On the Oregon Trail - NJ at NXN Nationals

By: Our Special NJ Correspondant


CBA - Men on a Mission

Although they didn't bring briefcases with them, don't let that fool you. The US # 1 ranked Christian Brothers Academy cross-country team went to Oregon this weekend on a business trip.

"We have taken all the steps and put in all the training,'' said CBA senior George Kelly. "Now it's time to take care of business.''The business Kelly is referring to is CBA's long quest to win the team title at Saturday's Eighth Nike Cross Nationals in Portland Meadows.
CBA, favored to become New Jersey's first national champion, is making fourth trip to Nike Nationals and leads a huge contingent of New Jersey talent..





Joining undefeated CBA, the Northeast Regional champion, in the boys race (scheduled for 1:05 p.m. EST) will be at-large qualifier Westfield, and individual qualifiers Tyler Gibbons of Ridge, Ben Malone of Pascack Valley, and Christian Costello of Don Bosco Prep. That gives New Jersey 17 runners in the boys field of 199. Meanwhile, the girls race (2:35 p.m EST) features three of Jersey's finest, Sarah Disanza of High Point, Marisa Ruskan of Bridgewater-Raritan, and Dana Giordano of Bernards.

While there are some interesting sub plots to keep an eye on, the big story is CBA.Ever since CBA finished fifth at nationals last year, it has made winning this race its No. 1 priority.Its journey began with long summer runs in July and more mileage at the Bennett Camp in August, and it continued with a remarkable run this fall that saw coach Tom Heath's pack win all eight of its major meets (Bowdoin Classic, Easterns, Monmouth County, Shore Conference, State Non Public A, the Meet of Champions, and the Nike Northeast Regional). During its march to Oregon, CBA broke the course record averages at Ocean County Park and at Holmdel Park, and extended its national record dual meet winning streak to 315.


But despite all of those accomplishments, CBA won't feel satisfied unless it wins on Saturday. ``We are going there to win,'' said CBA junior Billy Bragg. ``Anything less is unacceptable.'' ``It's the only thing left to do,'' said senior Tim Gorman. ``We have to win this.'' Kelly said CBA is confident it will complete a perfect season and taste victory on the biggest stage. ``I think if we run like we did at regionals we're going to win,'' said Kelly. ``We all know what we have to do. This is what we've all been working toward since day one. Now it's time for us to go out and get the job done.''                                                                                                                                                                                                     

CBA's greatest strength is that it hasn't shown any weakness. It's pack always stay tight and it's compression is what gives them the edge in this race on paper. At the NE Regional, CBA had a gap of just 22 seconds between it's No. 1 and No. 5 and averaged 16:24.6 over the rugged trails of New York's Bowdoin Park. But what pleased CBA the most about its regional performance was its start. ``We are always very strong in the middle and last mile, but we ran a real strong first mile to simulate the way we have to race at nationals,'' said Kelly. Heath said his team is as ready as it can be. ``We have to get out fast on this course, run smart, and hang on at the end,'' said Heath. ``If we run the way we're capable of I think we will do just fine.''

CBA's biggest challengers appear to be a pair of Utah powers, Southwest Regional champion and US #2 American Fork and Southwest runner-up and US #3 Davis, South champ and #4 Carroll of Texas, Northwest winner and US #5 North Central of Washington, and Midwest champion and US #6 Columbus North of Indiana.
Since course conversions from the different regional venues are difficult to calculate and somewhat unreliable, a good way to compare teams is to look at the gap between each runner.At regionals, Christian Brothers had a gap of four seconds between front runner Kelly and No. 2 man Jack Boyle. There was also four seconds between Boyle and Gorman, four seconds between Gorman and Mike McClemens, and 10 seconds separated McClemens and Bragg. And No. 6 man Conrad Lippert was 12 seconds behind Bragg, and No. 7 man Aaron Liberatore was 16 behind Lippert.
By contrast at the Southwest Regional, American Fork had spreads of seven seconds between No. 1 and No. 2, six seconds between No. 2 and No. 3, 22 between No. 3 and No. 4 and less than one second between No. 4 and No. 5. ``There are some teams that run very similar to us as far as keeping everyone close,'' said Kelly. ``We'll have to be at our best to win.''

While CBA's appearance in Oregon was expected, Westfield's first trip to nationals is somewhat of a surprise as the Blue Devils earned one of the four at-large berths into the field of 22 teams. It's a fitting way for legendary Westfield coach Jack Martin to go out. The 65-year-old Martin, the head coach since 1983, is retiring after this season. He's coached Westfield to five state Group 4 titles, including the last three, and has had numerous top 10 finishes at the Meet of Champions.
Westfield, ranked No. 22 in the nation, was third at the Northeast Regional, just seven points behind runner-up Pembroke of Massachusetts.
Westfield is the first team from the NE Regional to receive an at-large bid, which sparked some debate on-line about whether or not it deserved it. Westfield senior Jack Leahy, the surprise Northeast individual champion, said his team is ready to show it belongs.





"People can do all the ranting and raving they want, but we feel we belong, '' said Leahy. ``We're going to give it all we have and are shooting to try to finish in the top 10. We want to make our mark.'' As for his personal goals, Leahy feels he's ready to continue his late season surge with another strong race.``I am going to go out there and mix it up with the top guys up front and see if maybe I can surprise some people again,'' said Leahy.







Gibbons, second in the NE Regional to Leahy, is pretty pumped about the race.``Its been a really exciting year,'' said Gibbons, a senior. ``I think I really hit my stride, and found out what I’m capable of doing. I’m Ridge's first runner to ever qualify for nationals, and I’m really excited to experience it all! Just the opportunity to be part of something like this and get the chance to represent the Northeast and my school is something I’m most proud of.''As for his goals for the race? ``I’m really excited to see how it turns out,'' said Gibbons. ``But I think my strategy going into this is to really get out hard, and just stay up in the front pack. Being from such a strong region and state, I feel like I’ve had the experience of racing with some really talented guys, and that I’m capable of running at that level if  I go out there and lay it all out.''
Gibbons said the amount of runners from N.J. at nationals proves how much talent there is in this state.
``Having two teams and six individuals says a lot about how much talent we really have,'' said Gibbons. ``We’ve always had a strong group of guys, and our times reflect that. But it’s going to be a lot of fun hanging out with all of them and experiencing what this is all about.''





Malone, seventh at the regional, is grateful for this experience.``To run this Saturday is just awesome, its crazy,'' said Malone, a junior. ``I've never done anything like this, and I am so grateful to be able to experience something like this. This will probably be one of the coolest things I've ever done, and I think it will be something I'll remember for the rest of my life. As for the race, I'm going to get on the line and just enjoy myself, run my best. The pressure is off, so I'm just going to run fast, and have fun doing it. I can only imagine how amazing of an event that Nike can put on, and I can't wait to be a part of it. The fact that I'm even lining up here makes this race a happy one.''






How does Costello feel about all this? ``It means a lot to me running in this race,'' said Costello, a senior. ``I am representing Don Bosco Prep as well as the Northeast, which is great. I am very blessed for this opportunity and plan on enjoying it to the fullest! My goal for the race is to go out in the top 50 or so and just run my race from there, leave it all out there and see what I can come up with. A top 50 finish would be great for me, but I am just going to enjoy the experience and race to the best of my ability and be happy with the result no matter what.''







In the girls race, Giordano said she's prepared for the hay bales that will placed around the course.
``We had a bonfire at the school that got rained out, so four hay bales were left by the parking lot,'' said the Dartmouth-bound Giordano. ``So I have been practicing my hay bale jumping-track tempo run plus hay bales. I hope I don't fall.''Giordano is especially excited about running at nationals after just missing last year.``Last year I finished the race (regionals) delirious and disappointed,'' she said, ``To come in seventh was an accomplishment for me, but I knew I should have been in that top five. It is so amazing to be running at NXN because I know that I can compete with the top girls and teams in the country. Since this is the last race of the season, I think my race plan will to be to stay in the front and give it all I got. A race where I have pushed myself through each mile and have a kick at the end will make me happy. I will do everything I can to end my senior season on a high note.''





Disanza, 11th at the N.J. Meet of Champions, was a surprise runner-up in the regional race.``I felt I had a chance at top five, but second was better than I ever expected,'' said Disanza, a junior. ``I'm just happy to get a chance to run in the biggest race of the season. It's very exciting for me.''









Ruskan, a junior, can't believe that her rookie season on the trails is going to conclude in Oregon. ``This whole season has just been amazing,'' said Ruskan, who gave up soccer this fall. ``I never dreamed all of this would happen in my first year of cross-country. I will just run the best I can at nationals. It's icing on the cake for me.''