F-M girls overcome odds, still the favorite

Coaches Bill and John Aris consult with the F-M girls Friday at the course run-through. Andy Kiyokawa/ESPNHS

Twenty-eleven is the year that the girls championship at Nike Cross Nationals reached critical mass.

Almost all of the nation’s most compelling storylines arrived in Oregon this week and will play out over 5,000 (not too swampy) meters on Saturday at Portland Meadows. There is a Foot Locker-quality individual competition – seven of the top nine individuals in the country – layered on top of an already loaded field of premier teams.

Consider the subplots:

Fayetteville-Manlius, New York, which scored a mind-bending 27 points last year to win its fifth straight crown, brought almost everyone back. But this has not been the easiest of seasons. Two members of the 2010 team – No. 1 runner Christie Rutledge (second overall in the race) and No. 4 runner Heather Martin (16th overall in 2010) – have both been sidelined with injuries. It has also been an emotionally trying year for F-M coach Bill Aris, whose father passed away recently. And still, the Stotan program hasn’t skipped a beat, entering NXN as the No. 1 team in the nation and the clear favorite to win for an astonishing sixth straight time.

Katie Sischo (the only senior among the seven in Portland) and junior Jillian Fanning were fourth and sixth, respectively, in this race last year. They give the Stotans valuable experience and an understanding of what it takes to win NXN. And Fanning, in particular, has been sensational. She is undefeated in 2011 and is currently ranked US#1.

Keeping the pressure on F-M, as usual, is Kinetic from Saratoga Springs, N.Y. For two years running, Kinetic has finished in the runner-up position behind F-M. Last week at the New York regional, Kinetic’s pack matched up well. F-M had an advantage up front, going 1-4-5 with Fanning, Sischo and junior Hanna Smith. Saratoga countered with 7-9-10 but was slightly ahead of F-M on the combined 4-5 scorers (31-33). The final score last week was F-M 43, Saratoga 57. If coaches Art and Linda Kranick have figured out a way to close that gap any further it could eliminate F-M’s margin for error.

A third New York team in the mix is North Shore (Glen Head XC), which packs a wallop at 1-2 with Samantha Nadel and Brianna Nerud – both in the top 25 nationally – but drops off significantly after its top four.

Tatnall of Delaware, third in 2008 and fifth in 2010, might have its best team ever. US#8 Haley Pierce and Reagan Anderson give the team a talented 1-2 punch up front and the 3-5 runners went 18:16.5, 18:16.5 and 18:31.4 on a fast regional course in North Carolina last week.

Saugus of California (Newhall XC) remains a major player as well, having finished second, second, fourth and third over the past four years. Saugus won the Division 2 state title last week and senior Karis Frankian, who was third, has emerged as a dangerous front-runner.

The individual component is what really raises the stakes on the NXN girls championship.

Delaware’s dueling duo, US#4 Julie Macedo and Pierce, waged a rivalry that reached its peak at the New Castle County Championships – where the two runners essentially knocked each other out. After running in lockstep for more than two and a half miles, Pierce faltered and fell down. Macedo stayed on her feet, but didn’t have enough energy left to hold off Tatnall’s No. 2, Anderson, for the win. Macedo beat Pierce with less drama, and Anderson a well-back third, at NXN SE last weekend.

Washington’s talented juniors, US#7 Amy-Eloise Neale and US#5 Katie Knight, have gone back and forth through four straight head-to-head matchups. Neale won at Sunfair and Northwest Regionals. Knight won the Class 3A state meet and BorderClash.

To that mix add Sarah Baxter, the talented sophomore from Simi Valley CA who has quickly become the dominant runner in California – and perhaps the whole country. Baxter had a late start to the season but ran 17:08 at the state meet in Fresno last Saturday – running faster than Jordan Hasay did as a sophomore.

And if you are looking for a darkhorse … keep your eye on Mary Cain. The sophomore from Bronxville NY is a newcomer to NXN, but she ran the third-fastest time ever at famed Bowdoin Park this fall. And if it comes down to a kick, her 2:03 800-meter speed could be a factor.

As many as eight girls in the race have a reasonable chance to reach the finish line first.

It remains to be seen whether there are any teams that believe as strongly in their ability to win as Fayetteville-Manlius does.