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December 10, 2009

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GFS cross country finishes 21st in the nation
A pep rally the day before departing for the Nike Cross Country Nationals, the contingent from Germantown Friends School included (from left) David Waterman, Coach Rob Hewitt, Evan Caldwell, Ross Wistar, Gus McKenzie, Sam Butler, Tom Waterman, and Cameron MacTavish.

Well after most autumn athletes had hung up their uniforms, the boys’ cross country team at Germantown Friends School kept on running. Performing in elite races on the two Saturdays after Thanksgiving, the Tigers took their final bow on a national stage.

At the Nike Northeast Regional Championship at Bowdoin Park in New York state on Nov. 29, GFS captured second place, becoming one of two teams from the region to advance to the Nike Nationals in Portland, Ore. The Tigers ended their season at the national championships last Saturday, winding up 21st among the 22 teams assembled for the occasion.

While the local runners had hoped for a higher placing at Nationals, they can look back on many extraordinary accomplishments this season. Maintaining their perpetual lock on the Friends Schools League title, the Tigers went on to win the PA Independent Schools Championship for the fourth straight year. At the Northeast Regionals, the GFS squad finished six places ahead of West Chester’s Henderson High School, the 2009 PIAA state champion in the AAA (large school) division.

At the two elite races that ended the season, GFS was by far the smallest school involved, with the Tigers representing a student body of just 351 coed students in grades 9-12.

In an age of widespread recruiting and athletically motivated transfers at the scholastic level, it’s also noteworthy that Germantown’s top seven runners – seniors Sam Baker, Gus McKenzie, Tom Waterman, and Ross Wistar and juniors Evan Caldwell, Cameron MacKenzie, and David Waterman – have all been running together since the sixth grade.

A dominant force within the Friends Schools League for many years, GFS began to excel at statewide independent school meets in the middle of the decade, and in 2007 the Tigers hit the national scene. They were led by a senior trio consisting of McKenzie’s older brother Jake, Max Kaulbach, and Isaac Ortiz, who are now running at Yale, Princeton, and Penn, respectively.

“When I was a freshman, I thought they were probably the coolest guys on the team, and I looked up to them a lot,” Caldwell remembered.

The team made impressive showings in regional races in New England and New York City, and in the middle of the season they were ranked as high as 10th in the nation. The season did not have an ideal conclusion, though. At the Bowdoin Park course Germantown finished fifth in the regional race, falling a few places short of qualifying for the Nike Nationals.

Caldwell, who was injured at the time but went up to watch the team, recalled “It was kind of disappointing because we didn’t go, but when I saw that race I knew that going to Nationals was something I really wanted to do.”

McKenzie, who ran at Regionals that year, agreed.

“Since 2007 it’s always been our number-one goal,” he said. “Then after track season last spring, all we talked about throughout the summer was the Northeast Regionals and making the national race.”

GFS ran at an invitational meet at Bowdoin Park early in the 2009 season, and Hewitt said that being familiar with that particular course is a big help.

“It’s very important to get out strong before the field funnels down into more of a line,” he explained. “The first 600 meters is a flat, open field, but eventually the runners funnel over a bridge, and the course runs pretty tight for the next 1000 meters going up to the mile marker.”

Hewitt said the course widens out for a bit after that, but by that time many unwary runners have been trapped in a large pack and have a very tough time trying to catch the leaders.

As good as the best individuals on the 2007 team were, Hewitt says this year’s squad was much stronger in terms of its ability to race as a pack.

McKenzie, the PA Independent School individual champion, would lead the way, and his teammates would stay as close to him as possible.

At Regionals, Hewitt noted, “Our goal was to have under a 45-second spread from Gus to our fifth man. At the three-mile marker we were under 50 seconds, so I knew that we had run really well. Then we just had to wait for the official results to come out, which took about two hours.”

Germantown had expected its most serious challenge to come from New Jersey teams such as Haddonfield High, Don Bosco Prep, and Christian Brothers Academy. To make his runners less conspicuous to their rivals, Hewitt had them change from their familiar bright orange singlets to navy blue tops.

“Carl Savage at Jenkintown Running Company was able to get them made up in a hurry and gave us a good deal,” the coach related.

The race winner, Joe Rosa, did come from a New Jersey team, West Windsor-Plainsboro High School. He finished in 16 minutes, 1.3 seconds, and McKenzie came in 12th overall at 16:20 flat. The Tigers senior contributed 10 points to Germantown’s team score (as in golf, lower is better), since two of the runners ahead of him were unaffiliated athletes and their places were discarded from the team scoring.

The second GFS runner across the line, David Waterman, scored 27 points and posted a time of 16:49.1, and next was his brother Tom, who completed the course in 17:01.9 and scored 36 points. The Tigers’ five-man team score of 156 points was completed by Caldwell (37 pts./17:03.5) and Wistar (46 pts./17:12.8). After that came Butler (17:32.3) and MacTavish (17:52.7).

While some of the touted teams faded, New England champion Bishop Hendricken High School (Warwick, R.I.) finished first with 137 points, while Germantown Friends was the runner-up team and punched its ticket to the Nike Nationals.

The school turned out for a pep rally last Wednesday, and the race itself would be simulcast in the main auditorium on Saturday. The team flew to the West Coast on Thursday, and spent the following day settling in and enjoying the events of the championship weekend.

“They got treated like royalty,” Coach Hewitt recounted. “Nike gave them warm-ups, shoes, spikes, uniforms, T-shirts and even bookbags. They had great opening and closing ceremonies.”

Elite athletes were brought in for question-and-answer sessions with the scholastic runners, including Dathan Ritzenhein, the 5000-meter American recordholder, and Alan Webb, who is currently the fastest U.S. miler overall and whose 2001 high school record at that distance still stands.

On Saturday it was down to business. The race was set to go off just after 10:00 AM local time (1:00 PM EST), and the weather was dry with a touch of fog and temperatures in the mid-to-high 30’s. The five-kilometer (3.1-mile) race consists of three loops on a course set up in the infield of the horse racing track at Portland Meadows. It’s a great venue for spectators, who can see the competitors throughout the event from the grandstand.

The race circuit has become a mudbath in past years, but due to a lack of rain leading up to the weekend only a few sections of the course were slickened by mud and a few puddles. There was even a section of manmade moguls, called “The Hills.”

“The field [of runners] was amazing, and it offered you zero room for error,” Hewitt said. “Some of the teams had been there four or five years, or even all six years that they’ve had the race. You’re only going to see competition like that in one place, and that’s at this meet.”

There is a sharp left bend about 300 meters into the course, and as the race got underway a few GFS runners (who were assigned to the left end of the starting line) got jammed up against the post marking that initial turn. Overall, though, the race began well for the Tigers.

“Actually, at the one-kilometer mark we were in fourth place overall as a team,” Hewitt reported. “So we got out fine, but unfortunately we didn’t have anything in the tank for the last one-and-a-half or two kilometers of the race. We really lost a lot of ground there, and that was more detrimental than anything.”

It would be a good day for Texas. Junior Craig Lutz, an unaffiliated junior from the town of Flower Mound, won the race in 15:09.2, and the top team was from Boerne High School, near San Antonio. The Lone Star squad won with a team score of 195 points.

Northeast champ Bishop Henricken was tenth with 284 points, and GFS was 21st, with 422.

While McKenzie finished 48th overall (with 21 team points) in 15:51.9, there was nearly a 75-second gap separating him from the fifth GFS finisher, Butler (173rd/17:06.4). In between came Tom Waterman (105th/16:21.4), Wistar (145th/16:44.1) and David Waterman (154th/16:48.4). Butler was followed by Caldwell (180th/17:11.1) and MacTavish (284th/17:19.6).

For a team that usually succeeds by maintaining around a 50-second gap between its first and fifth runners, Hewitt said, “A 75-second spread was huge when you’re talking about racing the 21-best teams in the nation.

“So much of our season was about getting there,” the Tigers’ mentor reflected, “and once we got there, figuring out a realistic goal for that last race proved to be a greater challenge than we expected. Our guys got a great lesson on what it takes to race in a national championship. It’s about building that kind of culture within the program and starting to figure out how things work at that level.”

Hewitt said that most of the runners in the GFS program would be back training the Monday after the race. The seven who went to Portland are getting two weeks off to recover physically, and to think back on a remarkable 2009 season.

“There are something like 13,500 high schools in the U.S. that run cross country, and we were one of 22 that made the big show,” Hewitt pointed out. “It was awesome for the guys; there was such a great atmosphere out there. There’s nothing you could do to buy an experience like that – the only thing you can do is earn it.”

 



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