by Tom Utescher

Out of all the athletes on fall sports teams at area schools, the last one standing – and competing – was Sami Aziz, a distance running ace at Germantown Friends.

Last Saturday, the curtain came down on the senior’s high school career as he performed on a grand stage, racing alongside elite runners from across the United States at the Nike Cross Country Nationals in Portland, Ore.

The Nike event is primarily a team competition, but following the Northeast Regional Championships a week earlier, Aziz eventually became one of five individual finishers from that race to earn an invitation to the marquee meet at Portland Meadows, a horse racing track where a five kilometer (3.1-mile) XC course was set up in the infield.

After coming in ninth at the regional race despite a fairly serious fall on a downhill section, Aziz placed 70th overall out of a total of 196 competitors at the Nationals, all of whom had advanced out of large regional meets in various parts of the country. Earlier this fall, Aziz earned the top individual honors at both the Friends Schools League Championships and at the Pa. Independent Schools meet.

In the Nike regional races, the top two teams automatically qualify for the championships in Oregon, and the top five individuals not affiliated with those teams also earn a trip to Portland. Due to his mishap during the race, Aziz was initially sixth on that list of individuals, but one of the top five could not attend the big dance, creating an opening for the Tigers senior to head out to the West Coast.

Parts of the Portland Meadows course look like some sort of steeplechase circuit, with hay bales laid down across the path to provide competitors with an obstacle to hurdle, as well as a section with a series of dirt moguls.

There was one pervading natural impediment, as well – mud caused by recent rains. The ground had been churned up beforehand by the participants in the girls national championship race, and the slippery, clingy earth produced relatively slow times for a field of this caliber.

The overall winner got to the Nike extravaganza the same way Aziz did; he advanced as an individual from a regional meet. The second unaffiliated finisher from the Midwest section, Ohioan Sam Wharton won at Nationals with a time of 17 minutes, 6.5 seconds. Germantown Friends’ Aziz was placed fourth out of a quartet of runners who were all timed in 18:21.5. The last man on the course crossed the line at 23:09.7.

Shortly before the Northeast Regionals, the GFS team ran a practice race along with Henderson High School in West Chester and Cardinal O’Hara of the Philadelphia Catholic League. Both of those schools got to take their full teams out at last weekend’s meet, O’Hara with an automatic qualification, and Henderson through an at-large bid.

The national team title went to California’s Arcadia High School, while O’Hara finished fifth and Henderson placed 15th out of the 22 teams attending. The fastest individual runner from the Philadelphia area was Henderson junior Reiny Barchet, who clocked in at 17:44.5 and 21st overall.

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