Forty of the fastest male high school distance harriers from around the country will toe the line Saturday at downtown San Diego’s Balboa Park for the 40th Annual Foot Locker Cross Country Championships. The top 10 runners from regional qualifiers held in the west, Midwest, south and northeast earned their chance to compete and prove who’s the fastest high school XC runner of them all. Dylan Jacobs of Illinois won the event in 2017, but has since graduated, leaving the door wide open for a fresh face to claim the crown. Here’s who to watch—and the different strategies they’ll use to outkick the rest.
Anything can happen on any given day, but Cole Hocker has to be mentioned as the frontrunner. Hocker, a senior from Indiana, completed an undefeated regular season including his first IHSA Cross Country State Championship and victories at both the NXN Midwest Regional and Foot Locker Midwest Regional. His shining moment came one week ago at Nike Cross Nationals in Portland, Oregon. Hocker used a final surge to sprint past Cole Sprout to finish runner-up, just nine-tenths off of his personal best of 15:00. Only 27 runners in meet history have broken 15 minutes at Balboa Park. Can Hocker continue the moment from NXN and add his name to the Foot Locker history books?
Junior Graydon Morris of Texas is familiar with the Foot Locker Nationals experience. As a sophomore, Morris finished runner-up in San Diego after placing third at the regional level. Morris won a cross country state title this year and just cracked the top 10, finishing eighth at the Foot Locker South Regional in North Carolina. The fact that he knows this course and has run well here, is a major benefit.
The winner of Foot Locker Nationals has come from the Midwest or south regionals in the last five years. Drew Bosley of Wisconsin represents the Midwest’s chances of going back to back. Bosley finished second at the Midwest Regional and was 23rd at NXN. Out of the 40 guys in the field, he is one of 10 who have a time under 15:00 this season. Like several of the contenders on our list, Bosley is making a return trip to San Diego. He finished seventh in 2017.
Jake Renfree of Tennessee and Carter Cheeseman of Texas represent the south teams’ best chances at victory. Renfree opted to not run NXN and focus on Foot Locker. He was eighth at the South Regional in 2017 and improved to seventh this year. Don’t let those results fool you though, he was fifth at Foot Locker Nationals last year and hoping to improve on that finish this weekend.
For Carter Cheeseman, Foot Locker Nationals is a family affair. His father Ken competed in the meet in 1982. Thirty five years later in 2017, the youngster made his first appearance on the national stage. Cheeseman placed sixth last year and is having a fantastic senior season. He won the TAPPS State Meet and placed fourth at the NXN South Regional and runner-up at Foot Locker South. Last weekend he was 27th at NXN in Portland. While his mom is also his coach, look for dad to lend some advice to this two-time national qualifier.
Others to watch include Kashon Harrison of New Mexico, the winner of the West Regional and was 14th last year at nationals, as well as Devin Hart of New Jersey who finished fifth at the Northeast Regional and was 10th last year at nationals. The last time an athlete from the Northeast won Foot Locker Nationals was two-time winner Edward Cheserek in 2011 and 2012.
Only five guys have ever won the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships twice. Those names include Abdirizak Mohamud (1995, 1996), Dathan Ritzenhein who set the meet record in 1999 (14:29) and won again in 2000, Lukas Verzbicas (2009, 2010), Edward Cheserek (2011, 2012), and Grant Fisher (2013, 2014).
Verzbicas filled us in on some championship insight to one of the most impactful faces in his high school cross country career. He believes every runner who has qualified has competed the necessary training to be among the 40 best runners in the country, so it comes down to attitude over fitness that will separate the winner from the rest of the field.
“He has to know how much more pain are they willing to endure over everybody else,” he explains. “Do they have a strategy ready to execute such as staying patient over the first two miles to run down everybody in the end, or break away early and have enough in the tank to not get caught? And if their race is not going as planned, are they willing and ready to adapt and not give up?”
The best way to attack a challenging Balboa Park? “Strategy wise, I would say the big hill second time around is the best place to make a move whether it’s to breakaway or catch up since most runners are intimidated by it and tend slow down too much,” Verzbicas says.