Last year's boys championship race produced outstanding dividends
Date: November 26, 2022
The cross country championship season continues as it does traditionally on Thanksgiving weekend in Kenosha, WI, at the famed Wayne E. Dannehl National Cross Country Course. The series formerly known as Footlocker Nationals returns for its 37th year and the second since the national COVID shutdown.
Seven races will be contested on the 5k course throughout the day, with the pinnacle being the Girls' and Boys' seeded championship races. The top ten finishers in each of those races will represent the Midwest at the Champs Sports Cross Country National Championship at Balboa Park in San Diego, CA on December 10th. The postseason thus has been electrifying in the Midwest, so let's take a look at some of the most notable names in the field for Saturday.
Three national qualifiers return on the Girls' side from 2021: Sophia Kennedy (Sr., Carmel IN), Arianne Olson (Sr., Holland MI), and Gretchen Farley (Sr., Indianapolis IN). Kennedy, Olson, and Farley all are in the field, but the headliner of the Girls' registrants may be Olson's teammate, Team Midwest Regional individual champ Helen Sachs, a sophomore from West Ottawa in Holland, Michigan.
Sachs cleared the LaVern Gibson 5000-meter course in 16:47, pulling away from Illinois' Grace Schager in the final stretches of the race. Sachs won nine races on the year, including the Michigan D1 title, leading West Ottawa to a team title with a 17:18 individual win. Sachs' only 'losses' this year were to Olson, who finished 9th at Michigan D1 but then bounced back for 8th at Team Regionals. Both Panthers are in the top-10 conversation, and with no Schager in the field, all eyes will be on Sachs to take home another individual regional title. Sachs sports the #7 speed rating in the country in 2022 (credit to Bill Meylen from TullyRunner.com for all Speed Rating data).
Yet one of the most eye-popping performances in the nation came from Iowa on October 29th, when Paityn Noe of Ballard HS. Noe was defending 3A champion, having run 18:12 her junior year to win. But Noe kicked it up another notch, first running a lifetime best in August, then again in October, and finally becoming the first girl in Iowa state history to break 17 minutes, running 16:48 for a mind-blowing 96-second victory. Noe's title is rated as the fourth-best performance in the country by speed ratings, exceeding Sachs' Terre Haute win. Noe has been idle for a month, so what form will she be in? Noe is a top-10 Flo50 athlete at the moment and is in firm contention for the Midwest title.
Finishing only seven seconds behind Sachs at Terre Haute was Tatum David (Sr., Richland County IL), finishing 3rd in 16:54. David is actually a returning Midwest qualifier, having finished 7th in the Midwest Regional as a freshman in 2019 before moving to (and returning from) Florida. David ran away with the Illinois 2A individual title in 17:05 for three miles and managed to keep close to Sachs and Schager for her third national XC qualification. David may be the best shot to run down Sachs and Noe, coming off a strong spring that included a 10:04 3200 state championship run and a 4:38 full-mile victory at the St. Louis Festival of Miles.
As top Champs Sports Midwest Returner, Sophia Kennedy may have something to say about the way the race progresses at the front. Kennedy, from Indianapolis' Park Tudor, finished third last year in a blazing 17:18.4 behind Riley Stewart (now at Stanford) and Ali Weimer (now at Minnesota). She then went on to finish 7th at the National meet, as the second Midwest finisher. Kennedy finished third before Lily Cridge and Nicki Southerland at Indiana's single-class state championship in 17:24, before beating her own LaVern Gibson PB by 13 seconds to secure a Team Nationals individual qualifier in 5th. Another Park Tudor standout, Gretchen Farley, is also a returning Footlocker qualifier, finishing 9th in 17:36 last year, before grabbing the final all-American spot in 20th in 17:59. Farley joined Kennedy in the top five at IHSAA state. Southerland, from Delta in Muncie Indiana, was closest to beating Cridge at Indiana state and is in the thick of qualifying. Southerland's speed rating from that meet was 151, the 14th-fastest in the nation in 2022. She enters the week as the #8 athlete in the MileSplit Flo50.
The first runner on the outside looking in was Jaci Sievers from Elkhorn South in Nebraska. Sievers ran 18:46 for the top five at the Class A state final in Nebraska. A couple of other near-national qualifier misses are Juliet Frum (So., Glenbrook North IL) and Addison Knoblauch (Jr. Homestead IN). Frum and Knoblauch both ran at Midwest Team Regionals, finishing 6th and 7th. Frum's race represented the best run of her young career (17:23 for 5k), while Knoblauch's nearly matched the 17:21 from the Nike XC Town Twilight meet on the same Terre Haute course. Both are running well at the right time, so keep an eye on any of those athletes for a potential redemption performance.
Plenty of individuals make this race deep. Runner-up to Sachs at the Michigan D1 state meet was Grandville's Allie Arnsman, running 17:43. Outside of Sachs, the only athlete to better Arnsman's performance on that day was Jessica Jazwinski, sophomore from Hart, MI. Jazwinski has run 17:15 for 5k, dating back to the Portage Invitational on October 8th (55th speed rating nationally). Rachel Soukup from Crystal Lake Prairie Ridge, IL, was runner-up to David in the Illinois 2A state meet. Bridget Gallagher (Sr., Guerin IN) and Josefina Rastrelli (Jr., Warsaw IN) both turned in sub-18 5k performances for top-10 at the Indiana state meet.
The Boys' championship race was already one of the great events of the postseason to look forward to. But on the heels of a historic Team Midwest Regional race that saw five athletes crush Futsum Zeinassellassie's 2011 record, many will be looking to the Boys' race in Kenosha to see how many of these same characters will follow up. For historical context: Zeinasellassie's 14:48 was run at the Indiana state championships that year. Later, he won the Foot Locker Midwest race by 12 seconds in 14:58, ahead of Bismarck's Jake Leingang. Zeinasellassie then went on to finish runner-up in an epic duel with New Jersey's Edward Cheserek.
Of course, conditions will play a factor, but let's give the course record talk its fair due: Zeinasellassie's 14:58 seems well within range for this field that we will discuss shortly, but that is a far cry from the course record, set by Dathan Ritzenhein in 2000-14:35. That is the next barometer for this historically strong boys' field. Note that the course this year is slightly altered from the usual 5k course, and will send athletes to the right at the top of the hill after 1k rather than to the left.
The conversation begins with new LaVern Gibson course record holder, and Michigan state champion Hunter Jones (Benzie Central, MI). Jones was the fourth-place finisher at Eastbay a year ago, before finishing 33rd at Balboa Park. Even before his 14:21.8 blitzing two weeks ago, Jones has had an all-time senior season. His undefeated campaign includes six performances under 15:00 for 5k, and a D3 state win by over a minute. Despite claiming not to have the 'strongest kick.' Jones outlasted sub-4:00 miler Connor Burns for the Midwest Regional win-- Burns is not in the Champs Sports Field.
The only other returning top-10 finisher from 2021 is another one under Zeinassellassie's LaVern Gibson record: Carmel, Indiana's best, and Colorado commit Kole Mathison (Sr.). Mathison dropped off the breakneck pace in the last kilometer but the Indiana State champ still sailed to a season-best 14:47 to qualify for Team Nationals. It is not likely that Mathison will let Jones string to 25 seconds ahead this week.
Two more from the top five of that legendary race are also entered: Connor Ackley (Hilliard Davidson OH) and Benne Anderson (Ottawa Hills MI). Anderson was the Michigan D1 individual champ, and Ackley the Ohio D1 champ. Both were under 14:30, massive personal bests for the state champions. What kind of tactics will all these familiar faces throw against each other?
But many more names are added to this field. Start with the youngest HS sub-4 miler ever, Simeon Birnbaum from Stevens HS in Rapid City, SD. Birnbaum has run a light schedule this fall and followed his South Dakota Class AA state title with an epic runner-up finish at the Team Heartland Region meet to Dowling Catholic's Jackson Heidesch. Birnbaum could play a similar role in this race as Burns may have played, working to take it with a devastating kick. Birnbaum was the 16th-place finisher at this meet in 2021.
A number of other top 20 finishers from last year return. Rock Bridge, MO's Andrew Hauser was 12th, Breck School MN's Alden Keller 13th, Minneapolis Southwest's Sam Scott was 18th, Oswego East IL's Parker Nold finished 19th, and Belle Fourche SD's Sawyer Clarkson was 20th--all return this year for another crack at a top-10 bid. Hauser in particular has a lengthy successful track record that includes a Missouri state title his sophomore year in 2021 but hasn't matched those accolades yet this season. His Rock Bridge teammate Ian Kemey, Missouri Class 5 runner-up, will join him in the Champs Sports field after finishing 15:16 at Team Midwest Regional.
Watch for Connell Alford (Jr., Chelsea MI), who was the Michigan D2 individual champ, and finished 6th in 14:57 at Midwest Team Regional. Alford turned in a speed rating of 193 at the MSU Spartan Invite, the 33rd fastest in the country to date. Alford was beaten in that race by only Ackley and fellow Michigan junior Seth Norder (Grand Haven, MI). Norder's sub-15:00 from that week was good for a top 15 national speed rating. Norder last finished runner-up to Benne Anderson at the Michigan D1 state final race.
Colorado's best Christian Groendyk (Fort Collins) joins the fray as well. His 15:13 5K is an impressive showing on the Norris Penrose course, but he has not raced since that state final on October 29th. Another notable state champ in the field is Kansas' Wyatt Haughton (Shawnee-Mission East), who broke 15:00 in the 6A state final, producing a top-20 speed rating performance. Haughton was 8th at the Team Heartland Regional race last week. Haughton was just seconds behind star sophomore Manny Putz from Onalaska, WI. Putz is also in the Champs Sports field and can steal a top-10 spot to cap what has been a fantastic sophomore season that included a Wisconsin D1 state title win.
Other state champions in the field include Fremont, Nebraska's Juan Gonzalez (also only a sophomore), Bismarck ND's Brady Korsmo, Minneapolis Washburn's Aidan Jones, and Wyoming Potter's House MI D4 champ Lezawe Osterink. Illinois' 3A runner-up Liam Newhart (Oak Park-River Forest) was a top-10 finisher at Team Midwest and is one to watch as well.