NXN Boys Individual Preview: It's Anyone's Race
In 2011, the NXN boys race was filled with talented individuals, but it was Indiana’s Futsum Zeinasellassie crushing the field, running away to a 24 second victory, easily the largest margin of victory in event history.
Fast-forward a year, with three top returnees in tow, and the NXN boys race is looking wide open for a new individual champion.
Leading the charge is top returnee and NXN New York Regional champion Nick Ryan (Sr., NY). The Manlius XC Club standout finished fifth in 2011, but is eyeing the top prize this time around. He is an experienced veteran of NXN, placing 28th as a sophomore, while he won this year’s New York Regional by an eye-popping 25 seconds. Ryan is challenging to become the most accomplished runner in Manlius history and winning NXN on Saturday would certainly elevate him to that top spot.
Following closely on Ryan’s heals are number two returnee Jake Leingang (Sr., ND) and number three returnee Bernie Montoya (Sr., AZ). Both runners have been tearing up cross country courses this fall. Leingang won the NXN Heartland Regional by 14 seconds, while dominating competition in North Dakota all season long. He finished eighth at NXN in 2011 and has the strength and tenacity to put him atop the podium.
Meanwhile, Montoya is the most intriguing athlete in the field. After a ridiculous junior track season, which saw him run a 4:01.32 mile, he returns to Portland after easily outkicking the field to win the NXN Southwest Regional title. After finishing tenth at NXN in 2011, you can bet Montoya wants to add to his growing legacy with a NXN title. His potent speed could be slowed by the challenging course at Portland Meadows, but his growing endurance should never be discounted.
While Ryan, Leingang and Montoya are the three favorites, athletes like Ben Saarel (Sr., UT) and Jacob Burcham (Sr., WV) should not be overlooked. Saarel was second to Montoya at the NXN Southwest Regional, placing a mere two seconds out of first. He won the Utah State Cross Country title by 34 seconds, becoming only the second athlete to break 15 minutes on the Utah state course in history (the other being Luke Puskedra). His strength is definitely his key to victory.
On the other hand, Burcham is similar to Montoya in that he has blazing speed. Burcham finished second in New York in a loaded mile race this past spring, where he set a new best of 4:02.73. After a slower start to his season, Burcham has been on fire since, easily edging the competition at the West Virginia State Cross Country Championships, then winning by ten seconds at NXN Southeast. He’s an underdog to win it all on Saturday, but he’s going the big-meet experience and talent to win the whole thing.
While the favorites are clear, there are numerous other talents who could surprise and push for a top three finish. Joe Hardy (Jr., WA) is one of those runners. He won the NXN Northwest Regional by three seconds, while winning his Washington state meet by 13 seconds.
NXN Midwest first and second place finishers Alex Riba (Sr., IL) and Sam Wharton (Sr., OH) could challenge. Riba has big upside, but has been under the weather as of late, while Wharton is running strong and seemingly only getting stronger. A healthy Riba and Wharton could see two Midwest runners in the top six or seven.
The 2012 NXN boys individual race will most likely be the exact opposite of Futsum Zeinasellassie’s dominating performance in 2011. While the performances will still be dominating, no one is going to win by 20+ seconds this time around, rather this race is more in tune to finish like NXN 2009, which saw champion Craig Lutz outkick runner-up Elias Geydon and third place finisher Joe Rosa to the line, winning 15:09.2 to 15:09.5 and 15:09.8.
The field is set, the race is nearly here and this year’s boys NXN individual battle should be one for the ages.