CARY, N.C. - One week after successfully defending his Florida 4A state title in record time at Little Everglades Ranch, Melbourne junior Brian Atkinson powered his way to the NXN Southeast Regional championship.
Atkinson pulled away from his closest competitors up the 800-meter finishing hill to win in 15:11 over the fast-but-challenging 5-kilometer course at WakeMed Soccer complex.
The victory earned Atkinson a spot at next Saturday’s NXN Nationals in Portland, Oregon.
“The whole first mile, there was a ton of people and a lot of pushing around,” said Atkinson, who edged Patrick McGregor of Birmingham, Ala.
“I just tried to hang in there.”
Hanging in there was no small feat as the 22-team field, plus individuals, set a blistering pace over the half-mile, downhill start.
“That’s the fastest I’ve ever gone through the mile, but coach told me it was going to be super-fast and don’t worry about it,” said Atkinson, who sped past the mile mark in 4:40 to head a second pack of runners approximately seven seconds off the leaders.
Powering up the long incline that the field had to traverse twice, Atkinson took the lead around the 1 ½-mile mark.
“I never really looked behind me, but I heard two guys there,” he said. “The hill was a lot worse the second time around. It was kind of similar to the state course at Little Everglades, but this one was a lot longer.”
Atkinson and his high school teammates - running as the Melbroune Distance Project - represented Florida well, finishing eighth in the field, beating both Tampa Jesuit and Miami Belen Jesuit.
“We went with the idea that we are not going to be embarrassed; we’re a quality program,” said Melbourne coach T.J. Woodbury. “Our overall goal was to leave today and say we’re the best team from Florida. We represented Florida very well. It made it a little easier because Belen was here and they represent Florida very well and Tampa Jesuit was here, so we had three good teams.
“We had been looking at Belen as our measure. If we beat them, we’re an upper-level team. We accomplished our mission.”
Melbourne finished with 231 points, three spots in front of Tampa Jesuit (11th, 267). Belen Jesuit was 12th with 271 points.
Erik Fagan (35th, 16:07) and James Post (48th, 16:25) gave Atkinson solid support as Woodbury’s team made amends for their runner-up finish to Miami Columbus at last week’s state meet.
“We ran the race I wished we’d run last week,” said Woodbury. “Everyone ran well. Everyone ran near-best times on a difficult course.”
Like Melbourne, Tampa Jesuit was coming off a runner-up finish in the state meet to 2A champion Belen. They too made amends as senior Connor Revord (16th, 15:48) and Jordon Schilit (34th, 16:06) ran strong up front.
“We had two goals,” said Tampa Jesuit assistant David Revord. “One was to be top-five and two was to beat Belen.
“Connor had a great race; close to a PR in cross country this year. Jordan ran a good race.”
Belen received strong efforts from Joseph Dorfman (20th, 15:52) and Elliott Clemente (22nd, 15:53), but didn’t get its third runner across the line until 68th on the damp and cold day.
Atkinson isn’t the only Florida runner headed to Portland for NXN Nationals.
Community School of Naples sophomore Erika Fluehr - competing for the Naples Seahawks Running Club - earned an at-large berth with a 10th-place finish in 18:11. It marked the first time this season that she defeated her twin sister Kathryn, who was 19th (18:33).
The Chiles Wolfpack Track Club entered the meet as the seventh-ranked team in the Southeast Regional and finished there, tops among Florida schools.
Freshmen Carly Thomas (17th, 18:28) and Lily Williams (23rd, 18:41) and senior Kaia Hampton (25th, 18:46) paved the way for the 3A state champions.
“We had a great year,” said Chiles coach Scott Gowan, whose team finished one spot in front of Naples in a 12-team field, which included nine state champions and three runner-ups. “Last weekend (at state) we ran the best meet in the history of our school, but we weren’t able to duplicate that today.
“It was good experience to face the teams we faced. We found out this weekend we’re not that far away from competing at the next level. ... We’ll be back.”