AAA state race behind the champions from Midlothian. Now the district's strength will be showcased on a greater scale with the potential for several teams from the district to finish high at the Southeast Regional as both Albemarle and Stafford will join their district rival Colonial Forge in competition in Cary on Saturday.
The Stafford boys nearly beat Colonial Forge for the district title, before defeating them in the regional championship and setting themselves up to be Midlo's top challenger prior to the state meet. A disappointing showing for Stafford at the state meet as they failed to make the podium and finish among the top 3 as not only did Colonial Forge get back in front of them, but Albemarle came from behind to take third place in the state as well. Stafford and Albemarle will be relying on their pack and the back end of their top five to come through to make up for lack of true front runners. Albemarle had a decent front runner emerge late for them at the state meet with senior Ben Deal finishing strong to claim a top 15 All-State position. Stafford is a team which should be in good position to be competitive next year as well with only one senior among their top five and two seniors among their top seven. Other Virginia squads competing at NXN will take much heavier losses due to graduation after this spring.
Only a small group of individual runners will be competing from Virginia as some of the top runners with chances of qualifying individually for Oregon are featured on the full squads competing including Midlothian's Barlow and Burleigh, Western Albemarle's Armstrong, and Blacksburg's Carter. In the event that their teams do not qualify, being one of the first 5 individual finishers not from one of the national advancing teams, can also earn a runner a trip to NXN.
John Handley senior Thomas Delaney and W.T. Woodson junior Paul Gates both are racing alone without teams and should be in contention for national spots. Delaney finished 7th in the Group AA state race with a time of 15:49 and ran well at WakeMed Soccer Park earlier in the season at Great American placing 22nd with a time of 15:41 in the Race of Champions. Gates won a competitive Patriot District title including a win against eventual Group AAA state cross country champion, but is looking to bounce back at NXN Southeast after failing to earn All-State honors with an 18th place finish at Great Meadow.