Every fall, the high school cross country season gets a moment of exclusive access to the spotlight with the Footlocker Regional and National Cross Country Championships. Though in recent years, Nike Cross Country Nationals have threatened to overtake Footlocker in both attention and competitiveness, the latter’s history as the premier high school race in the country keeps it in the top spot. Add to that the fact that NXN’s team competition in which high schools compete under confusing club names that make it difficult to make meaning of the team competition, and Footlocker’s enduring beauty dwells in its simplicity.
With the annual championships set to take place Saturday, December 10, we figured we’d look back at the top five moments of the 2000s before undertaking a full preview of both the boys and girls races next Friday.
With nine of the top-10 finishers in 2012 graduating, only Tennessee’s Aaron Templeton returned from that group. Even if you extend the scope of notable returnees to 2012 All-Americans—a designation given to the top-15 runners in the race—only Conner Mantz and John Dressel are added to the mix. In fact, of the 40 runners in the field, only eight had appeared at Footlocker Nationals previously. In other words, on paper, this was a wide open race.
Two first timers had some helium heading into the race thanks to wins out of historically competitive regions. Perhaps the favorite among them was junior Matthew Maton of Bend, Oregon. FloTrack heralded him as a co-favorite with Templeton after an undefeated season and a win at the West Regional. The other was Grant Fisher, who won the Midwest Region by seven seconds over 2011 Footlocker qualifier Addison DeHaven.
The race got out to an honest pace of 2:19 for the first 800m as North Carolina’s Patrick Sheehan took it out. However, the race slowed down considerably from there on a relatively flat portion of the course. The field was running five or more abreast at the mile, which they came through in 4:53.
The pack thinned out a little bit after the major hill that comes after the first mile, but not because of a major injection of pace. The first major move didn’t come until just before the two mile mark when Seattle’s Joseph Hardy opened up a five meter gap on the field. That move was short-lived as Maton reeled him in quickly. The move did have an affect on the outlook of the race though, opening up some separation for the first eight runners or so from the rest of the field.
The next big move came at maybe 400m past the two mile mark from California’s Blair Hurlock, who looked set to open up a similar five-to-10 meter lead as Hardy’s early move provided. However, it was derailed by an inexplicable turn off the course (11:35). From the video it looks like there may have been some confusion with cone placement. Hurlock made a turn toward what appears to be a cluster of cones a couple feet off the course, but still, the actual course was clearly demarcated throughout by unbroken red lines. Either way, that small detour put Fisher and Mason back with the leader.
Going up the hill at 2.5 miles, Dressel looked to be taking advantage of the hill that has often defined the race in past years. Fisher offered the only convincing response on the hill and utilized that position to storm past Dressel on the ensuing downhill. Those back-to-back moves brought the race down to a two-man battle between the juniors with about a quarter mile to go.
Though Fisher opened up a sizable lead on the downhill, Dressel pulled back even on the flat and they were alternating leads with a mere 200m to race. It looked to be Dressel’s race with 150m to go when Fisher came charging up on his right shoulder. They bumped shoulders as Fisher made his pass, but Dressel clearly got the brunt of the impact, causing him to stumble for a couple steps. That was all it took for Fisher to put him away, opening up three seconds over the final 100m.
The race marked Fisher’s first real entrance into the high school running spotlight and the beginning of a run of dominance that lasted until the end of his senior season. He entered the race as a bit of an afterthought—so much as a Midwest regional champion can be an afterthought—after Templeton and Mason, but left it on track to start one of the most dominant stretches of high school running in recent memory.