Seidel digs deep and pulls out victory

Molly Seidel and Erin Finn fight up the final hill. John Nepolitan/ESPNHS

Foot Locker Finals Index

It’s been a wild ride for US#2 Molly Seidel through four years of cross country in Wisconsin – and that was before the final 600 meters on Saturday at Balboa Park.

Seidel, who attends small private University Lake School (with less than 100 students), beat the reigning state champion in her first race as a freshman, when she barely knew what she was capable of. She was once disqualified at the end of the race for having rolled the waist band of her oversized shorts, causing the state association to amend one of its uniform rules.

And a year ago, Seidel was at home, hobbling around on crutches while the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships went on without her. Her leg began to ache on a trip to Hawaii and when she returned home to run in the Midwest Regional, it was obvious something was wrong. She ran and placed 11th – one spot out of a trip to San Diego. She later discovered that she had a staph infection in her leg.

On Saturday, Seidel’s up-and-down career ended on a mountaintop. She passed early flier Erin Finn twice in the last half mile and won the girls championship in 17:22 – and became the first Wisconsin winner of the race.

“This is incredible, after last year and the disappointment,” Seidel said. “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.”

The girls race lost some of its star power when so many of the top 10 individuals chose to run at Nike Cross Nationals, but the race still lived up to Foot Locker’s high standards and produced nearly as much drama as the ballyhooed boys showdown.

Finn, the Michigan champion from West Bloomfield High, sped out to an early lead and then kept pressing, and gapping, the field. Finn was up by as much as 50 meters and it looked like she might break the field with her gutsy all-in move. She had finished 7th last year and was the highest returnee, but then was a distant 3rd to Seidel at Foot Locker Midwest. Saturday, Finn looked like a potential national champion.

“It definitely crossed my mind that it could be another Aisling Cuffe (type) win,” Seidel said, referring to the 2010 race. “I just tried to stay hopeful.”

Seidel, the Midwest champion and pre-race favorite, steered through the early traffic and took a position near the front of the chase pack, where she could see Finn up ahead by eight seconds.

As the runners approached the hill for the second time, Seidel closed the gap and moved ahead of Finn and into the lead.

As she summited the hill, she had more than five meters on Finn.

But then the runners turned and went down the sharp grade along Upas Street, and Finn flew back into contention and sped past.

“I knew that she was stronger than me on hills,” Finn said. “But I was stronger than her on the downhills. I knew if I had any chance of staying with her I had to pass her on the downhill.”

But over the final 400, Seidel refused to let go of her goal and pressed herself to respond once again.

“The last 400 was one of the toughest I’ve ever raced,” Seidel said.

Even though it was her first appearance at Foot Locker, she had clearly done her homework. She knew how the 2010 race had gone, and 2009 as well.

“Two year ago Megan Goethals came up from behind Chelsey Sveinsson and got her and I was definitely scared of that (happening to me),” Seidel said. “I pushed it the last minute until I hit that tape.”

Finn felt good about her second place finish, and the thought that she will have another chance next year.

“I just felt good going out (to the front),” Finn said. “I know it’s not the winner that’s first at mile one or mile two. It’s really what I’ve always done. For the end of this year (second) is pretty good.”

Sophomore Laura Leff of West Genesee High in Syracuse, N.Y. was a surprise third, 10 seconds back of Finn. She had placed 5th at Foot Locker Northeast after taking 2nd at the New York Feds meet. Northeast teammate Abbey Leonardi of Kennebunk High in Maine, a 3-time finalist (2nd in NE region all 3 years) was a career-best fourth in 17:36.

The 1-2 finish of Seidel and Finn led the Midwest to the team title with 42 points, 10 better than the Northeast.

Karlie Garcia, who missed a year with ailment and injury after qualifying as a freshman, returned to Foot Locker and made it to fifth place. The junior from Oakmont High in Roseville, Calif. was second the California Division III race and won Foot Locker West.

“It feels really good,” Garcia said. “It’s an accomplishment.”