While Verzbicas was a consensus favored contender for the victory based on his past accomplishments, which included a national high school record for 5000 meters indoors (14:18.22) set as a freshman last year, few could have predicted that the Lithuana-born runner would win as handily as he did.
In the early part of the soggy, muddy 5K affair, the race took shape as an anticipated showdown between Verzbicas and junior Craig Lutz of Highland Village, TX, who won last weekend’s Nike Cross Nationals in Portland, OR. Verzbicas led a tight pack of all 40 qualifiers through the first half-mile in 2:22. Lutz was right on the sophomore’s shoulder as they passed the 1-mile mark in 4:48.
Verzbicas looked relaxed and seemed to patiently await a chance to break open the race at the very end. But Brian Shrader, a senior out of Sinagua High School in Flagstaff, AZ, decided to take a flier on a steep and slick downhill portion of the course just past the halfway mark. Verzbicas immediately responded, and the two suddenly found themselves with a gap on the other 38. Verzbicas shrugged off Shrader on a hill approaching 2 miles, and I would say he never looked back, but actually he looked back repeatedly as he grew and grew his advantage over the closing mile of the race.
Things remained tight in the distance behind Verzbicas. Matthew McElroy, as senior from Edison High School in Huntington Beach, CA, outsprinted fellow senior Wade Meddles of Sierra Lutheran High School in Gardnerville, NV, 15:23 to 15:24, for second. Lutz held on for fourth place.
Verzbicas insisted that it was harder than it looked. “That was not easy,” he said. “There were so many great competitors. I had to work very hard to get away from them. That’s where all the training comes in; it all paid off here.”
A driving rain let up just as the top runners were finishing. The girls’ race, which had started 45 minutes earlier, was also contested under rain, but aside from that it could not have been more different. Whereas Verzbicas won in a blowout, senior Megan Goethals of Rochester High School in Rochester, MI, nipped junior Chelsey Sveinsson at the line in one of the closest finishes in Foot Locker history. Both girls recorded times of 17:07.
It was a heartbreaking loss for Sveinsson, who appeared to have the race won in the closing stretch. A superior downhill runner, Sveinsson, winner of last year’s Nike Cross Nationals and fourth at Footlocker the following week, broke away from Goethals on that downhill stretch of the course in the second loop, between 2.7 and 2.9 miles. She kept the pressure on as she passed the 3-mile mark and entered the homestretch, but Goethals conceded nothing and stayed close enough to take advantage when Sveinsson let up too early and began to raise her arms in victory. A shocked Sveinsson tried to respond in the final strides, but succeeded only in falling spectacularly to the ground in second place.
“I thought she was out of reach after the second downhill,” said Goethals of Sveinsson, “but I was able to catch her and pass her at the tape, just in time!”
Third place went to Emily Sisson, a senior from Parkway Central High School in Chesterfield, MO.