The History Of Foot Locker Nationals Has Always Been Special

* Indianapolis Cathedral's Cole Hocker won Foot Locker Nationals in 2018

Photo Credit: Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports

Note: This story was first published in 2022. 

By Steve Brand - MileSplit

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SAN DIEGO -- The way Dennis McClanahan tells the story, a Kinney Shoe Corporation Vice President, Jack Anesar, came up with the idea of a national high school cross country championship over four decades ago. 

McClanahan, a runner himself, was one of the early organizers of the then-Kinney Cross Country Championships in 1979.

"He wanted to come up with something relating to shoes," said McClanahan, now retired after coaching cross country and track for decades at Mt. Carmel High in San Diego. "The motto of Kinney was 'The Great American Shoe Store' and what's more American than high school cross country?

"Despite changes, it's the longest-running USATF event in America," he said. 

The 44th version of what was first Kinney, then Foot Locker, then Eastbay, then Champs Sports and now Foot Locker Nationals again is set for Saturday morning at Balboa Park, where the national championships have been held all but seven years (1981-82 and 1997-2001) when it was in Orlando, Florida. 

Here are some highlights:

--The very first championship in 1979 used many of the same formats employed to this day -- four regional championships in strategic spots across the country, attracting most of the nation's best high school runners, competing on a 5,000-meter course with two big hills. One of the differences, though, was only the top eight qualified from each regional. The first crowd was 'very sparce' as they saw Overland Park, Kansas' Brent Steiner (15:05) and Boise Idaho's Ellen Lyons (17:28) collect the gold medals.

--By the second year, word was out and when Ceci Hopp, a future NCAA champion from Cos Cob, Conn. won the girls' race handily (17:12) and Californian Jay Marden (14:53) of Fremont was the boys titlist, the crowd had increased considerably.

--The meet returned to San Diego in 1984 and in 1985 one of America's great distance runners, Ruben Reina of San Antonio, Tex. scorched a course record 14:36 and Virginia's Erin Keough topped another future Olympian, Suzi Favor of Wisconsin, in the girls' race.

--The crowd was huge when what had been missing -- a local favorite-appeared in the form of Marc Davis, who could see his school (San Diego High) in the distance as he toed the starting line in 1986. With 400 meters remaining, the flamboyant Davis started celebrating, waving to the partisan crowd. When he saw his time approaching the finish line, he tried to break the record but came up short, winning in 14:38. Keough defended her girls' crown.

--One local champ produced one of the biggest crowds ever as now virtually every cross country runner in San Diego showed up in 1987 to see Rancho Buena Vista's Kira Jorgensen capture the girls' title at 17:08. Ohio's Bob Kennedy won in 14:59 and the next year captured the NCAA title.

--Clocking a course record 16:39, Boulder, Colo.'s Melody Fairchild won her second straight title in 1990. The record still stands.

--Future Olympic silver medalist Mebrahtom Keflezighi from San Diego High suffered a rare loss in 1993 when another long-time American distance standout, Adam Goucher of Colorado Springs, struck gold in his third National championship race, winning in 14:41.

--One of the biggest upsets came in 1995 when defending champion Julia Stamps of Santa Rosa figured to attack the course record entering the event unbeaten as a high school runner.  But suffering a cold, she was unable to finish as another big-time runner, Kim Mortensen of Thousand Oaks, won in 17:12.

--Runners like Dathan Ritzenhein, Sara Bei, Amber Trotter, Erin Sullivan and Abdirizak Mohamud were dominant runners when the race moved to Orlando from 1997-2001.

--Showing you just never know from year to year, defending champ Aislinn Ryan of New York got ambushed by a slight freshman from San Luis Obispo (CA) Mission College Prep, Jordan Hasay, in the 2005 race at 17:05. Three years later Hasay, now a senior, made it two gold medals.

--That same year, future steeplechaser A.J. Acosta of nearby El Camino High needed a photo finish to beat Lompoc's Michael Coe as both ran 15:02, the closest boys finish in the meet's history.

--Sometimes it isn't just over-distance runners who excel. A sub-4 minute miler and triathlete, Lucas Verzbicas of Illinois went out at 4:48 and simply sped away from the field in 2009 and then made it two straight the next year, running 14:59, nine seconds faster than the previous year.

--That year, 2009, produced two super races as Michigan's Megan Goethals needed a photo to separate her from Texas' Chelsey Sveinsson as both were given times of 17:07.

--After Verzbicas went back-to-back, it became the fad as New Jersey's Ed Cheserek did the same thing in 2011-12 and Michigan's Grant Fisher doubled in 2013-14. Chezerek became a three-time NCAA 10,000-meter champion.

--California's Claudia Lane proved her regular-season dominance was no fluke when she won wire-to-wire in 2016 and then repeated in 2017, winning by 19 seconds in 17:03.

--After a one-year hiatus due to COVID-19, now under the Eastbay banner, Natalie Cook of Flower Mound (TX) HS was a 4.7-second winner of the girls side and Michigan's Riley Hough timed his finish perfectly, surging into the lead over local favorite Kenan Pala of San Diego (CA) Francis Parker in the final 200-meters to win the boys race by three seconds at 15:11.4.

You can bet there will be more of the same mystery and excitement before and after this year's race.

Steve Brand, a freelance writer and a regular contributor to MileSplit, has covered each of the cross country national championships held at Morley Field since 1980.