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2016 Footlocker XC Boys’ Race Preview

The winner of the boys’ race could challenge Casey Clinger for the national No. 1 ranking.

Cross Country: Foot Locker National Championships Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to Footlocker in the age of NXN. Earlier, we looked at how the girls’ race might play out Saturday and concluded that, regardless of who wins, it will not be the best girl in the country. To a lesser extent, the same analysis holds for the boys. With Casey Clinger winning NXN last weekend, Saturday’s Footlocker winner will, at best, have to share the number one crown. Still, four of the top six finishers from NXN are attempting the double Saturday, meaning that this field is by no means light on talent. Where the girls’ race seemed easy to pare down to two favorites, the boys’ race figures to be much more open, with Tully Runners projecting the top 9 runners as all being within 10 seconds of each other.

How to Watch

The boys’ race will start at 1:00 p.m. EST (the girls’ race precedes it at 12:15 p.m.) and can be viewed via a free live stream available either at footlockercc.com or this YouTube page beginning at 11:00 a.m. EST.

The Contenders

If anyone enters as a favorite, it’s Sam Worley. He finished second to Clinger last weekend at NXN and has run his best races of the season in his last four races, with the best coming last weekend. He’s trending upward at the right time and, historically, Footlocker has been kind to senior boys. However, with other contenders like Noah Affolder and Finn Gessner not competing in the NXN circuit, that lack of rest could be a crucial variable in a race that’s, on paper, a toss-up.

Like Worley, Nebraska’s Sam Hirsch is attempting the NXN/FL double. Hirsch finished fourth at NXN and is the top returner from last year, during which race he finished 9th. He only finished fifth in his Footlocker regional meet, but that comes with the obvious qualification that he surely knew that he had two national championships in his near future. He ran arguably his two best races of the season at NXN regionals and nationals, so the explanation that he was holding back at the Midwest regional has some evidence behind it. As with any runner attempting the double, though, the question will be how many races Hirsch has in his legs.

That brings us to the next two true favorites, Noah Affolder and Finn Gessner, who are coming in relatively rested compared to their doubling counterparts. Gessner would have entered NXN with the second-highest speed rating in the race, but he withdrew from the meet to focus on winning the Footlocker individual title. Despite his speed ratings, Gessner enters as a bit of a mystery with suspicions that he hasn’t yet really unleashed in a major race. He finished ninth in the Midwest region, and may have held back to run with Hirsch at NXN Heartland, where he was listed as the winner, though he and Hirsch essentially crossed the line together. He finished 11th last year at this meet and, perhaps more than any other boy in this field, has the potential to unleash something special.

Affolder held out of the NXN cycle entirely, focusing entirely on Footlocker. He is the only entrant with an undefeated record on the season, but has not shown dominance in any of his victories. He finished 15th last year and has won two consecutive Northeast regional meets now, beating his brother Sam by eight seconds this year.

Other Possibilities

Alexander Maier had his best race of the season last weekend with his fifth place finish at NXN. However, he’s only a sophomore, which, historically, makes him a long shot to win Footlocker. Only Lukas Verzbicas has ever won as a sophomore. He’s tested against top competition, racing in Texas against fellow contenders Sam Worley and Reed Brown all season. This year might not be his year, but he’s worth watching both Saturday and for next year.

Talon Hull won the West regional in the absence of Clinger, but that qualification doesn’t disqualify Hull from consideration in this meet for two reasons: 1) Clinger isn’t at Footlocker nationals either and 2) his performance at the West regional received the second-highest speed score of any competitor in a regional meet. Running against Clinger in Utah all season should prepare him will for the quality of competition at Footlocker, but his overall body of work places him below the four runners above.

Reed Brown finished sixth at NXN last year, successfully did the double last year (two top-20 finishes), and is the fastest miler in the field. All of those facts should position him well for this race. However, Worley has his number with four consecutive head-to-head wins—Texas state meet, NXN regionals, Footlocker regionals, and NXN. That isn’t a deal-breaker, but it’s not a good omen either.

Lastly, Luis Grijalva is a darling of Tully Runners’ speed rating system with the fifth highest overall rating in the field. So, why haven’t we talked about him yet? Well, he finished fourth at the West Regional without the sort of compelling explanations Hirsch and Gessner had in attempting the double. Still, winning the California state meet—his best race by speed rating on the year—isn’t easy to discount. A Californian has finished in the top 10 each of the last four years. Consistency seems to be an issue for Grijalva, though, which places him a tier below the other top runners in this field.

Prediction: While Worley’s resume is tempting, I’m wary of picking someone attempting the double to win, especially when other similarly talented runners have the benefit of rest. So, the pick here is Affolder to join Edward Cheserek and Solomon Haile as the only Northeast runners to win Footlocker in the current century.