The Road To Nike Nationals

 
All photos by Margot Kelly
 
The Desert Vista girls cross country team will be the 3rd team from Arizona to ever venture north to participate in the Nike Cross Nationals - no easy task as many will tell you the Southwest Region is one of the toughest in the country.
 
First a little bit of history.
 
Before Nike started their regional races in 2007, teams were picked by a Nike Selection Committee and no individuals were included.  The top individual athletes in the country competed in four regionals to qualify for Foot Locker Nationals held in San Diego, of which Nike was one of the sponsors.  
 
Because the Nike Cross Nationals were held the same day as the Foot Locker West Regionals, only 8 athletes from Foot Locker West could qualify for Nationals and the 2 top west finishers from the Nike Nationals got a trip to Foot Locker Nationals.
 
Are you with me so far?
 
In 2006, Sandra Day O’Connor was selected to participate at the Nike Cross Nationals and finished 13th out of 20 teams beating 2 California teams.  
 
Fast forward to 2010. Separated by a point, Fort Collins and Louisville took the top two slots in the Southwest.  Xavier College Prep finished 3rd just 6 points back and 44 points ahead of 4th place but did not get an at large bid - the at at large bids went to California and New York.
 
In 2011 Xavier College Prep finished 2nd in the Southwest behind Fort Collins and earned a trip to Portland.  Again the Southwest Region did not get an at large bid as both went to California.  Fort Collins and Xavier placed 6th and 8th respectively, beating all four teams from California.
 
 
On November 23rd in Casa Grande the largest number of athletes from Arizona qualified for the Nike Cross Nationals.  The Desert Vista girls team finished 2nd, just four points out of first place.   Rio Rico qualified two runners, sophomore Allie Schadler who finished 3rd in the girls race and senior Carlos Villarreal who finished 2nd in the boys race.  Senior Tyler Day finished 8th in the race and had to wait to find out if he was going to make it.  When the first place finisher turned down his ticket to Portland, the ticket went to Tyler Day who showed his excitement to the delight of the entire crowd!  It was fun to watch!
 
 
The long road to Nike Cross Nationals is not easy - especially if you happen to live in the southwest.  But even after all the months of early morning training - it all comes down to that one day.
 
The Desert Vista girls share that one day in their own words.
 
 

               

               My team and I made a huge leap last Saturday. We were the only Arizona team to qualify and the first ever team from Desert Vista to qualify for Nationals. Going into NXN Southwest, the team and I prepared just as we normally do. We walked the course together, we ate carbs together, and we watch cheesy inspirational videos together. I could see the girls were excited but I could also sense how nervous we were as a group.

            As the gun went off on race day, three numbers went through my mind. 87, 47, and 4. The positions I’ve placed at Regionals freshman year to junior year. This was my last regionals and one of my last cross country races of my high school career. This was my year; my last chance. As the race went out, I felt unusually uncomfortable. I thought, “We must be flying.” We went through the first mile in 5:20, nothing crazy but I was fighting. I was hurting at mile one, so I tucked in and prepared myself for a long mental battle. I held on to my top 5 position and as we approached the last mile, the pack began its push for home. I remember being so frustrated and even more confused. My original plan was to control the race at this point but now I was just trying to hold on to an automatic spot to NXN. I finished and the rest of my team came through with similar looks of disappointment.

            At NXR my freshman year, I cried at the awards ceremony watching Xavier punch their ticket to NXN. I told my coach, “That will never be me, I’m never going to make it.” At NXR my senior year, I cried at the awards ceremony watching my teammates and I receive our second place trophy as automatic qualifiers. We had done it on a bad day! It still stung to have had a rough race that day but then I looked around at my girls signing their Nike forms and I realized it wasn’t about me. I realized I was a small part of a much bigger picture.

 I am very excited to return to Nike and represent Arizona again this year. I have a lot of running left in my legs and I know the best is yet to come for me. I am ready to step on the line and leave it all on the course one last time as a high school athlete and I am ready to do it with my sister and teammates standing beside me. 

Dani Jones

 

The week leading to regionals, for me anyway, way very stressful. As a team we had been having a great season and I knew if we went in to NXR feeling good we would have the opportunity to continue our season in Oregon. At the course walk through I remember my legs feeling like noodles, probably from the overwhelming fact that I would be racing in less than 24 hours. I think the main reason for my nervousness was the reoccurring memory of crossing the finish line as a non-qualifier the year before. The second I crossed the finish line last year I wanted to work towards making it to Portland this year. 

I don't remember a lot of details from the race. At the start I remember just trying to keep contact. I thought I had good positioning at the mile but I couldn't seem to move up. My goal coming in to the race was to get good positioning and then slowly move up, but the race didn't go exactly as I wanted it to. I felt somewhat stuck and had trouble getting my legs to turn over but I'm looking forward to having the opportunity to redeem myself in Portland. 

The hours after the race were absolutely the most stressful hours of the week. Coming out of the race and into the awards ceremony we were not expecting tickets to Portland. Many of the girls on the top seven didn't race the way they wanted to, so we were pretty nervous going in to the awards ceremony. We all got in a circle and held hands as they called the team names in a painfully slow way. I remember sobbing after they called the third team. I don't think any of us could control ourselves when they called us for second. I couldn't believe we only lost by four points. It's crazy to me that none of us had a good day and we almost pulled off a win. 

I am insanely proud of my team. We struggled but we fought back and achieved the goal we have been working towards all season. I am so blessed to be a part of the thunder family and I can't wait to represent Arizona with my team in Portland. 

Baylee Jones

 

 

The week leading up to Nike Southwest was a bit different than my previous pre-race weeks, usually I would spend all week thinking about the race, and I think that that had worked against me when it came time to actually race. But, coming into Southwest I really tried to come about it in a different way than I usually had. I tried to just treat it like a casual meet and not think about it, even though I knew that this was the one and only day we had to qualify for nationals and we really had to prove ourselves. When we got there I was pretty relaxed and surprisingly not nervous and when it came time to warm up, I was more excited than anything.  I knew that if we all did what we wanted the results would be great. When we stood on the line we all seemed calm, which I thought was good.

Once the race started we all spread out pretty quickly, which is what normally happens during races so I wasn’t worried. I came across the mile too slow so I tried to pick it up and catch some girls, still thinking that my placement was alright, and then I heard Coach Jones yell to my teammate and I that we need to go now if we really want to go to Portland. When I got to the last stretch of the race I sprinted in and saw that my time was a lot slower than I wanted. I found my teammates after the race and none of them were happy. Everyone was really disappointed and thought we had no chance of going to Nationals. I tried to keep a good attitude and kept hoping for good news at the awards ceremony.

When it came time to announce the results we sat there forever and ever waiting to get through the other races until it finally came to our race.  We were all really really nervous. At this point everyone was still pretty upset. Once they finally got to the girls championships team scores we were all holding hands and praying to hear good news. When we heard the announcer say third place goes to Davis everyone started crying and celebrating because we knew we were top two (which is what you had to place to make it), it was honestly one of the coolest things that I have ever experienced, I was so overwhelmed with joy and I was kind of in shock because so many people thought we had no chance of going since we didn’t have a great day as a team. I will never forget that moment.  

 

Mason Swenson

 

 

Our team has come a long way in just a year. When we got 6th in 2013, we were humbled to say the least. We knew we were strong in Arizona, but the Southwest is a mean region stacked with some of the best teams in the nation. We were going to have to step up our game if we wanted to get on that level. Watching the live stream of Dani running nationals in the home of one of my teammates, the dream of being there along her side was further implanted into my brain. But it was just that, a dream. That track season, our team became a great deal closer to running at our full potential. Track season was full of PR’s, records, and exciting victories, but most importantly, we discovered our depth. Our track season could be compared with national powerhouses- teams who had beat us in cross country. Coming into summer training this year, Coach Messer prompted us with a piece of motivation- Not only could we make it to Nationals this year, but we could be among the best there.

Fast forward past 5 AM practices, track workouts, mile repeats, tempo runs, the release of countless rankings placing us near the top- The day was here and we had one day to get it right. I personally have trouble with getting nervous before races, which can turn my legs into nothing before I even toe the line. I wasn’t going to psych myself out this time. I was able to get down a good breakfast and stay calm the morning of the race. I had made it past one challenge. The night before, Coach Messer had given us packets with inspirational words, including a section for each girl saying what her race is “about”. We had these 7 traits written down our legs “Competition, remembrance, courage, faith, fortitude, valor, transcendence”. I had to have faith; faith in my training, my mental strength, my season. I had to believe that although I hadn’t broken the top 100 last year, I belong running with our fierce competitors in the front end of the race. I told myself I was going to run my heart out for my team, no matter how much it hurts. Not knowing the race was going to be noticeably slower than Twilight, I wanted to crack 18:00, if not close to 17:50. When I read the mile clock at 5:50, I was mad. I felt fine at that early point in the race, and remember passing a lot of girls, knowing I needed to be higher up in the race. During the latter end of the third mile, I heard my dad yelling things like, “You’re right where you need to be, Mandy! You look good!” I heard it, but I didn’t believe it, I just didn’t feel as good as I have in previous races. Regardless of how I felt, I was happy that I was able to use my strength and finish the race testing my mental limits. I knew there was a Davis girl on my heels near the end. In fact, at about 200m to go, she passed me. I was also aware that I was our third girl, and that every point counts. I used everything I had to get past her, and boy did it hurt, but I was not going to let her beat me. Crossing the finish line means the hard part is over. I did everything I could have to help my team get to nationals. But at that point you don’t know…

It took me at least 10 minutes to get back to reality after the race. I felt like the blood had been drained from my face. I walked around and just wanted to lean on a fence and sip water. After a little bit, I found a shady spot and sat down, still feeling beat. Soon after, Coach Messer called us over to talk. He told us he didn’t think we qualified. The mood was at an all-time low, but I wasn’t disappointed yet- I wasn’t going to settle with bad news until the announcer told us himself. We acquired a spot in the awards area, full of hope. The American Fork coach walked past and said, “Looks like it’s between us and you guys, but you might’ve edged us by a little bit”. After that, I was fairly confident that we weren’t out of this. All of Desert Vista stood as one, holding hands, hoping for the best, as the third place team was announced. Davis. We screamed, and some of us cried tears of joy. We were then announced as second, and more tears of joy were shed. We were on our feet in no time, embracing each other, smiling. It was unreal, but that faith I needed to have on the course? I always had it in my team. This was a prime example of “It isn’t over til’ it’s over”, and I’m glad it worked in our favor.

Nothing needs to be changed this week, we’re ready. Hydration, food, and sleep will remain three areas of much importance. We have been and will be practicing in the morning to acclimate to the cold temperature. We will train smart and controlled in our last couple of workouts of the season. It is that simple. We have an advantage of sorts coming into Nationals as a first time team. People may have heard our name mentioned once or twice, but they certainly don’t expect anything from us. There will be a few major teams under the spotlight, based on NXN history. We are not one of those teams, and we will not bring an ounce of pressure with us to Portland. Destroying expectations is one of the things I enjoy most. I’m thrilled to be able to represent Ahwatukee and Arizona while we enjoy a memorable weekend, run our hearts out, and show the nation who Desert Vista is. 

 
Mandy Davis
 
 
 

            On the day of the Nike Cross Country Regionals meet, I was so excited and pumped. It was a perfect and beautiful day for running and there was so much competition that made me a little nervous, but energized me. When it was time for the warm-up run though, my legs were a little tired and did not have their usual bounce and energy. I did not get concerned that much because I knew they would loosen up during the warm-up drills - even though they still had a little drag to them. Not so thrilled with how I felt, we were called up to the starting line and waited - still moving though. There was so much cheering on the line and I could hear our teammates cheering for us, which was very motivating. After all of the introductions, instructions, final good-lucks, and hugs, we stepped up to the line, waited anxiously in the silence until it was shattered by a gunshot, and we were off.

            After the first few strides out, I knew this was going to be a hard race for me. My legs were already tiring and I had not even run for a minute. Around the first turn I saw so many girls ahead of me and thought there was no way I would be able to place in the top 20, as Coach Messer had predicted. After the first 800m all of the coaches and parents were screaming at me that I was too far behind and that I needed to go and get up there. I tried to pick up the pace, but after the first slow mile I couldn’t last any longer. Mandy Davis passed me shortly after, and I tried to hang on but gave up right away. My legs were so tired and I really wanted to run fast, but just couldn’t. Everyone tried to motivate me, but if anything, I became slower. Finally I saw the second mile sign and just wished the whole thing would be over. The last mile was brutal. Girl after girl passed me, and the dreams of our team going to nationals faded. I kept thinking how disappointed the team would be and how Dani would only go to nationals by herself without leading the team, which was a huge goal of hers. After what felt like ten miles, I finally saw the long finish ahead and just pushed myself so I could just get this race over with. The finish line slowly grew closer and closer and the cheering became louder and louder when I finally stepped across the finish line.

            My legs were completely dead and I just felt awful. My time was exactly a minute slower from earlier in the season on the same exact course at Twilight. As I walked away, my teammates who had raced earlier that day came up and told me how amazing I did. I just shook my head and wanted to cry so badly. Finally, my parents came up to me and I started crying. As we walked together, I saw some of my other teammates and noticed they were all tearing-up too. I then realized it was not just me who felt we had a bad race, but almost everyone else felt that way too.  After letting out all of my emotion, the seven of us came together with Coach Messer, who told us to shake it off and hold our heads high. With this, we went to the awards and hoped for the best. I had no idea if we were going to qualify for nationals and all of the anxiety covered my tiredness and soreness. After a long wait, the team scores were finally announced. The announcer called out the top 10 teams starting with tenth place and moving up.   He announced 4th place, it wasn’t us, 3rd place, it still wasn’t us.  That’s when we caught our breath, tightly held hands, and waited for second place to be announced.  When we heard our individual names called for second place, everyone on our team burst into tears (again!).  It was such an amazing experience qualifying for nationals and filling out all of the paperwork. It felt surreal and dreamlike. All of my energy and liveliness came back to me in an instant. It was an incredible day! 

Haley Wolf

 

 

Before Nike Regionals, I felt extremely confident not only in my abilities but in the talent of my teammates. I remember just looking at their faces and thinking how blessed I was to be among one of the top teams in the nation. Besides this fact, I knew we had to bring everything we had to this race; there was no room for error. My stomach jittered with butterflies every moment we waited to start the race. We stood on that line and the announcer began talking about all the teams and their members and all I wanted to do was run to get the nerves out of my system. Prior to the race, Coach Messer had given me and Mason Swenson splits to hit and she told me, “Just like practice, we just have to hit the splits.” This made my heart pound a little slower and the butterflies escape from my stomach. Together, we would take the race one step at a time, together.

Once the gun went off, the crowd swept us up and we were off. Mason and I found each other relatively quickly and we went stride for stride to the first 800 meter split. Two minutes and 50 seconds at the 800 and we were even under our split pace. I managed to gasp out the words, “Perfect,” and we headed to the mile. However, when we got to the mile, my heart leaped—6:04 first mile. We were way off pace and we hadn’t even noticed. My head spun and I lost sight of Mason as I proceeded on with the race. “Take bodies,” I thought to myself. If I couldn’t hit the splits then pass as many people as I could until the end of the race. I squeezed myself in between the herd of people and the flags that lined the course and just ran. At this point, I could feel the heat pounding on me but it was easy to ignore for a while. When the two-mile mark came I was shocked. Though the pace seemed to have quickened, I was still off pace by a large margin. 12:10, the clock read and I felt my confidence began to shrivel. My legs felt weak and my arms began to fall apart but I kept hearing my coaches call out to me that I needed to go. So, I summoned anything I had left and focused on a few American Fork girls in front of me. “Do it for your team,” I kept saying over and over in my head. I regained some strength with a mile to go and kept on my target until the last 800. The heat felt so brutal and my lungs felt so utterly weak that I knew that I just had to try to hold on and finish as far up as I could. I wasn’t, at that point, racing for a personal record, just for my team. Down the last stretch, I pumped my arms but my legs wouldn’t seem to move any faster. I willed them and they wouldn’t go. I felt helpless. Some other runners began their kick and I tried so desperately to go with them but my body wouldn’t allow it. With a few feet to go, I saw a familiar face sprint by; Mason ran right in in front of me. I was genuinely happy that she was able to move a few places up and was very proud of her. However when I crossed the line, my body felt immobile. I took a few steps, telling myself not to fall but they couldn’t help but to wobble and I stumbled to the floor. My lungs labored hard to regain normal breathing. I was mentally and physically spent.

After the race and once I regained full motor skills, I found my teammates and to tell the truth, our spirits were low. We were silent for a while and Coach Messer said a few words to us. We were definitely disappointed at our performance and I couldn’t help but wonder if I could have given anything else. Thinking back I kept criticizing my race: Why didn’t I start out faster? Why didn’t I suck it up just a little more? What else could I have done? When I spoke to anyone, all I said was, “We have to make it.” People cast sullen glances but did not say much on the topic. Awards were coming up and I felt like I wasn’t sure if I could handle hearing them. We gathered in a circle and watched the many smiling faces as they punched their tickets to NXN. Specifically, Tyler Day from Mesquite who we couldn’t help but smile when it was announced he would be in Portland for the championships. The minutes ticked by as the individuals were announced and we cheered when the Jones sisters were announced. But they quickly returned to their seats and we all gripped hands as they began reading off the team places. 8th went by and I was thankful, then 7th, 6th, 5th, 4th… I smiled slightly that we weren’t called for 4th; we could still be 3rd and get an at-large bid. However, we all really wanted the automatic spot. There was a long announcement for third and I closed my eyes and clenched my teammates hands. In my head, I prayed for good news. They called out Davis for third and tears came tumbling down our faces. I felt a huge weight lift off of me and an indescribable feeling of joy. This is what we had wanted all season long since summer. After this, they announced us in second and it was a dream-come-true. We still had tears on our cheeks as we walked up to the stage and the biggest grins plastered on our faces. We would go together to the National Championships in Oregon. It is safe to say, it was the best moment of my life.

Kyky Lopez

 

 

I woke up the morning of the 22nd to my heart racing faster than a hummingbird’s. It wasn’t unusual for my body to be feeling this way the morning of a race, but this time it was different. For months my coaches had been telling me that our team had the special opportunity to qualify for NXN, but that dream had been far off on the horizon—now, it was finally here. The unsettling feeling in my stomach never managed to go away as I gagged on a small breakfast and pressed a lightning bolt tattoo onto my right bicep. I was a part of something with great potential, and I was feeling that pressure with great intensity.

Once I reached the course, I had managed to calm down and act like my usual self. I tried to remain confident in my ability and trust that I was ready to run. When we started to warm up, however, my legs felt heavy as lead; I knew I was in for a tough race. I described to my dad how low-energy I was feeling, and he continued to encourage me until I entered the starting box. As hard as I tried to rid myself of the mental block, I knew I wasn’t feeling right. The gun went off and my mind went numb; the surrounding spectators became a million rainbow pixels as I tried to focus in on my mission—to run with valor for my teammates.

The first 400 felt longer than usual, and I was way behind my expected placement. I attempted to work my way up, but once I reached the mile I felt mentally and physically exhausted. By the halfway point my body was quitting, but I gritted my teeth and kept a steady pace. I was literally running on empty, and I knew that full well. I pushed as hard as possible until I finished; I was so fatigued that I sat down in a puddle of someone else’s puke without the slightest disgust. My time was incredibly slow, but I hung on to the hope that my teammates all ran well.

Once I reached camp, Coach Messer gathered all of us around for a quick team meeting. He didn’t look very excited, and as I looked around at my teammates, I could tell everyone was as wiped as I was. Messer apologized for his terrible coaching, which led me to think that he believed we didn’t qualify. A few girls started crying, and I felt bad but tried to cheer them up. I kept in good spirits; I was proud of my team regardless, and I knew it wasn’t all over yet.

I made my way over to the results and sat down in a group huddle with my teammates. I cheered as Dani and Baylee went up individually; then it was the moment we had all been waiting for. I held hands with the girls and waited with butterflies in my stomach. I had told myself that if we did better than last year, I would be happy. Sure enough, we got down to the top 5 teams, and our names still hadn’t been called. I was certain we would be next, but team after team we remained in the running. When it was between three of us, I was completely prepared to receive 3rd—then Davis was called. A wave of relief passed over me, and I watched as Dani and the others burst into tears of joy. It was a moment that I’ll never forget.

It had never been easier to smile as people took pictures of us on that podium. The dream was now a reality, but it all felt so surreal as I made my way over to the tent and signed the papers. I still don’t think the reality has completely sunk in for me yet; maybe it won’t until I reach that starting line up in Portland. But I do know that on the morning of the 6th, when I wake up once again to find my heart racing out of my chest, God has given me the amazing opportunity to run not only for my team, but also for the whole state of Arizona. And that’s something to be excited about.  smiley

Madi Bucci

 

Congratulations to all 11 runners from Arizona.  We are all very proud of you and will be cheering for you on Saturday!!

Link to live feed this Saturday!

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