Resilient Fayetteville-Manlius does it again

The US#1 Fayetteville-Manlius NY girls and Coach Bill Aris celebrate title #6. John Nepolitan/ESPNHS

PORTLAND – For the past five years, the Fayetteville-Manlius girls set the bar for excellence at Nike Cross Nationals.

On Saturday, F-M showed something else about why it is such a consistent winner. The Stotans refused to let adversity tip the team off of its emotional axis – throughout a difficult season and even within a drama-filled championship race. F-M scored 60 points to win for the sixth straight time at Portland Meadows and relegated New York rivals Saratoga Springs to second for the third year in a row.

“It was a challenging year – my most challenging ever,” F-M coach Bill Aris said.

Over the past couple of months, Aris made the call to bench stars Christie Rutledge and Heather Martin, members of 2010’s record-setting 27-point NXN team, because of nagging injuries. And less than month ago, on Nov. 10, coach Aris’ father died at the age of 85 in Connecticut. John Aris had suffered with Alzheimer’s disease for the past three years.

“I dedicated all of my coaching efforts to my dad today,” Aris said. “He’s the truest Stotan I’ve ever known and God bless him. He’s looking down right now from heaven with pride.”

The F-M girls ran with full hearts and a deep sense of commitment to one another, but their race plan was complicated even further when junior Katie Brislin went down moments after the start. Brislin’s heel was clipped from behind and she fell to her hands and knees. Then she looked up, in shock, and saw nearly 200 girls running away from her.

“I just remember being on the ground, like, ‘Oh my God,’ Brislin said, relating her moment of panic. “I have to run for my team. I just started sprinting all out. I knew if I kept going, and caught up to my team, I could help them.”

Brislin moved from dead last all the way up to 25th place – passing runners right to the end.

“I gave it everything I had,” she said.

Rutledge and Martin, relegated to spectators, ran to various spots and cheered and worried.

“We were so nervous I thought we were going to get sick,” Rutledge said.

Up front, junior Jillian Fanning placed fourth and trusted that her teammates would take care of the rest – the way they have all season.

“I had complete faith in my team,” Fanning said. “We were so strong and we had a lot of depth this year. I knew we were going to be able to (win) it.”

Everyone else’s dream has become Fayetteville-Manlius’ normal.

“With two of our top killers out (of the lineup), that made it closer,” Aris said. “Looking at it objectively, of course there were competitive concerns. But spiritually and emotionally it was a matter of really digging deep and seeing that our strong, deep, faithful team had a lot to offer and a lot more to give. And they did that.”

Elite Camp stars shine

Sarah Baxter, already a two-time California state champion as a sophomore, emerged from a strong group of individual contenders before the 4K and moved out to a 10-meter lead, which she extended in the final half mile. She won in 17:38 – four seconds ahead of Tatnall DE’s Haley Pierce and seven ahead of North Central Spokane’s Katie Knight.

“I wanted to win it but honestly I thought I’d get into the top couple of places,” Baxter said. “I’m happy with myself. I didn’t think I’d be able to (win) it this year.”

The top five finishers in the race all attended Nike’s Elite Camp over the summer. Fanning was fourth and Amy-Eloise Neale of Glacier Peak WA was fifth. So even though there was geographic diversity in the lead pack, there was also familiarity and friendship in that group.

“It made me feel really good to see them all again – even if it was during a race,” Baxter said.

Pierce said she tried to close the gap on Baxter late but couldn’t reel her in.

“The whole time I was thinking about how much I wanted to do this for my team,” Pierce said. “It was my last race in cross country and I wanted to do the best that I could.”

Pierce waged a season-long tug-of-war with Julie Macedo, who was ranked No. 1 for part of the year. Macedo, of Charter School of Wilmington, began the race up near the front but dropped out at about 3K.

Knight said she was pumped up by watching North Central’s boys place seventh for the second straight year. The boys are her training partners and their coach, Jon Knight, is her dad.

Knight was third – and in the middle of the action – at all of the 1K splits.

“This race was really fast and if felt like it just kept going faster and faster,” she said.

Saratoga a valiant second

Freshman Estela Smith led Kinetic (Saratoga Springs) with a 19th place overall finish (and No. 8 in team scoring). Saratoga went 8-10-13-25-28 on the way to 84 points. It is the lowest non-winning team score in meet history.

Tatnall won a sixth-runner tiebreaker over New Trier IL for third (by 12 seconds). Carmel IN and Fort Collins CO were not far behind, fifth and sixth, respectively. The four Californian teams -- Redondo Union, Simi Valley, Saugus and La Costa Canyon -- finished in order from 10th to 13th.

The rivalry in upstate New York isn’t going anywhere. Kinetic has two seniors in the top seven.

Fayetteville-Manlius has only one senior.