CBA, Zeinasellassie finish fast for NXN titles

George Kelly (top left) and Christian Brothers Academy NJ react to the announcement that they have won the NXN championship by four points. John Nepolitan/ESPNHS

PORTLAND – Futsum Zeinasellassie and the Christian Brothers Academy NJ ruled the day and walked off the Nike stage wearing “Champions” jackets at Portland Meadows.

Zeinasellassie broke the course record by running by 15:03 and set the table for a blockbuster showdown with Edward Cheserek at the Foot Locker Finals in San Diego on Dec. 10.

But it was the team race between CBA (Lincroft XC) and worthy contender Southlake Carroll TX that produced the most dramatic moments of Saturday's Nike Cross Nationals – a frenzied final kilometer and a four-point victory (95-91) for CBA and legendary coach Tom Heath.

“This is the biggest moment in CBA cross,” Heath said. “It’s an incredible achievement.”

It was all the more incredible for how it played out over 5,000 meters of semi-squishy terrain. The Texans rolled the dice and went out fast from the gun, hurtling themselves to the front of the pack early. At the 1-kilometer split, Southlake Carroll was up on CBA 38 to 120.

“We knew we had to get out that first 400 and to be in the top pack if we had a chance of winning this,” Carroll’s Jordan Chavez said. “We knew from past experiences here that if you don’t get in that front pack it’s going to be tough to pass throughout the race.”

Getting out fast is a workable theory with a lot of merit, but it also has consequences.

With each passing kilometer, CBA kept getting closer. The score was 64-111 at 2K and 92-106 at 3K. Southlake Carroll had an 85-101 advantage at 4,000 meters.

CBA’s mission all along was to remain a bit more conservative early and close with a rush late. That strategy worked. Knowing that their team was trailing, George Kelly, Jack Boyle and Tim Gorman rallied and picked up valuable points.

CBA moved up late

And the difference in the teams’ No. 3s was the most revealing. Gorman closed in 3:01.10 over the final 1,000 meters and finished 36th overall in 15:54.46. Southlake Carroll’s No. 3, Alexander Johansson, closed in 3:09.06 to finish 47th in 15:59.16.

“We told them in the first K to get out, and they did pretty well, but not as well as Carroll did,” Heath said. “After the moguls there’s a good patch where they can really move. And from there it was a battle.”

CBA’s cumulative time of 79:58 was one second faster than Southlake Carroll’s.

The fastest mover early on was Nick Ryan of Fayetteville-Manlius NY, who had seven seconds on the entire field after the first split. Ryan’s gambit at the front was intended to inspire his team and create a sense of shock among the leaders.

Ryan held up pretty well. He finished fifth overall and was the only runner in the top 19 who was connected to team. Fayetteville-Manlius finished 12th, however.

Futsum ran away with it

Zeinasellassie, a senior from North Central of Indiana, remained calm and controlled. He pulled up alongside Ryan before the 3K mark and then moved past him. And then he surged and left everyone behind him.

Zeinasellassie ran the third kilometer almost 10 seconds faster than anyone else in the race (3:16.42) and the fourth kilometer eight seconds faster than anyone else.

The winner made a point of thanking his coach, his teammates and his parents before moving into questions about his race and the challenge of facing Cheserek next week for the first time.

“When I caught up to (Ryan) I had a good lead on the pack I didn’t want to slow down so I just picked it up and kept going,” he said.

Zeinasellassie, who was born in Eritrea, won the NXN Midwest and Foot Locker Midwest regionals with measured efforts, knowing that he had to run more times than Cheserek before their eventual showdown.

As he was going over the final set of hay bales, he heard that he was in range of Craig Lutz’s course record and so he pushed himself to go after it.

He now has a chance to match Lukas Verzbicas’ historic NXN-Foot Locker double in 2010.

“I wanted to relax as much as I could and I was hoping for an easy win but it wasn’t,” Zeinasellassie said. “I went all out but winning this race has given me a lot of confidence. I’ve still got one more, but I’ve got one in my bag. I’ve won a national race.”

Also finishing strong were Texan individual qualifiers Daniel Vertiz (15:26.4) and Craig Nowak (15:26.7), who were second and third overall. Both of them are doubling back to San Diego next week also and both felt good about the way they finished. Nowak (2:52.04) ran the fastest fifth kilometer and Vertiz (2:53.95) was second-fastest.

Izaic Yorks of Lakes WA also had a strong kick and placed fourth (15:29.9), three spots ahead of the in-state rival who had beaten him three times in the past month, Kamiakin WA's Anthony Armstrong (15:31.4).

Jonah Diaz of Palos Verdes CA was sixth and Jake Leingang of Bismarck NC was eighth. Rapid City SD's Tony Smoragiewicz, the top returning finisher from 2010, was 11th.

Beyond CBA and Southlake Carroll – the third and fourth teams in NXN history to score less than 100 points – Davis UT finished third (157) and Arcadia CA was fourth (184). The 5-8 spots were separated by just six points: At-large qualifier Palatine IL was fifth (255), American Fork UT was sixth (256), North Central WA was seventh (259) and newcomer Arrowhead WI was eighth (261).