The NSAF’s Great American XC Festival and Cedric Walker HBCU Challenge are back this weekend after a year’s hiatus, with nearly 2,000 runners converging on WakeMed Saturday, Oct. 2. As has been the case for several years, the GAXC Festival is a Nike Cross Regional Southeast Preview, with teams preparing to compete here in the Nov. 27 event getting a great chance to see and compete on the course. Despite the fact that there will be no NXN Nationals this fall, the competition is still expected to be keen in November for NXR Southeast supremacy.
The Festival will consist of 10 high school varsity and JV races, highlighted by the two Nike Race of Champions events.
In the Girls Nike ROC, the individual showdown features two of the most diverse and exciting talents in the country, Olympic Trials 800 qualifier Juliette Whittaker from Maryland and rising Pennsylvania distance star Mia Cochran – among many others. Meanwhile, the team battle includes three of the top-five-ranked squads in the Southeast – Weddington (NC), Cambridge Christian (FL) and Loudoun Valley (VA) – plus East Greenwich from Rhode Island and a host of others.
Heading up the Boys Nike ROC are the top three-ranked teams in the Southeast – Hardin Valley (TN), Mt. Tabor (NC) and Severna Park (MD) – as well as Northeast #4 Bishop Hendricken (RI) and a trio of other Rhode Island powers. Individually, Sam Rich (Catawba Ridge SC), a sub-9:00 2-miler, could be the runner to beat – along with four others in the DyeStat Preseason Top 100.
Here's a breakdown of top individuals and teams for both the Girls and Boys Race of Champions events:
INDIVIDUAL GIRLS: Whittaker and Cochran stand out
A number of outstanding female distance runners could battle for the title and the rest of the top 10 spots in the Nike Girls ROC. But two – Juliette Whittaker and Mia Cochran – stand out … and for entirely different reasons.
- Whittaker, a Mount de Sales HS, MD senior, was one of three prep girls to qualify for the Olympic Trials last summer in the 800 meters during a truly historic year for the 2-lap event. She has run 2:02.07 or better five times, including a PR 2:01.15 last spring that made her the 7th-fastest girl ever. But she also has fantastic range and has run 16:58 for 5k on the track and performed at a high level nationally in XC. Her season-opening win at the Oatlands Meet in VA with a 17:58 bodes well for her chances here.
- Cochran, a Moon Twp HS, PA senior, is most comfortable in the longer races, but speedy enough to sport a 4:45.07 mile PR from her 3rd-place finish at The Outdoor Nationals this past June. Her NSAF creds also include a 9th-place finish here at the XC Town MOC last November. She already has a 17:11 5k PR this fall and could become the first Pennsylvania ROC champion here.
Several others from the DyeStat Preseason 100 are in the field.
- #51 Ciara O’Shea (Madison Central, KY jr) has won five races this fall, with a best of 17:45, and ran 10:30 for 3,200 on the track last spring.
- #68 Irene Riggs (Morgantown, WV jr) was just three seconds behind Cochran in the Red, White and Blue Classic in PA, 17:26-17:29.
- #81 Hannah Schemmel (St. Pius, GA jr) hasn’t competed yet this fall, but has 10:25 3,200 and 17:20 5,000 track PRs from this past spring.
- #90 Ally Cryster (Hanover, VA jr) is also making her fall debut, but has a 10:38 3,200 best and was a close second at the VA 4A state meet last November. She was also 3rd in The Outdoor Nationals steeple in Eugene.
- #27 Ava Gordon, #32 Caroline Lehman, #49 Mary Ellen Eudaly, #70 Reese Fahys are mentioned with their teams (see below).
- Also look for newcomers like freshman Ally Faith Cheeseman (The Webb School, TN), who has twice run under 17:20 in Tennessee this fall.
TEAM GIRLS: Best of N.C. and a new Florida power
Thanks to their outstanding early-season performances, Weddington HS (NC) and Cambridge Christian HS (FL) have ascended to US#23 and #25, respectively, and the top two teams in the Southeast Region. They will clash for the first time Saturday … but don’t forget about Cuthbertson.
- Weddington (Mathews, N.C.) is led by junior Elizabeth Ritter, senior Emma Jones and sophomore Grace Hanson. They have won four of five meets, including the prestigious Adidas Challenge on this course two weeks ago.
- The one meet they didn’t win, however, was the Friday Night Lights meet the week prior, where Cuthbertson – with Alyssa Preisano leading the way – put five ahead of Weddington’s fourth for a decisive win. Cutherbertson was missing some of their top harriers in the Adidas meet, but they are expected to return Saturday. The Cavaliers also won the state 3A title this past January, with Weddington 2nd. Both teams returned most of their best runners.
- Meanwhile, Cambridge Christian has become a small-school Florida powerhouse under Coach Ray Friedman and with transfers Mary Beth Eudaly and Caroline Lehman. They went 1-2 in the Northport Invite (only result this fall so far), but are coming off outdoor track seasons where they both ran in the mid-4:40s for 1600 and under 10:20 for 3200. 8th-grader Eliana Black is not far behind in the #3 position.
Two other squads to watch closely are Loudoun Valley (VA) and East Greenwich (RI).
- Loudoun Valley has a great history for both its boys and girls programs at GAXC, including the girls’ runner-up finish in ’19. Losing only to Great Oak, CA, they went on to win the NXR Southeast title. They are led by senior Ava Gordon, the Class 4 state champ last winter, and junior Scarlett Fetterolf.
- • East Greenwich has been paced by junior Reese Fahys, who has risen to the top in her state this fall and helped make her team one of the top five or so in the region. She has three big victories this fall, including the Ocean State Invite last weekend in 17:38.
INDIVIDUAL BOYS: Rich has a wealth of talent
US#13 Sam Rich is almost without question the one to beat in the Nike Boys ROC. The Catawba Ridge SC sr has the top XC time in the nation over 5,000m, a 14:38 in winning the Southern Showcase two weeks ago. But the Notre Dame recruit also has track credentials to back it up, like 8:57.10 3,200 and 14:40.24 5,000 PRs from last spring.
Other strong contenders include:
- Nathan Atchue (Franklin Co., VA jr) at 15:13 is the fastest in Virginia to date. He won the Knights Crossing and Hare & Hounds invites.
- #92 Jimmy Mullarkey (Fern Creek KY sr) has the best time in Kentucky so far at 15:07, which he used to win the Tiger Run. He was also a strong 4th at the big Trinity-Valkyrie meet.
- US#81 Ryan Motondo (Walter Williams NC sr), the fastest in North Carolina this season and winner of the Hares & Hound meet at McAlpine Park two weeks ago. He was the 3A state champ this past January. A pair of juniors also from the host state, Jacob Laney (Porter Ridge) and Rocky Hansen (Christ School) may be just as good.
- Cooper Michaud (Classical RI sr) is the fastest this fall in the Granite State with his big Injury Fund victory.
TEAM BOYS: Ranked Southeast trio, plus Rhode Island power loom large
As is the case in the Girls ROC, the boys showcase event will feature the Southeast Region’s top teams – in this case, the trio of US#13 Hardin Valley, TN; #21 Mt. Tabor, NC; and #23 Severna Park, MD.
- Hardin Valley, helmed by senior Kaden Keller, dominated the Tennessee State D1 meet last fall; this season so far they claimed the title in the Hare & Hounds meet at McAlpine in Charlotte, winning by a huge margin.
- Mt. Tabor is in a position of having already won a major meet on this course this fall, claiming the Adidas Challenge two weeks ago in decisive fashion. They were and have been led by senior Will Soule, but fellow seniors Douglas Gledhill and Davis Potter were less than 10 seconds back, producing a formidable top three.
- Severna Park had some outstanding results during the last “normal” XC season in ’19, taking 5th at GAXC (2nd SE team) and then 3rd at NXR Southeast. This fall they have won the PTXC and Carlisle Invite meets, paced by senior James Glebocki (who won PTXC) and some good depth in mid-pack.
None of these teams, however, can afford to look past NE#4 Bishop Hendricken – which appears to be the strongest of four Rhode Island teams in the field. Indeed, the Granite State has long supported the GAXC, with Hendricken and LaSalle Academy particularly doing well in all NSAF events. Hendricken ruled the recent Injury Fund Carnival, with juniors Troy Silvestri and Keegan Tierney, and senior Josh Breard providing a 2-3-4 punch.