348. That is the number of months it has been since Virginia reigned supreme and had a Foot Locker Champion. You'd have to go back another 60 months to reach the last time a VA boy won it. When those Virginians crossed the line victoriously at Balboa Park in San Diego it was still 9 years before the state meet would move to Great Meadow. Let's just sum it up, it has been a really long time since Virginia has won the big one.
This year seems to be the year though. Entering the competition on Saturday Virginia has the favorites for both races. In the girls' race Weini Kelati is a slight favorite over Nevada Mareno, Taylor Werner, Hannah Delbasi, and fellow VA runner Libby Davidson. In the boys' race Andrew Hunter enters as about as much of a favorite as you can be. He sits over 15 seconds ahead of any of his competition and only looks to be getting stronger.
These three, along with the other VA finalists will be looking to join an elite group of runners. The five boys will be looking to join Charles Alexander (1981) as champions and the two girls will be looking to join two-time champion Erin Keogh (1985-86).
Despite such a long drought from winning this event, Virginia has faired well in the past but these seven individuals did not make the trip to San Diego to just sun bathe. They are all out there to win or place in the top 10.
Hitting the course first at 12:15pm will be the girls' championship race featuring US #1 Weini Kelati and #2 returner Libby Davidson. Weini has had a crazy season and by crazy we mean one of the most dominant seasons ever. She has averaged a 51 second margin of victory this whole season and has raced Nevada Mareno, Libby Davidson, Rachel McArthur, Kate Murphy, Morgan Lewis, Maddie Hunter, Emma Call, Emma Wolcott, Heather Holt, and Julia Wood this season. Against all of them she averages 51 seconds of victory.
This past weekend we check out her final tune-up workout and asked her a few questions. It showed us she is ready and back in 9:12 3K shape. She is ready for a special race and excited about just being able to run.
Her closest competitor will likely be Nevada Mareno who when fresh can and will push Kelati. She will not be alone though as Libby Davidson is back out in San Diego and ready to turn some heads again. Despite being overshadowed by Kelati's success, Davidson has put together quite the season this year and looks to actually be in better shape than last year for this race. It would be an insult to say she is not a serious contender in this race.
The race will come down to Weini. If she pushes the pace hard enough early than it should be a wrap but if she lets others stick around it could play into Davidson's or Mareno's favor. Watch the pace and you will know how the race plays out.
In the boys' competition Drew (Andrew Hunter) has a clear shot between him and the Foot Locker title. He successfully dethroned two-time defending champ Grant Fisher last outdoor season and since then has been the guy to beat. The thing is, no one has beat him since. He enters the weekend as a very strong favorite and if he takes care of business the title will be his.
He is right now the greatest Virginia cross country runner in our sport's history and it would only be right for him to be able to hoist up that dish trophy this weekend.
He is not the only Virginian you should be watching though. Thanks to some awesome finishes at FL South, Virginia has 12% of the competitors in this weekend's 40 person race. Also representing VA will be 3A State Champion Gannon Willcutts, 6A State Champion Jonathan Lomogda, 5A State Champion Waleed Suliman, and homeschooled Micah Pratt.
All four of these guys have the potential to have a huge race this weekend. Gannon Willcutts (Western Albemarle) who was second at FL South was 28th a year ago. He has dropped at least 15 seconds off of his time this season which moves him inside the top 20 this year. He finished FL South in a photo finish with Jonathan Lomogda (Cox) which means we can expect both of them to be right in that top group. Depending on the way the race goes we could see these guys move up a bit the way they out kicked everyone at FL South.
The whole race comes down to Drew Hunter and his pace. If he really goes for it from the gun then it will play very much into Virginia's favor.
Moral of the story, root for that.
If Drew pushes the pace and opens very fast one of two things can happen. Either a chase breaks off and stays with him (4-6 runners) or they let him go and run as a pack. If it is the latter, which happened at FL South, then Virginia could see multiple top 10 finishers.
Entering the weekend as new kids on the block but also just as much contenders are Douglas Freeman's Waleed Suliman and homeschooled Micah Pratt. Both of these guys have some serious speed and pedigree. Suliman may have the most upside but Pratt has a ton of racing experience. These two may be seeded more towards the middle of the pack but they definitely have the ability to move up significantly.
It has been quite a long time since Virginia has won either of these titles. None of these athletes were alive the last time it happened and even some of their coaches were not even born. There is a reason though that it hasn't happened and it is because it is extremely hard to win this title. More then just training go into this race. It is the most elite race there is and features just 40 individuals. You need to be a great runner, travel good, have the perfect strategy, hope everything goes right and then you may have a shot.
That all being said, Virginia has a serious shot this weekend. History is on the line.
Boys Finish: Andrew Hunter (1), Gannon Willcutts (8), Jonathan Lomogda (10), Waleed Suliman (18), and Micah Pratt (35).
Girls Finish: Weini Kelati (1), Libby Davidson (3)
Photos by: Jon Fleming, John Herzog, Mary Ann Magnant