El Paso area teams to battle at Nike South

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What: Nike South Regional. Teams from Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas and Mississippi will compete for an opportunity to race for a national championship. The boys from Americas, Eastwood and San Elizario, and the Franklin girls, will compete in the Championship Division.

When: Saturday, Nov. 23. Boys championship at 1 p.m.; Girls championship at 1:30 p.m.

Where: Bear Branch Park in The Woodlands.

At stake: The top two teams in the region receive automatic bids. The top five placing individuals not on an automatically-placing team will advance as individual qualifiers. Individuals and club qualifiers from eight regional championships are invited to NXN on Dec. 7 at Glendoveer Golf Course in Portland, Oregon.

The reaction of the 2018 Eastwood cross country team after learning they won Nike South. They were the first team in El Paso history to compete at NXN.

The championship season for 2019 is almost over for many of the nation’s top high school cross country programs.

On Saturday, the best teams in five states will race at the Nike South Regional at Bear Branch Park in The Woodlands.

Teams from Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas and Mississippi will compete for an opportunity to race for a national championship – Nike Cross Nationals (NXN).

Three boys teams – Americas, Eastwood and San Elizario – and the Franklin girls, will compete in the Championship Division with a NXN berth at stake.

Many consider NXN, which is Dec. 7 at Glendoveer Golf Course in Portland, Oregon, as the ultimate cross country experience.

“I don’t think anybody who hasn’t experienced NXN can ever imagine what happens at NXN,” said Eastwood coach Mike McLain. “I talked to someone who qualified for the Olympics and this person had never seen NXN. I was describing to him what NXN is, showing him pictures and videos of it. I asked him if it was an experience only someone who made the NCAA Championship would go through and he said, ‘oh no, the NCAA can’t compete with what NXN does.’”

Last year, Eastwood Running Club became the first team from El Paso to win Nike South and advance to NXN.

Eastwood scored 121 points, Southlake Carroll was second with 137 points and Flower Mound was third with 142 points.

And just like in 2018, the path is hauntingly familiar.

Like last year, Eastwood won Region 1, the UIL 5A state championship and now enter Saturday’s meet peaking at the right time.

The Franklin girls hope to complete a successful 2019 season at Nike South.

“Nike South is always on our schedule, no matter what.” McLain said. “It doesn’t matter if we have a strong season or not, we go there.”

McLain said Nike South is a great way to measure the Eastwood program against the best in Texas.

“In order to compete against Southlake Carroll and The Woodlands, you have to respect them,” he said. “Too often, when a team beats you, coaches will say it’s because you cheat or it’s because you recruit – they make up excuses.

We don’t do that. We go up there and if a team beats us, they beat us because they outworked us. You have to respect them for doing that and that should motivate you to work just as hard as they do.”

This is the ninth year in row that Eastwood will participate in Nike South. It’s best results were a pair of fourth place finishes in 2012 and 2016, a third place finish in 2017 and finally breaking through with a Nike South Championship in 2018.

In a season that started a bit slow for Eastwood, the team put it all together at the UIL Cross Country State Championship at Old Settlers Park in Round Rock two weeks ago.

The Troopers defended its Class 5A UIL State title in convincing fashion scoring 51 points, 59 fewer than state runner-up Grapevine.

Eastwood seniors Juan Olmos (fifth, 15:01.41) and Elias Perez (sixth, 15:03.46) had top 10 finishes. All scoring runners – junior Sergio Cuartas (17th, 15:28.21), junior Nathan Hernandez (20th, 15:31.10) and junior Victor Parra (21st, 15:31.12) – finished in the top 25.

Eastwood’s average time of 15:19.06  – with a 29 second split – was the fastest of all classifications, including Class 6A state champ Southlake Carroll’s 15:22.18.

“In the beginning of the season, we weren’t where we would have liked and  all of us were wondering if we would ever get there,” Perez said. “I knew what we were capable of and I believed in every one of them. The young guys panicked a little and they would ask me if we could make it to NXN again? I told them I believed in them and that we could. After state, we definitely have a shot, and do better than we did last year.”

The team finished 22nd in a field 22 teams in its first national championship.

San Elizario’s Rene Arambula and Dilan Sanchez will compete with their teammates at Nike South.

San Elizario junior Edwin Gomez, who was second in the UIL State Championship Class 4A race, is focusing on Nike South from a more personal level.

“I had an up-and-down cross country season,” he said. “All season, I was running for the team. I’ve been training really hard since the season ended and I’m going to do whatever it takes to get back to Nike Nationals.”

Last year he placed fifth at Nike South in 15:45.38, and was 84th at NXN in 16:05.9.

Gomez, who lead San Elizario to a team silver medal, was the second El Paso area athlete to advance to NXN.  Eastwood alum and current Furman University runner Daniel Bernal was the first in 2015 and 2016.

Bernal was also the first El Paso runner to be recognized as NXN All American when he finished 10th in 2016 in a time of 15:47.3.

The Americas boys will compete for the first time as a team at Nike South.

Americas senior Seth Andrade said his team is excited about its first appearance at the NXN South Regional.

“We wanted to place at state but our legs felt a little heavy and things didn’t work out like we wanted,” Andrade said. “We’re hoping Nike South turns out a little better. We are all excited to go out there and kick some butt.”

Americas placed sixth in the Class 6A race.

The opportunity is there for the taking. Four El Paso powerhouses – Franklin’s girls and the boys from Americas, Eastwood and San Elizario – all fighting for the ultimate prize – a trip to NXN.

“What Nike does for these kids is absolutely amazing,” McLain said. “Until you’ve been there, you could never image what it’s like. It’s a lot to take in. Nothing really compares for it. NXN has changed our sport. NXN changed Eastwood cross country.”

Author: Victor R. Martinez

My love of running began with my son Deric. His passion and talent for distance running opened my eyes to a sport I never imaged I would embrace with such enthusiasm. As a journalist at the El Paso Times, I was the lead writer for cross country and track for several years and I was able to tell the stories of these amazing unsung athletes. Never a runner myself, I decided to change that when I turned 50 in 2016 when I trained for my first 5K. I've been running ever since and I love every minute of it - well - sort of.

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