Foot Locker Northeast Regional
By Phil Grove
Photos by of Don Rich, Patty Morgan and Lex Mercado
In a few short years, Catarina Rocha has learned how much the Foot Locker cross country races have meant to her family.
Saturday at storied Van Cortlandt Park, she added to her expanding chapter in the family's event history book with a dominant performance to win the Northeast Regional championship and earn a ticket to her third consecutive national final in San Diego. The senior from Peabody, Mass., toured the century-old layout in the Bronx in 17:49.5 and finished a whopping 19 seconds ahead of the field.
“It felt great,” said the winner, whose parents both ran in the national meet in the 1980s along with an uncle who crossed the finish line in the inaugural event in 1979. “I never thought I would come in first in the Northeast region.
“My goal was just to place here and hopefully go back. It felt really good as a bonus to win it.”
Rocha, who finished third a year ago at Sunken Meadow and is the lone returnee to head west again, was near the front as the pack settled into a quick rhythm during the flat opening segments despite a gusty wind and flakes of snow. By the time the runners reached the woods, the top four finishers had established those spots at the front of the field of 112.
Members of the lead group traded the top spot during the midsection of the 5,000-meter course before Rocha took command. Eighth as a sophomore in a blanket finish for the final five spots, the Massachusetts state champion was prepared to make a move that the rest of the field could not match.
“Everyone is great here, it's anyone's race,” said Rocha, who was seventh in last year's Foot Locker national meet after placing 31st as a sophomore. “Everyone is a great competitor. I just went out with the group and hopefully stick with them if I could, and I did, and go out when I needed to because I felt fine.”
In the race for runner-up honors in the final event of the day, senior Megan Curham of Warren, N.J., shook off tired legs from the state's revamped schedule due to Hurricane Sandy and claimed second in 18:08.5.
“I stayed really relaxed and tried to do some nice short easy runs to let my legs calm down in between,” Curham said of the recovery techniques she used between the three races in the past eight days. “I felt great today, so I just went for it.
“It was the best feeling ever. I'm so excited. I didn't know if I was going to qualify today so just knowing that I'm going to California is great. I'm so excited.”
Early leader Katie Lembo of Penfield, N.Y., was the first of five juniors to finish, grabbing third in 18:11.0, while classmate Regan Rome of Dallas, Pa., rounded out the breakaway group and was a satisfied fourth in 18:13.3.
“My coach and my teammates and my friends, they all so believed in me,” Rome said of the big psychological boost she received from supporters after finishing third in her state meet due to a severe side stitch. “They really got me through the next few weeks.
“Obviously, the PA coaches didn't (believe in me), but I still had people believing in me. And I wanted to redeem myself after that. After the state championship, all I could think about was this race. That's what got me through the next three weeks. I am so happy this went well. This is what I've worked for. This is the biggest and best thing ever.”
Sophomore Anoush Shehadeh of Larchmont, N.Y., was next in 18:15.0 as only three seniors will be going to San Diego. Junior MacKenzie Barry of Mendham, N.J., used a conservative approach to New Jersey's group and Meet of Champions events during the past week to have enough left to grab sixth in 18:23.0.
“It's so exhausting, but to make it, I'm so excited,” Barry said. “I was in like 30th place in the beginning, everyone went out so fast and I was like I don't know if I can keep up with this pace. But then as we went up the hill, I started going up in the ranking and just kept going.
“I tried to take it easier for groups and MOCs. I wanted to make it here. It worked I guess because I got sixth.”
Junior Marissa Saenger of Clarence, N.Y., was seventh in 18:31.3, while senior Marisa Ruskan of Bound Brook, N.J., was close behind in eighth at 18:31.8.
“It was definitely pretty tough to run three very hard races all in one week, but I did it so I'm really happy with that,” Ruskan said. “I definitely had to put together different kind of strategies with recovering and making sure I got plenty of sleep this past week. It's been different, but I made it through.”
Freshman Megan Reilly of Warwick, N.Y., was ninth in 18:35.8, while Kennedy Weisner of Saint Marys, Pa., was able to rally in the race's final stages to secure the final ticket to Balboa Park, stopping the clock at 18:36.8.
“I was in decent position heading into the woods, but I kind of lost it for a while,” Weisner said. “People were passing me, and I was having trouble responding. Pretty much for the whole second mile it was pretty bad.”
With four runners headed for San Diego, New York was an easy winner in the state team event, finishing with 40 points to New Jersey's 52 and Pennsylvania's 54. The top three states collected nine of the 10 qualifying spots as only race winner Rocha was not from one of the top trio.
PA GIRLS HIGHLIGHTS: For the girls, Regan Rome of Dallas was PA's top finisher with a 4th place finish in a time of 18:13.3. She put herself in great position throughout the race, getting as high as 1st at the 1.25 mile mark. Kennedy Weisner of Elk County Catholic had to come from behind to earn the 10th and final qualifying spot in 18:36.8. Weisner was in 15th at the two mile mark and made a big comeback to earn that final place. The next three PA finishers were Stephanie Aldrich of West Chester Henderson (12th), Kara Steinke of Methacton (13th) and Mady Clahane of Cumberland Valley (15th).
3. 54 Pennsylvania (18:42.0 93:29.7 0:44.0) (New Jersey 52)
1 4 Regan Rome Dallas 18:13.3
2 10 Kennedy Weisner Saint Marys 18:36.8
3 12 Stephanie Aldrich West Chester 18:48.5
4 13 Kara Steinke Collegeville 18:53.8
5 15 Mady Clahane Mechanicsburg 18:57.3
6 ( 20) Carol Strock Mechanicsburg 19:12.4
7 ( 21) Paige Stoner Pottsville 19:12.5
By Phil Grove
Photos by of Don Rich, Patty Morgan and Lex Mercado
If Edward Cheserek were an automobile, the odds are pretty good that he would be a fiery red convertible.
Powerful enough to storm up and down even the steepest hills yet nimble when the path is full of twists, turns and (yes) railroad ties. Both even look fast when they are standing still. But like the sports car, Cheserek is at his best when he approaches full speed.
The prohibitive favorite to defend his Foot Locker Northeast Regional championship, the St. Benedict's Prep standout from Newark, N.J., did not disappoint, cruising to the front and handling everything that historic Van Cortlandt Park could throw at him. His winning time of 15:21.8 was a full 15 seconds ahead of a seeded field of 169 boys over the New York City layout and just a second off his effort from a year ago at Sunken Meadow.
“Today, I wasn't expecting to come here and see the wind like this,” Cheserek said of the strong gusts that buffeted the field over the race's opening 1,200 meters and the final long sprint to the tape. “I thought the race was going to be better. It was kind of too windy, and that's why I ran slow a little bit.”
The 5,000-meter course in the Bronx features lengthy opening straightaways separated by two sharp left turns, leading the field into hillier terrain littered with partially sunken railroad ties to create mini-tiers and keep the course intact.
With only the biting cold wind to challenge them on the flat opening segments, the boys field quickly bunched and became a physical place to run, with at least one runner tumbling to the ground and others looking for safety near the front.
“I got pushed and shoved a little in the beginning, so I didn't want to get spiked and fall down or something along those lines,” said Jonathan Green, who joined Cheserek as the only returning Finalists from 2011. “I decided to go out a little harder and not fall versus stay back and do my thing. I went out a little hard, but it worked out in the end. That's all that matters.”
Cheserek, who cracked the 12-minute mark in winning the 4K race at the Reebok Manhattan College Invitational on Oct. 13 in Van Cortlandt, smoothly moved to the front and avoided a main pack that was full of contact between the runners. He pulled along Green, Shawn Wilson of Marlton, N.J., and then the main chase pack.
“You have a turn about 600 meters away so everybody is still going hard for 600 meters,” said Green, who was able to hold form long enough to gain the runner-up spot in 15:36.8 and a return trip to San Diego. “It's people pushing and shoving, it's rough for that entire 600 meters. Once you make that first turn, it kind of slows back a little and people get into their race plan.”
Cheserek was the first to crest Freshman Hill and cross the bridge over the Henry Hudson Parkway to the challenging Back Hills loop. Now shielded from the wind, the defending champ went to work on the ups and downs of the course's midsection.
“I was trying to push a little bit on the Back Hills,” said the winner, who noted that his training is on target for a possible title defense in San Diego's Balboa Park. “I know I'm OK with the hills, but I was trying to push over there. I wasn't even moving well because the fast part of the course was too windy and that affected my chances so I wasn't even going well.”
Although the pace was not up to his standards, Cheserek continued to pad his lead on the hills and turns before the field crossed the bridge once again and ran alongside the expressway before making a final left turn for home.
Wilson maintained his place throughout and was third in 15:42.5, while fourth went to Brendan Shearn of Frackville, Pa., who stayed near the front of the chase pack in registering a 15:45.5.
“I wanted to go out in the middle of the pack toward the front and then just work through the woods and work through the hills,” Shearn said. “And as soon as I hit the downhill, fly to the finish. That was my plan.”
Fifth was Kyle Kroon of Toms River, N.J., in 15:46.0. The only Rhode Island finisher in the boys' seeded race – Trevor Crawley of Cumberland – was next in 15:47.3, while Max Norris of Narbeth, Pa., achieved a career mission with his seventh-place time of 15:48.3. and Chris Alvarado of Fairfield, Conn., was eighth in 15:49.1.
“Since eighth grade, I've just wanted to qualify for this national race, by far the most important race of my life today,” Norris proclaimed.
The biggest movers amongst the Finalists were the final two to cross the line and grab a ticket to San Diego. Replicating their back-to-back finish near the top of their state Class AAA race, Brent Kennedy of New Kensington, Pa., and Austin Pondel of Columbus, Pa., held off all challengers to finish ninth and 10th, respectively.
“I thought if I went out too fast, things definitely wouldn't work out for me,” said Kennedy,who crossed the line in 15:50.9. “I went out through the mile pretty far back and really wasn't feeling great, but people started to come back (to me) through the Back Hills. I pulled up into about 15th place at the two-mile (mark) and was able to get those last six spots.”
Normally positioned at the front of the field throughout the regular season in Pennsylvania, Pondel was farther back than Kennedy near the base of Freshman Hill, counting almost 30 competitors in front of him. The senior, who crossed the line in 15:51.0 and almost four seconds clear of the nearest runner, was able to regroup in the final two-thirds of the course and check another goal off for the 2012 season.
“I knew it was kind of rolling in the second part, and I knew a lot of people would go out too hard on this flat stuff,” Pondel said of analyzing the final two miles. “So I was relying on other people's mistakes, kind of.”
In the state team battle, New Jersey and Pennsylvania each scored 42 points, with the Keystone state group gaining the upper hand in the sixth-runner tiebreaker.
PA BOYS HIGHLIGHTS: The boys sent four to the San Diego finals, the most PA boys athletes to ever advance in a single year. Brendan Shearn of North Schuylkill kept himself in the middle of the chase pack for two miles and managed to stay with them to earn a 4th place finish in 15:45.5. Max Norris of Harriton was also around the chase pack and broke through with a 7th place finish in 15:48.3. Brent Kennedy of Kiski Area and Austin Pondel of Corry Area worked from behind that chase pack and earned the final two qualifying spots in 15:50.9 and 15:51.0.
1. 42 Pennsylvania ( 15:53 1:19:25 0:22)
1 4 Brendan Shearn Frackville 15:46
2 6 Max Norris Narberth 15:49
3 8 Brent Kennedy New Kensington 15:51
4 9 Austin Pondel Columbus 15:51
5 15 Enrico Galassi Dickson City 16:08
6 ( 18) Luke Jones Friendsville 16:11
7 ( 19) Conner Quinn Horsham 16:13
In the other races, PA had plenty of top five finishers. Scott Mason of Penn Charter ran 17:03.8 to earn the gold medal for junior boys. Levi Upham of Northeast Bradford was the 2nd fastest freshmen with a time of 17:37.4. jacob Toczko of Tunkhannock was the 5th best freshman in 17:52.2. Eddie Cumens was a silver medalist for the sophomores in 17:22.7. Colten Trimble of South Side was the 5th best sophomore with a time of 17:34.7. Tyler Snider of Kiski Area was the 3rd best senior with a time of 17:11 with Sam Wolde of Ephrata right behind him in 17:19.4. For the girls, Summer Hill of Honesdale won the senior race comfortably with a time of 19:36.8. Victoria Dippold of Elk County Catholic was the 2nd best sophomore with a time of 19:16.8, one of the top performances of the day for the class races. Megan Aller of Kiski Area was the 3rd best freshman with a time of 19:22.
Spotted in elevators, on the course and in the lobby, are a few of the top PA runners and their fams...
(Curt Jewett and Sam Williams were too quick for us)
Best of luck tomorrow to all runners, but especially our PA peeps. PA Don't Play!
Boys Race Highlights
Girls Race Highlights
Brendan Shearn, North Schuylkill, 4th Place
Max Norris, Harriton, 7th Place
Brett Kennedy, Kiski Area, 9th Place
Austin Pondel, Corry Area, 10th Place
Regan Rome, Dallas, 4th Place
Kennedy Weisner, Elk County Catholic, 10th Place
Photo Gallery by Don Rich
Photo Gallery by Patty Morgan
Photo Gallery by Lex Mercado
Photo Gallery by Phil Grove