When MileSplit.com released its weekly rankings of the top male high school cross-country runners in the United States on Nov. 28, Park City High School senior Ben Saarel was in 14th place.
Impressive enough. But that was before Saarel ran away from the field at the Foot Locker West Regional on Dec. 1, beating the best high school cross-country runners in 10 Western states.
Competing on a tough, hilly course at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, Calif., Saarel was among the lead group of runners as they approached the finish line. Then, according to Jeff Wyant, Park City High School cross-country coach, Saarel "blew the other guys out of the water in the last 400 meters" to win the race by a convincing nine seconds.
Wyant said Saarel's performance in that race should be reflected in the new rankings due to be released today.
"I expect him to move into the top five nationally," he said.
Saarel won't have to wait long to defend his new ranking. His performance at the West Regional has earned him a place in the Foot Locker National Cross Country Championship, scheduled to take place this Saturday, Dec. 8, in San Diego's Balboa Park. Saarel will be one of 40 male high school athletes 10 from each of the four U.S. regions to compete for the national individual title.
"It is the first time Park City has ever had a national qualifier in this event," Wyant said.
It is also redemption of sorts for Saarel who, a year ago, finished 11th at the West Regional, missing the cut for the national championship race by a single place.
Saarel's finishing kick at Mt. San Antonio College was no accident. He said he has been making the final 800 or 1,000 meters of his 5K cross-country races a focal point of his training.
"The strategy I've been working on all year is being able to lay a solid pace and then be able to kick at the end of it," he said.
But Saarel has no illusions about leaving the national-championship field in the dust the way he did at the West Regional. Among the competition in San Diego will be Edward Cheserek of Newark, N.J., a native of Kenya yes, Kenya who won the national title a year ago as a high school junior. Saarel also expects a battle from some of his fellow West Region qualifiers.
"Some of the kids that I beat (on Dec. 1) I know were prepping for this upcoming race and not this Western Regional. I'm sure I'll see them again and have even a harder race," he said.
With his stellar (both on the track and in the classroom) high-school years now winding down, Saarel must now be spending time investigating possible colleges, right?
"The other way around," said Wyant. "The colleges are investigating him." He said Saarel has attracted the attention of coaches from many of the top Division 1 universities in the country.
Saarel said right now he's just trying to narrow it down. "There's a couple of colleges out West that I'm looking at and a couple back East and in the Midwest that I'm checking out too. But, honestly, I don't have a specific college that I've narrowed it down (to) at all. I've been talking to so many.
"It changes so quickly, I'd feel bad about giving out the names because next week it could be completely different."
The Foot Locker National Cross Country Championship men's race is scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. MDT Saturday. Wyant said the race will be televised live on the Internet, preceded by a preliminary show introducing the runners.