42nd EASTBAY CROSS COUNTRY NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS
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This article has been updated throughout to include comments from top West runner Kate Peters.
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SAN DIEGO -- The 10 girls representing the West Region at the Eastbay Cross Country National Championship on Saturday at Morley Field in San Diego, included representatives from five states and all four grades.
That team produced two top-10 runners: Lake Oswego (OR) junior Kate Peters -- the top qualifier from the regional -- placed sixth (17:34.0), and Albany (CA) HS senior Sophia Nordenholz placed ninth (17:36.7).
The West girls also had one top-15 finisher, in Ventura (CA) HS freshman Sadie Engelhardt -- who ran with the leaders for the first part of the race before fading to 15th by the finish (17:51.5) -- and two others among the top 20 in Portland (OR) Franklin senior Kaiya Robertson, who was just a stride behind Engelhardt by the finish, crossing in 17:51.9 in 16th place, and Lafayette (CA) Acalanes sophomore Olivia Williams, who followed Robertson across the line in 17:55.1.
Natalie Cook, a senior at Flower Mound (TX) HS, who had won the RunningLane title a week before in Hunstville (AL) took the lead Saturday eight minutes into the race, withstood a late challenge, and held on to win in 17:15.0 over the rolling 5K Morley Field course.
Angelina Perez, a senior from Ringwood (NJ) Lakeland Regional, placed second in 17:19.7, Jenna Mulhern, a senior from West Chester (PA) Henderson, placed third in 17:20.8, Karrie Baloga, a junior from New Windsor (NY) Cornwall Central, was fourth in 17:29.1, and Riley Stewart, a senior from Englewood (CO) Cherry Creek, was fifth in 17:30.3.
Peters led the charge for the West team in a meet dominated by girls from the Midwest.
The Oregon junior had won all seven of her races before Saturday, including Oregon's 6A state title and the Eastbay West Regional.
She said her "goal was to go out nice and easy the first mile" and "try to make my way up to the lead pack. ... didn't really quite do that today."
That strategy was in line as the race unfolded early.
She was back in 23rd (in the 40-runner field) at the first split but had moved into third just over eight minutes into the race.
At the 11:03 mark, she was in a pack with Perez, Mulhern, and Stewart, all within half a second. Peters was in fourth at the 13:57.1 split, where Perez and Mulhern had both moved ahead by a couple of seconds.
Peters then slipped to sixth just under three minutes later and that's where she remained to the end as the pack behind Cook moved ahead and separated.
in response to how the race unfolded toward the end, Peters said she "just (wanted to) see what I could do the last mile and push as hard as I could.
"I'm happy with it," she said about her sixth-place finish. "It's pretty good, but, definitely, I wanted to win but it wasn't possible today. A little disappointed but I'm sure I'll be up there next year."
She said she wanted to return to the Eastbay Cross Country National Championships next year.
"I definitely want to come back here," Peters said. "I feel like I have unfinished business."
The MileSplit team onsite at Morley Field caught up with nine of the 10 girls from the West. Here's a sampling of their comments (find the full interviews by clicking the FULL COVERAGE link above):
"It was just honestly such a tough race," Nordenholz said. "Having so many really amazing runners in this race, I'm not used to that. It was honestly all a blur for me but I'm happy with how it went. Just like during the race. I don't even know what happened. It was crazy."
Nordenholz was two weeks removed from running one of the fastest times ever at the CIF-State Meet (16:46) when she out-sprinted Williams, her league and North Coast Section rival, for the State Division IV title.
But, for the senior headed to the University of Washington, there was no comparison between how she approached those two championship races.
"It was so different," Nordenholz said. "The State race, it was very intentional and I had the plan to win and try to go for a time and here it's just, (let's) see what I can do against really tough competition. I know there are some crazy fast runners out here. It was just, see what I can do. I didn't have any specific goals coming in."
The 5,000-meter course at Morley Field is a crazy sort of figure-8 of 1.5-mile loops that include two passes up a steep grade with an equally steep downhill. Athletes across the board commented on how uneven the course is throughout.
The aforementioned Williams had five XC races against Nordenholz this fall, with the sophomore winning twice, including at the NCS final. She spoke about the challenges of the Morley Field layout.
"Wow! That course was really tough," Williams said. "I was not expecting the hill to feel that challenging the second time through. It was a really cool course. I really like it. It was just a battle the whole way through."
Williams, a relative newcomer to the sport and a water polo player, also touched on the enjoyment of the experience.
"I'm still in awe that I'm here," she said. "All the activities we've done. The fun events. I can't wait to see what else we do tonight now that the race is over. I'm so grateful that I was able to come here and race and feel really strong about my race."
Engelhardt, who immediately made a splash on the XC scene, beating Mira Costa senior Dalia Frias in the season-opening race. Frias, a Duke-bound senior who choose to compete with her team at the RunningLane meet last week instead of at Eastbay -- CA and West Region runners had to choose because the Eastbay Regional qualifier meet conflicted with the Alabama invitational.
Frias would avenge that loss to the Ventura freshman at the Southern Section as well as State meets. However, Engelhardt was never too far back and always expects to challenge for the win.
It wasn't to be for the young star on Saturday, but, wise beyond her years, she kept it in perspective.
"Definitely took that course for granted," Engelhardt said. "It's a lot harder when you're actually racing it than when you're running through it or walking through it. ... There's lot of room for improvement in the next coming years.
"I'm happy that I got all-American (top 15). I was expecting something a little bit better but, you know what ... next year."
Robertson, third in the Oregon state race won by Peters, was sixth in the regional. She said she went into Saturday's race with a plan that played out even better than she had envisioned.
"I tried to run very steady throughout the race and not go out too hard," she said. "I think that played in my favor. I think a lot of people went pretty hard today; they came back.
"(Place) that's definitely better than I was expecting. I wasn't sure where I was going to place. I was hoping to be in the top 25."
State champions made up the bulk of the team. Like Peters and Nordenholz, Phoenix (AZ) Desert Vista junior Lauren Ping was the Arizona Division 1 champion. She placed 22nd (18:08.9) at Eastbay.
"I didn't have the race I wanted to have -- it happens, I guess -- but I'm still really happy with the season that I had," Ping said.
"I love getting to race with new girls all the time and have different competition. It helps me to push myself to become a better runner. I love it."
Sacramento (CA) McClatchy junior Anna McNatt, who won the Sac-Joaquin Section and CIF-State Division I titles, was 27th (18:18.8).
"It was really hard," McNatt said of Saturday's race. "I think it's the hardest race I've ever run. I knew the competition was going to be really good going into this race and I just wanted to see where I would end up placing in this really fast crowd."
In keeping her result in perspective, McNatt also offered up some advice for the next group of runners who take on the Morley 5K.
"This is a deceiving course," she said. "It looks easier than it actually is because when you do those uphills and then you don't immediately get a downhill. I feel like Mt. SAC, everyone says that Mt. SAC is really hard but I thought that this course was really difficult too, maybe just as hard. ...
"It was a tough race for me but I'm proud that I pushed through and I finished. I think I maxed out. "
Idaho Falls (ID) Skyline sophomore Nelah Roberts, the state 4A champion who made the West team as the 10th and final qualifier, was near the back of the 40-runner field early but surged over the final mile to finish 25th (18:14.2).
"It started out fast and I knew I would be at the back of the pack," she said. "I was in last at one point (38th at the first split and 32nd 14:40 into the race) and I just had to stay calm and know I could pass people on the hill, which is where I mostly made my move."
Highland (UT) Lone Peak senior Taylor Rohatinsky, who was 30th (18:22.1), and Rancho Palos Verdes (CA) Peninsula junior Aishling Callanan, who placed 32nd (18:25.7), closed out the results for the West team.
"I was a little disappointed at first with the race but it was just a good experience and I had a lot of fun," said Callanan.
Her season included a league course record, a win at Mt. SAC, runner-up in D-2 at the Southern Section final, and third in D-II at the CIF-State Meet before culminating her season with a spot on the line at Eastbay Nationals.
"I wanted to do a little better place- and time-wise, but it's OK," Callanan said with a smile.
Photos by Olivia Ekpone, Phil Grooms, Daniel Hernandez, Jeffrey Parenti, and Raymond Tran