GAXC Favorites: Loudoun Valley, Saratoga, Dalton Hengst, Kelsey Chmiel

by Steve Underwood

The Great American Cross Country Festival, the official NXN Southeast Pre-Regional Meet, has always attracted many of the best prep XC teams and individuals – not just in the region, but the entire nation – and 2017 will be no exception.

Just check out an initial quick look at the leading entries in the Nike Race of Champions:

  • The Loudoun Valley HS (VA) boys’ squad, ranked US#1 by both DyeStat and Milesplit all season to date, and featuring a deep group led by transfer Sam Affolder.
  • Two-time NXN top-5 finisher (and NBNO 2-mile champ) Kelsey Chmiel and her US#12 Saratoga HS (NY) team, which has won Great American a record nine times.
  • Dalton Hengst, arguably the top individual talent in the boys’ race, also NSAF CSI alum whose credentials include the 2017 Penn Relays mile title.
  • The two-time defending ROC champ Blacksburg HS (VA) girls, which also captured the NXN SE crown last fall and have been to Portland four straight years.
  • The St. Xavier HS (KY) boys, the other defending ROC champ from last year and currently ranked US#13.
  • David Melville, the top returning finisher from last year’s boys’ race in 5th and also 3rd at NXN SE last fall.
  • Carter Cheeseman, one of the nation’s most intriguing rising stars, coming all the way from Ft. Worth TX and with two super fast times so far this fall.
  • The boys and girls of Kingwood HS (TX), who were invited to GAXC after they were displaced from their school for the entire year due to Hurricane Harvey.

Boys’ Teams – “The Jungle” appears to have all the pieces

Loudoun Valley HS became known on the national prep distance scene because of ’16 grad Drew Hunter – a sub-4 miler as a high schooler who won here as a junior in ’14 before having a senior year for the ages. But when his younger mates joined him for relay triumphs at NBNI and Penn, it was clear the school was developing more than just an individual superstar. Under coaches Joan and Marc Hunter (Drew’s parents), LVHS was 3rd here last year post-Drew and nailed the same spot at NXN SE.

Now with rising stars like Peter Morris -- 7th here last fall, then 4A state champ -- and Colton Bogucki (close behind) as seniors, and with the arrival of junior transfer Sam Affolder from Carlisle, PA – the school has both the talent and depth to have been tabbed as the early-season best team in the country. All three have been under 15:30 this year. Affolder has been a prodigal talent his first two years as a prep, having joined older brother Noah at FL Finals last year and then running a 4:09 mile in track – among many other accomplishments. Backing up these three is Drew’s younger brother, Jacob.

Who are the other boys’ teams pushing for the podium?

  • St. Xavier HS (KY) used a very, very balanced and closely packed squad to win here last year – without an individual scoring higher than 17th – and then went on to take 2nd at NXN SE and advance with Brentwood HS (GAXC runner-up) to Portland last fall. Amazingly, they graduated just one of their top nine and should be taken very seriously again. Senior Patrick Schaefer is back to lead and recently lowered his PR to 15:33. St. X has been beaten only by Carmel, IN this fall and is ranked #3 in the SE region.
  • Green Hope HS (NC) was 4th here in ’16 and also returned almost everyone, including Ian Delgado, who repped Team NSAF at CSI in Cuba. Payton Barish led the way last year in 16th and fellow senior Ryan Kemper can also be expected to be a leader. They are currently ranked #4 in the SE region.
  • The Bolles School (FL) looks to be the top squad from the Sunshine State – now at #5 in the SE rankings. Charles Hicks (see below) and Chase Rivera are a strong 1-2 for this squad, but will need the gap closed somewhat with the next three to make a podium run. Their best collective accomplishment to date was a Katie Caples Invite triumph.
  • Kingwood HS (TX), the 2001 champs in the early days of this meet, brings an ambitious group led by soph Nick Majerus, who has run 15:41 this fall. They’re just outside the top 5 teams in the South region.
  • Bishop Hendricken HS (RI) has had a bit of a backseat to La Salle Academy (GAXC ’14 champs) in recent years, but now the school is #3 in the NE region and has a win over its rival at the Injury Fund Carnival earlier in September. Like St. X, they have a very tight 1-5 spread.

Boys Individuals – Hengst highlights very deep field

Dalton Hengst is perhaps best known as a miler. Winning a title at the distance in the prestigious Penn Relays will give you that kind of reputation. But the McDonogh School (MD) senior has talent over hill and dale, too: He already has to his credit a blazing 14:57 victory at the Paul Short Invite last weekend, plus another 15:10. Last fall, he was 5th at Foot Locker NE, then 21st at the Finals.

Last winter and spring was really Hengst’s breakout, as he improved his mile to 4:08.21 in taking 4th at NBNI, then won Penn at 4:09.99 – as well as running 8:56 for 3,200. He was chosen for Team NSAF for our CSI (Barrientos Memorial), where he won the 1,500. While he struggled somewhat at NBNO (3rd mile, 6th 2-mile), he has clearly gotten his mojo back this fall already.

Who else will be in the mix in this very competitive group?

  • David Melville, a Northern Guilford HS (NC) senior, is the top returnee both in this field (5th last year) and also would be the best coming back from NXN SE (3rd in ’16). During track, he ran both NBN 5,000s, taking 5th indoors (14:57.38), then 11th outdoors (15:12.30). He was a pretty solid 3rd in his biggest meet this fall to date, running 15:13 at the Adidas meet on this course, but has had a few questionable outings since.
  • Carter Cheeseman, is now at Fort Worth Christian in Dallas, and a junior after winning a state title as a soph at Brentwood Academy (TN) last fall. He was then 12th at NXN SE and then this past spring got down to 9:07.84 for 3,200 – one of the faster 10th-graders in the country. Now this fall so far he has a 14:42 victory at the Keller Invite and 15:01 at Southlake Carroll.
  • Jacob McLeod, a Trinity Christian School (GA) senior, is another Foot Locker Finalist in the field – taking 15th there last December after a 8th at FL South. He has run 9:06.19 for 3,200 and just recently had a stellar 14:50 victory at the Wingfoot race in GA.
  • Sam Affolder, David Morris and Colton Bogucki – all three Loudoun Valley talents deserve to be mentioned individually. It seems Affolder hasn’t really pushed hard individually yet this fall, but then Morris and Bogucki – now very experienced seniors – are raising their games with their new teammate.
  • Charles Hicks, a 3rd ’16 Foot Locker Finalist in the field (9th South, 36th Finals), has a win over McLeod early this fall in Florida. The Bolles School (FL) junior has a 3,200 best of 9:15.39.
  • Michael Phillips, a Lawton Chiles (FL) senior, has run 15:26 so far this fall and is coming off a spring where he ran 9:05.22 for 3,200 – 3rd best in the field.
  • Sam Gilman is a rising star from Hilton Head HS (SC), who won the Bojangles Mile as a soph last spring in 4:16.33. He has some fast early times this fall, including a 15:11 at Lake Murray, that indicate he might be ready to move up.

Girls Teams – Saratoga is back

When you think of the Saratoga Springs HS (NY) girls’ distance program, you think of many things: Legendary coaches Linda and Art Kranick; winners of the first NXN national title in 2004 and podium finishers six times; unforgettable alums like Nicole Blood, Erin Davis, Lindsay Ferguson and many more; and record-setting quartets in the longest relays, like the 4x1 mile, DMR and 4x800.

But you should also think of them as the most dominant program in Great American history, winning nine titles between 2000-2011. They gave GAXC consistent national-class credibility that no other program could match, and have done so over a long time. Now they are back at WakeMed for the first time since 2014 and clearly the favorites. Team leader Kelsey Chmiel (more on her below) could finish as the greatest ‘Toga runner ever (and that’s really saying something) and upperclassmen Ciara Knott, Keellyn Cummings, Carly Vetter and others provide a strong supporting cast.

Who else could challenge for podium spots and perhaps the title?

  • Blacksburg HS (VA) graduated team leader Samantha Marin and Annie Kay Combs from last year’s squad, but are a perennial power reloads to a strong degree each year and have junior Ailene Edwards and fast-improving soph Kaitlynn Wolfe under 18:00 this year. The Bruins have continued to flourish under 2nd-year head coach Brandon Bear, who took over from James DeMarco.
  • Loudoun Valley HS (VA) – yes, the girls’ squad from that school is becoming a power as well, currently ranked #2 in the state (after 2nd in 4A last fall) and owner of the Oatlands title Invite from this year. They are led by new sub-18 performer Natalie Morris.
  • South Forsyth HS (GA), top-ranked in Georgia and led by junior Kaylee DuPont – who has run 18:33 this year and in the high 17s before.
  • Kingwood HS (TX), under first-year coach Jeremy Dye, has been to the NXN Finals as recently as 2015 – and two of its runners were part of that group. The squad has a pair of early-season wins and has had a balanced attack led by Rachel James. Like their boys’ team, they are just outside the top 5 in the South.
  • Huntsville HS (AL), the 2016 Class 7A champ in ‘Bama with four sub-20 returnees and with two under 19 this fall.

Girls Individuals – Chmiel could chase MR

Saratoga Springs junior Kelsey Chmiel is arguably as good as any girl in the country and (if it’s not too warm) could challenge the stellar meet record of the great Aisling Cuffe – a fellow Empire State megastar who hammered a near-solo 16:40 in 2010 while a senior at Corning HS. Chmiel has started her XC career with spectacular NXN Finals finishes of 4th (’15, 17:15 PR) and 5th (’16) – the latter following NY State and Federation titles.

She followed with a track season that included a 9:59.62 3,200 win at Loucks, a 9:18.09 3k PR at Eddy Games and the NBNO 2M crown (10:10.44). Her only race so far this fall was a very solid 17:35 course-record victory at Ocean State.

Who else could join Chmiel on the girls’ individual podium?

  • Sasha Neglia, the Dobyns Bennett HS (TN) soph who was 3rd here last year (17:39) and won the Tennessee AAA title as a freshman.
  • Natalie Tyner, the Laney HS (NC) junior who is the only girl from the home state under 18 so far this fall with a 17:40 best. She was also 2nd in the Adidas Challenge on this course.
  • Kaitlyn Lacy, a Louisville Male HS (KY) junior who was 6th last year in 17:56, has a track 5k PR of 17:23, but is still trying to get back to that form this fall.
  • Keelin Hayes, the Tatnall HS (DE) junior who was 8th at GAXC last year, but then an even better 5th at NXN SE (17:49). Just one very low key race this fall so far.
  • Rafella Gibbons, the Winter Park HS (FL) senior whose credentials include 6th at GAXC back in ’14 and 3rd at NXN SE in ’15. She was 2nd in the recent Wingfoot race in GA at 18:05.
  • Emma Wolcott, top performer of the Tuscarora, VA squad, with a 17:55 PR, and winner of the Oatlands Invite.
  • Natalie Morris, the junior leader of Loudoun Valley’s girls’ squad, with a brand new PR of 17:49.
  • Grace Connelly, a strong 4-year performer for La Salle Academy (RI), who was 11th here last year and recently won the Injury Fund Carnival.
  • Kathleen Simms or Alexa Sapienza-Wright – the 1-2 punch for DuPont Manuel HS (KY); Sapienza-Wright was the 3A state champ last year, but Simms (18:09) is fastest this fall.

Photo of Marc and Joan Hunter (Loudoun Valley coaches) by Steve Underwood. Photo of Kelsey Chmiel, thanks to John Nepolitan,

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