Two first-time Foot Locker finalists, Sydney Masciarelli and Cole Hocker, captured national cross country championship crowns on Saturday at San Diego’s Balboa Park. Sophomore Masciarelli, a standout basketball player in her first year of cross country, battled with Illinois junior Katelynne Hart to the fastest finishing times since 2010: 17:00.3 to 17:01.0. The final stretch of the race ascends a hill and the ensuing back-and-forth battle between the two frontrunners made for one of the most exciting races in recent memory.
Hart, a top national-level runner for each of her high school seasons, held a 10-meter lead by the mile mark, splitting about 5:15. At two miles, Hart ran 10:50 with Masciarelli and the rest of the pack about five to seven seconds behind. But over the final section of the course, Masciarelli handled the hills and pulled away from the pack to challenge Hart—ultimately, for the win.
“I’m so excited, this has been a great opportunity. I just wanted to run my own race and pick it up whenever I could,” she said, revealing that she pegged the late hills as her time to go. “I kind of thought it over before the race that going up the hill the second time would be when I started to pick up and make my move.”
Masciarelli ran track as a freshman, setting solid but not superlative personal best times of 4:58 for the mile and 10:49 for two miles. She attends a private school—Marianapolis Preparatory School in Connecticut—meaning she cannot compete in most standard high school races during the season, so her brief, undefeated season made her a major wildcard heading into Saturday’s championship.
In comparison, Hart has been a top figure in the sport at the national level for each of her three years of high school so far. In 2017, she was arguably the best female cross country runner not to win a national championship as she placed fourth at Nike Cross Nationals and runner-up at Foot Locker. Last weekend, she was just 16th at NXN but didn’t let the disappointing race stop her from going for it in San Diego.
“Through the downhill I felt strong, so I thought about just going for it,” she said after the race. “I wasn’t sure how it would work out but I knew I needed to trust my gut.”
The boys’ championship race likewise narrowed to two athletes at the end, though no one attempted to make a breakaway move like Hart. Rather, a pack of a dozen athletes raced together through the mile (4:48) and two mile (9:55) marks, though by the latter split, eventual 1-2 placers Hocker and Jake Renfree led the charge.
With just over half a mile to go, Renfree made a move that only Hocker could cover. Cresting the final hill, Renfree challenged again but Hocker would put two seconds on his rival by the finish line, crossing in 15:13.7 to 15:19.5.
Hocker, a senior from Indiana, was undefeated during the regular season and placed runner-up at NXN last weekend to Liam Anderson. “Based off some of my past races, I’ve run sit-and-kick style and this one, I wanted to set the tone from the beginning,” Hocker said. “I think I executed well. Watching all of the past winners and how elite they are and how much they’ve achieved beyond this really motivated me to win this race. To put my name on this list means so much.”
Tennessee senior Renfree, a Notre Dame commit, was fifth last year at Foot Locker. “I was gonna try to lean on my kick a little bit and I didn’t happen to have it at the end, which is fine,” he said. “[Cole] is a great runner and I look up to him for that.”
Texas junior Graydon Morris executed a strong finish to take third in 15:25.1, one year after earning runner-up honors. He was the rare male athlete to qualify for Foot Locker as a freshman in 2016; next year, he has the chance to become the second-ever male athlete behind Jorge Torres to qualify for Foot Locker in all four years of high school.