Ed Cheserek and Molly Seidel turn back tough challenges from Futsum, Finn

Edward Cheserek outkicks Futsum Zeinasellassie for the boys Foot Locker Finals title. John Dye/ESPNHS

Foot Locker Finals Index

The boys championship battle at Saturday’s 33rd Foot Locker Finals at Balboa Park in San Diego lived up to the hype.

Boy, did it ever.

Exchanging blows like heavyweight boxers – there simply isn’t a better comparison – US#1 St. Benedict’s (Newark, N.J.) junior Edward Cheserek and #2 North Central (Indianapolis) senior Futsum Zeinasellassie fought tooth and nail for the last two miles before Cheserek used the decisive weapon in his arsenal: a ragged kick in the final 300 to finally beat his rival and new friend, 14:52 to 14:53.

The other big boys storyline was whether Cheserek could break Reuben Reina’s 1985 course record of 14:36. But after mile splits of 4:48 (leader CJ Albertson, with Cheserek and others several seconds back) and 9:50, it was clear the standard was going to survive at least another year – with Cheserek promising to give it a better shot in 2012. “Just winning,” he said, regarding what his thoughts were today. “I wasn’t really thinking about the record.”

The girls championship was just as competitive in its own way, with US#2 University Lake (Hartland, Wis.) senior Molly Seidel twice coming from behind to top fellow Midwesterner West Bloomfield (West Bloomfield, Mich.) junior Erin Finn, 17:22 to 17:24. Seidel and Finn led the Midwest to the girls team title, but on the boys side, the South claimed the crown for the first time ever.

When the gun started for the boys race, it was clear right away that winning took precedence over record-chasing for Cheserek and Zeinasellassie. Albertson, the aforementioned senior from Buchanan (Clovis, Calif.), took the lead in the first mile when it was clear no one else wanted to, and passed the half mile in 2:21 and mile in 4:48.

Immediately after the mile, however, Cheserek surged hard and caught Albertson, with Zeinasellassie and much of the pack following suit. From that point on, the two African-born standouts pulled away and made it their race. During the next 1.8 miles or so, they took turns chasing each other and alternating pace much in the manner fans have seen in Olympic and World Championship races between world-class Kenyans, Ethiopians and other Africans. However, neither pushed hard enough at any point to break the other, neither seeming to want to take that big a risk, but rather test and possibly wear down the other.

Zeinasellassie made a serious move before the base of the final hill, only to have Cheserek counter with a furious sprint up the hill, as fast as most have ever seen that segment. But Zeinasellassie came right back on him at the crest and the pair stayed together until just before the 3-mile mark when Cheserek began the final sprint that Zeinasellassie couldn’t quite match.

Almost 200 meters back, Cary Academy (Cary, N.C.) senior Thomas Graham – second to Cheserek in the New Balance Outdoor Nationals 5k last spring – had held third since the middle of the race. But Shadle Park (Spokane, Wash.) senior Nathan Weitz (FL West runner-up) had the best kick of the pack, powering down the stretch for third in 15:21. He was followed by Bismarck (Bismarck, N.D.) junior Jake Leingang (15:22) and San Antonio Reagan (San Antonio, Texas) senior Daniel Vertiz (15:23) – both doubling back well from Nike Cross Nationals last Saturday. Graham finished ninth and early leader Albertson 36th. US#3 FL West champ Darren Fahy, fronting the chase pack earlier, faded to 17th.

In the girls race, the early leader bore very serious consideration. It was the aforementioned Finn, who was the highest returning finisher from last year’s final with seventh. Finn was US#1 early in the season, but had slipped on the list after a very narrow state meet win and a distant third behind Seidel and fellow Michigander Julie Bos at FL Midwest.

But Saturday, Finn looked like the overpowering runner who has dominated D1 Michigan most of this year, putting 50 meters between herself and the field while passing the first two markers at 2:37 and 5:20. As the race moved toward halfway, Seidel moved into second alone, while three-time FL NE runner-up Kennebunk (Kennebunk, Maine) Abbey Leonardi, FL West champ Oakmont (Roseville, Calif.) junior Karlie Garcia, three-time finalist Presbyterian (Macon, Ga.) junior Grace Tinkey, and Montana frosh Makena Morley (Bigfork frosh) were among those fronting the chase pack.

Finn passed 2 miles in 11:08, but as the second hill approached, it was clear Seidel was catching her. The Wisconsin star moved strongly up the hill and it looked like the winning move, but she flagged a bit at the top and then coming down, as Finn used her considerable downhill skills to retake the lead and rev up the crowd.

Still, it was clear that unless Seidel was completely gassed, she had 4:46 miler’s speed that Finn didn’t have. With about 400 to go, Seidel went ahead for good and held on for the two-second victory.

“This is incredible, after last year and the disappointment,” said Seidel. “A year ago I was at home, just getting off my crutches. I was thinking, ‘What could have been, had I been at Foot Locker?’ This is complete redemption. It’s incredible right now, just total disbelief.”

One of the bigger surprises of the day followed as West Genesee (Syracuse, N.Y.) soph Laura Leff – fifth in her FL NE race – came on very strong for third in 17:34. She was followed by Leonardi (17:36), Garcia (17:36) and Tinkey (17:37). Unlike last year when most of the top finishers were seniors, nine of the top 12 will have another shot in 2012.