With Brie Oakley having won last weekend’s Nike Cross Country Nationals by a stunning 28 seconds, Saturday’s Footlocker race will not truly crown the top high school girl in the country. According to tullyrunners.com, Oakley had the best speed rating in the country by seven points—the equivalent of 21 seconds on a typical 5k cross country course. There’s next to nothing any of the girls competing in San Diego can do to steal Oakley’s spot at the top of the pack.
Even without the top dog, this is not a weak field. It is headlined by, arguably, the second and third best girls in the country this season in sophomore Claudia Lane and last year’s third-place finisher Nevada Mareno. By just about any account, they are your co-favorites.
Lane in particular has, unlike the typical trajectory for high school runners, come on strong in the last month. Her two best performances of the season, according to speed ratings, have come in her last two races—Footlocker West Regional and the California State Meet--both of which she won by margins exceeding 35 seconds. While that sounds a lot like the resume of the best girl in the country—the West is a tough region and California a tough state—her one matchup against Oakley in September ended in a 23-second defeat. She’s only a sophomore, but, historically, that doesn’t disqualify her from serious consideration as over half of the last 30 girls champions have been non-seniors.
Despite her third place finish in 2015 and a win in the South region this year, Mareno enters as a bit of a mystery. She’s run a limited schedule this season and doesn’t have the body of work she entered the race with last year. If she’s in shape—and a state championship and regional win suggest she is—that light schedule could actually be to her benefit as the other girls in this field have all been racing heavily since September. She has the best mile and two-mile bests in the field, so, even with the lack of 2016 results, you would bet against her winning at your own peril.
Though this seems today like it will be a two-girl race, we all know that Footlocker doesn’t always play out like we expect it to. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the two other regional champion and one other runner—all of whom enter with speed ratings of at least 150 in the last month.
New Jersey’s Alyssa Aldridge only finished 23rd in this race as a sophomore in 2015, but enters with the second-best speed rating in the field—remember, Mareno has laid low this season—and a 15-second victory at the Northeast regional meet. After a relatively pedestrian start to the season, Aldridge has rounded into form in the last month with her best performances of the season coming when it mattered most. She won’t enter Saturday as a favorite, but she seems to be timing her season right and has familiarity with the Balboa Park course that could pay dividends.
The highest finisher from NXN attempting the double this year, India Johnson of Ohio, will be making her first Footlocker appearance. One has to wonder how she’ll respond to the grueling schedule she’s subjected herself to over the last two months—Ohio state championship circuit, NXN regional and final, Footlocker regional—against a field that features runners who aren’t attempting the double. Johnson came in second in the Midwest to fellow doubler Anne Forsythe by a whopping 19 seconds. She also finished behind Forsythe at the NXN regional before beating her at Nationals.
The second notable girl attempting the NXN/Footlocker double is Johnson’s fellow midwesterner Anne Forsythe. She finished 14th at NXN last weekend, just five seconds behind Johnson. Unlike Johnson, however, Forsythe doesn’t have the recent wins. She was second in her state meet in Michigan—unusual for a true contender at Footlocker—and the only race she’s won since the start of November was the Footlocker Midwest regional meet. Don’t let the lack of wins fool you though; Forsythe’s three best performances of the season, by speed rating, are her three most recent—NXN Nationals and both regional meets. She may well be coming into form at the right time, but will the schedule of attempting the double counteract that?
It’s not the safe pick by any stretch, but I’m sufficiently intrigued by Marero’s experience and approach in 2016 to pick her over Lane for first place.
The girls’ race begins at 12:15 p.m. EST, followed by the boys at 1:00 p.m. Footlocker will be providing a free live stream of the race, which is available both at footlockercc.com and this YouTube page.