By Christopher Hunt
photo by Matt Shatkus (njrunners.com)
PORTLAND, Ore. – When Ammar Moussa finally made it back to his team’s tent someone had already pulled out their cell phone to announce exactly how much his Arcadia team had won by.
“We won by 47 points,” Moussa yelled. “That’s it. I don’t even know what else to do. I’ve done everything I’ve ever wanted to do in life.”
So, he might have been a little excited. That’s fair. Arcadia became the first California team to win a national championship at the Nike Cross Nationals Saturday at Portland Meadows Raceway scoring 92 points. Moussa led the way finishing fourth overall in 16:16.3. Chants of “Arcadia” echoed over the muddy course as soon as the team had gotten wind of their victory, one that had almost become a footnote behind the drama of the boys’ individual race and Fayetteville-Manlius’s quest for a fifth straight girls title.
But it wasn’t just the fact that Arcadia won, it was that there was a notion out there that they would fold.
“We knew we were good,” Moussa said. “We knew we could be the first California team to win a national title. Every year there’s been excuses. The cold. The mud. But we did it.”
Arcadia posted a 66-second, 5-man compression with 23 seconds between its second and fifth man. Junior Eric Garibay provided one of the biggest boosts. Just before the start of the season, Garibay was involved in a car accident where he was pinned between two cars, severely straining his ACL and MCL.
“We thought he’d be out for the season,” Arcadia coach Jim O’Brien said. “He was back in five weeks.”
Moussa has acknowledeged this season that this is the best Apaches team his school as ever had and, as a senior, this was his one chance to help the team do what no school in his state has ever done before. No amount of mud or cold weather would matter.
“All I know is I can’t feel my legs right now and it’s not just because of the cold,” he said, “but because there’s nothing left in me.”
Moussa did his best on hold on to the lead pack that included Lukas Verzbicas of Illinois, Edward Cheserek of New Jersey and last year’s champ Texan Craig Lutz. The three hung tight until the last mile when Verzbicas made a decisive move on the whoop-dee-doos. The surged dropped Cheserek and Lutz and gave Verzbicas about a 30-meter lead in the last mile.
Verzbicas, last year’s Foot Locker national champ, won in 15:59.2 with Cheserek second in 16:01.5. Lutz placed third in 16:04.4.
“Craig Lutz, it seems like he always goes out on those whoop-dee-doos,” Verzbicas said. “He went to the front and I went with him. I thought, he’s really going to make a surge here. But he never really made a real surge but he was up there in the front. I was feeling real good so I just went for it.”
Verzbicas took a few peeks over his shoulder as he stormed toward the finish. He said he expected Lutz to come flying by but Cheserek, who had dropped to third, found a second-wind and closed the gap in the stretch, breezing by Lutz for second. Verzbicas said it was the toughest conditions he had ever raced in and credited his triathlon training for handling the course.
“If it wasn’t for my triathlon training I don’t know what I would have done,” he said. “Going through that mud is like riding a bike in a heavy gear.”
While victory for Verzbicas and Arcadia were not surprises, New York’s Fayetteville-Manlius shocked everyone by finishing second with 135 points, led by senior Mark McGurrin, who placed 17th in 16:45.4.
“Our season started last week,” coach Bill Aris said referring to F-M’s upset win at the NXN New York Regional. “Before last week, we were running like crap. Today they ran their butts off. … We wanted to have a season were we ran up to our potential and we’ve done that for the past two weeks.”
Reach Christopher Hunt at firstname.lastname@example.org.