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Forest Park Cross Country Festival Draws Teams from 75 High Schools

11/23/2008 - 17:32

November/December 2008 By Ben Rosario. Two years ago a September cross country tradition was born when the gun went off at the inaugural Forest Park Cross Country Festival. From the outset, the meet distinguished itself with an announcer, music, Euro-style course and fan-friendly atmosphere. The 2008 edition of the meet, presented by National City, was the biggest and brightest with more than 75 schools and 120 teams gracing Central Fields in beautiful Forest Park.

While the meet certainly had all the bells and whistles, it was the competition that made it one of the best meets in the Midwest region in 2008. With teams from Springfield, Kansas City, Jefferson City, Columbia and even Milwaukee, WI, the races were loaded with talent at all levels.

The event featured 13 races over 6½ hours, but the most anticipated matchups were in the GO! St. Louis varsity boys and girls green divisions. Those two top-division races contained the majority of the best teams and individuals in the State of Missouri.

The varsity boys went first with host and defending champion St. Louis University High School looking to hold off challenges from Jefferson City High School, Kickapoo High School in Springfield and the 2007 runnersup from Marquette University High School in Milwaukee. Going in, SLUH faced the misfortune of having their #1 runner, John Clohisy, diagnosed with a stress fracture the week of the race. During the race, their #4 runner at the time, Bill Gabler, went down due to dehydration and had to be helped off the course.

St. Louis University High School, ranked 3rd in the Midwest region and top 20 in the nation, overcame all obstacles and won the meet handily with a score of 87 points. The spread between their #1 runner, Austin Cookson, and their #5 man, Tim McLaughlin, was only 49 seconds. That kind of depth will make them very tough to beat at the state meet in November. Behind SLUH, it was Kickapoo narrowly besting Jefferson City by one point for 2nd, with Marquette University High in 4th.

The action in this race was really in the individual battle. Coming into the race were 10 runners ranked in the top 15 in the Big River pre-season rankings. As soon as the gun went off it was defending champ Jacob Swearingen from Potosi who went to the front and pushed the pace. A lead pack quickly formed with Swearingen, his teammate Nick Niggeman, Nick Happe of Francis Howell North, Danny Thater of Kickapoo, Charles Johnson of Hazelwood East and O’Hara’s Max Storms. By one mile, hit in 4:53, the pack was already down to five as Johnson had dropped a few seconds back.

The second mile is the toughest section of the course as it contains the same hill twice, as well as two 180-degree turns and a deceptively difficult stretch that goes slightly uphill, and on this day competitors were heading directly into the wind. The strain on Swearingen’s face was clearly visible, but he still managed to pull away from his challengers save for Thater. The tall junior from Kickapoo looked smooth and in control, even putting on several surges in the final mile to try and drop the two-time State Champ from Potosi.

With 400 meters to go the two were still running stride for stride but contrary to the looks on their faces it was the more seasoned Swearingen who dug down and found one extra gear over the last 100 meters to pull away for the 2-second win. His 15:44 and Thater’s 15:46 were national class times on a day that turned out to be hot and windy despite the predicted rainy conditions. Howell North’s Happe held on for 3rd, fighting off a late charge from DeSmet senior Connor Callahan who worked his way up from the second pack to finish 4th.

The girls green division race was sort of the opposite of the boys race, as it featured an extremely tight team battle but a run-away victory on the individual side of things. Festus’ Alyssa Allison entered the meet as the prohibitive favorite coming off a big win at the First Capitol Invitational in St. Charles the week before. Not to mention she had put together an amazing track season last spring that culminated in Class 3 state records in the 1600 and 3200.

From the gun it was Allison’s day as she had already built up a 17-second lead by the time she hit one mile in 5:45. Only the heat and wind slowed her down on her way to a 19:11 and a 30-second victory over Cape Girardeau Central’s Veronica Schabbing. Allison now owns the fourth and fifth fastest times ever run at the festival.

Cross country is about much more than who finishes first, however. The coveted team title was on the line and two teams that traveled a long way to get it were battling neck and neck. Jefferson City and Springfield Kickapoo each put one athlete in the top 10 and two in the top 20. Through three runners Jeff City had a 37–43 lead over the brown-and-yellow-clad crew from Kickapoo. The Lady Chiefs closed the gap when their fourth runner Hilary Carr and their fifth runner Melody Elswick bested Jeff City’s four and five by a total of 6 points, resulting in a tie for 1st. The championship would then be decided by the sixth runner for each team. Proving that cross country is indeed a team sport, Jeff City’s Hilary Weaver crossed the line in 40th place and secured the victory for the Lady Jays.

Other winners of the day included Ursuline Academy in the JV girls white division, Rock Bridge in the JV girls green division and Farmington in the freshman girls division. Francis Howell took home titles in the JV boys white division and in the GO! St. Louis varsity girls white division. Rockhurst won a close battle in the JV boys green division over favored SLUH, and Lutheran South looked great in capturing the GO! St. Louis varsity boys white division. On the middle school side of things it was Potosi on the boys side and Herculaneum taking the girls title.

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