Back-to-Back National Title Winning Cross Country Runner Sets Sights on Higher Education
By Jim Halley, USA TODAY
Lukas Verzbicas is a 17-year-old in a hurry. He took classes all summer because he wants to graduate from Carl Sandburg High in Orland Park, Ill., next May, a year early, to seek tougher completion in college as a distance runner.
Saturday in San Diego, he was in a rush, winning his second consecutive Foot Locker Cross Country Championship. Verzbicas (pronounced verz-BIK-iss) pulled away from Futsum Zeinasellassie in the final mile, finishing in 14 minutes, 59 seconds on the 5,000-meter course, to become only the third boys runner with consecutive national Foot Locker titles. Zeinasellassie, from North Central (Indianapolis), was second in 15:10.
Verzbicas isn't interested in winning Foot Locker again.
"I'm going to go to college next year, either way," said Verzbicas, who hasn't chosen a college. "I'm graduating in May, as long as I don't fail anything. If I want to improve, I have to face competition that is better than me, not as good as me. That means going into college and competing against athletes who are stronger and faster than me."
Aisling Cuffe (pronounced ASH-ling CUFF), a senior from of Cornwall Central (New Windsor, N.Y.), was the girls winner in 16:53, 34 seconds ahead of runner-up Rachel Johnson of Plano, Texas.
It was Cuffe's first Foot Locker win after finishing fourth last year and 12th the year before. She didn't lose a cross country race this season. She said she plans to run next year at Stanford.
"The first step is to make sure you keep improving in high school," Cuffe said. "There are a ton of college girls who end up slowing their progress in college. I have to watch out for that. I feel like if I have it down for three years, that I can keep going."
Going in, she worried less about her competitors and more about needing to run sub-17:00 to win. Her time was the fifth-fastest girls time at Foot Locker Nationals.
"I wasn't aware I was ahead by that much," she said. "I thought it was more like 15 seconds, and that can be made up the last mile. A certain time has to win the race every year. As long as you run fast enough, I don't think it matters how you ran.
"My goal wasn't to run fast, it was to win, but I figured by running fast, I could win."
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