Hannah DeBalsi, a sophomore at Staples High School in Westport, wanted to conserve energy Saturday morning in San Diego at the Foot Locker National Cross Country Championship meet to be strong for the finish of the 5,000-meter race. But the pace was faster than she wanted at the beginning, so she adjusted and mostly kept up, not falling too far behind the lead pack.
With a little more than a mile to go at Balboa Park's Morley Field nearly 3.14-mile course, her move had brought her into fourth place and to within 30 meters of the leader. DeBalsi's drive continued and allowed her to jump into third- and then second place within the next minute, where she stayed until the finish. DeBalsi had closed to within five meters of the front-runner, but Tessa Barrett of Waverly, Pa., held her off in the final 700 meters to win in 17 minutes and 16 seconds. DeBalsi (17:25.3) was nearly 10 seconds behind as the top 15 finishers earned All-America honors.
Darien junior Alex Ostberg, in third place approaching the final mile, finished in 11th place in 15:30.1 in the boys 5K race that followed the girls' competition. He earned All-America, but Fairfield Prep senior Christian Alvarado, who ran in the 2012 national championship race, did not by finishing 20th in 15:46.9. Last year, he was 39th.
"I don't know how to describe it," DeBalsi, who earned first-team All-America recognition, said about placing as the No. 2 girl in the country. "It's an honor to compete with such great runners. The work was to get here. Anything that happens here is like icing on the cake."
There was a gap between the lead four runners in the girls race and DeBalsi, she said. But they were well within range, only a few seconds ahead of her. "My plan was to hang back in the first part (of the race), and when people started coming back to me then for me to move up."
DeBalsi did that with mastery and just about caught Barrett, who defeated DeBalsi Nov. 30 at the Northeast Regional race in the Bronx, N.Y., the first time DeBalsi had been beaten all year. But as soon as DeBalsi approached her on the long downhill, Barrett, a senior, began to pull away, which continued for the final two minutes until they reached the finish line. There was no final challenge from DeBalsi, whose goal was to be positioned in the top 20 then try to move up into place for an All-America finish. She exceeded that goal.
Ostberg could not maintain his pace over the entire course. At the two-and-a-half-mile mark, Ostberg said, Grant Fisher, of Grand Blanc, Mich., and Johnathan Dressel, of Colbert, Wash., pulled away from the chasers -- Ostberg included -- to duel for the final 1,000 meters. Fisher (15:06.5) won the battle over Dressel (15:09.2), with Ostberg approximately 20 seconds behind, finishing in 15:30.1. He characterized the final stage of the race as bit of a fade by him along with dynamic moves by the leaders.
Ostberg was in second place a quarter-mile into the race, and was no farther behind than fifth place in the first two miles. He was sixth a little before 12 minutes had elapsed and the final mile had begun.
"My thighs were burning," Ostberg said of the end of the race. "I've had hard workouts before, but my thighs were on fire. The last half-mile I really just had to push myself and get to the finish line as fast as I could. The last half-mile was incredibly difficult. I had to will myself to finish."
Ostberg said he did not want to be in the lead but to be besides the leaders. "I really wanted to put myself in good position right from the start. A lot of runners tried to surge and tried to go for it," he said. "I'm incredibly happy."
Alvarado was pleased that he did better than last year in time and finishing place, but was not satisfied about missing All-America. He fell short of that goal by nearly 11 seconds. "I have mixed feelings," Alvarado said. "I had a lot of improvement from last year, and I made it here. I gave it my all.
"I have no regrets. If I had to do it over, I would not change a thing. I think executed well over the first mile. I think I set myself up well. Heading up the hill (in the last mile), I fell behind a little. Physically, I felt strong; mentally, it was a struggle. It was a real hard race."
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