FL NE: Three friends head back to sunny San Diego accompanied by the next big talent in the sport

By Geoffrey Decker, with Don Rich

BRONX, NY, Nov. 29 - All that separated three close friends from finishing 1-2-3 in the Footlocker Northeast Regional meet was a rookie barely old enough to drive.

Aisling Cuffe, a sophomore at Cornwall competing in her first Footlocker regional, led the girls field into Van Cortlandt Park's back hills and through two miles on Saturday. In close pursuit was Shelby Greaney, Emily Jones and Melanie Thompson, a trio of seniors who between them had seven regional and five national Footlocker appearances under their belts.

Yet Cuffe stayed with the lead pack for most of the race, even pushing the leaders through the mile in 5:25.

Photos of the top 11 at the top of the last of the back hills - by Aaron Rich

Just over the top, Jones, Greany and Cuffe separated a bit from Thompson. And then it was a three person race. Jones made her decisive move in the last 800 meters. "I ended up taking the lead on the hill right before we came out of the woods." Emerging from the hills with 600 meters to go, Jones had opened up a 10-meter lead on Greaney and Cuffe. The order would hold, with Jones breaking the tape in 17:31, followed by Greaney in 17:37, and Cuffe in 17:39.

Jones couldn't be sure of her victory until she had crossed the line, but was confident in her kick. "I knew that any of them could come up and challenge me. I knew I'd be able to run a little harder if I needed to."

It is Jones's third time qualifying for Footlocker Nationals and Greaney's fourth time. For Thompson, who finished in 18:05, it's the first time in three tries that she'll be making the trip to San Diego.

Greany says her workouts this season told her she is in the best physical shape of her life, but that her races had not been that good. She would get frustrated during races when she wasn't where she thought she should be, and would drop off. "I had to stop putting pressure on myself." That self-described 'shaky' season could have ended with a 6th place finish at the NY Federation meet. But Greany regrouped, and says the two weeks between Feds and Foot Locker allowed her to get back into the right frame of mind to race as well as her workouts said she should. "I had started to lose sight of how much I love to run and how much I love to compete."

Jones is one of four girls from the Northeast returning to San Diego after she finished 11th last year. The others are Greaney, Chelsea Ley and Emily Lipari, who was sixth in last year's race and is the top returning qualifier. At this year's regional Ley and Lipari finished fifth and ninth, respectively.

Cuffe's performance is another highlight for what has become a sensational breakthrough season and the beginning of what promises to be a prolific career at Footlockers. Already this year, she placed third and second, respectively, in the New York State and Federation meets. Cuffe is youthful not only in age - she turned 16 this month - but in appearance and spirit as well. Her tiny frame belies a fierce competitiveness that is on display when she is racing.

Cuffe led from the gun and across the bridge to head into the back hills. "I didn't mind taking the lead. It gave me confidence the rest of the race." While Cuffe sensed she had secured a spot with 600 meters to go, she said she wasn't 100% sure until 10 feet from the line when she knew "10 people couldn't pass me."

For Jones, Greaney and Thompson, it's fitting that they will travel to San Diego together in their final year of high school. As competitiors they became very familiar with one another from racing each other. Off the course, their relationship has grown into friendship. This year they began visiting colleges together for recruiting trips and one of those colleges, Georgetown, is where Jones will be running next year, as she announced yesterday.

Just three states will be representing the Northeast at Footlocker Nationals in San Diego in two weeks: New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts. Also qualifying from New Jersey were Ley, of Clarksboro, Katie Kellner (6th), of West Windsor and Laura Vigilante (10th), of Brookside. From New York, the other qualifiers were Erin Cawley (8th) of Newark Valley and Lipari (9th), of Greenvale. Kristin Kasper of North Andover will join Jones as the other Massachusetts representative.

The Northeast girls are the defending champions of the regional team competition.


The Back Hills - the race has been decided (photos by Aaron Rich)