Early Friday morning, La Salle Academy head coach Ken Skelly and assistant coach Bill Myers boarded a plane for Portland, Oregon. They're heading over to the west coast for a cross-country race that should last about 15 minutes.
But the chances are that no matter what happens during those 15 minutes, it's well worth the seven-plus hour flight and all the jet lag that goes with it.
Less than 24 hours after Skelly and Myers check into their hotel, one of the state's greatest distance runners, La Salle senior DJ Principe, will be toeing the line with the nation's best at the Nike Cross Nationals. This could be a history-making event for the Ocean State as Principe is one of the leading contenders to bring home gold at NXN on Saturday.
"I think he has a chance," said Skelly, moments before boarding his flight. "It's a matter of putting himself in position to win. DJ has done everything in terms of working out and preparation. It's a matter of putting himself in position more than anything."
The favorite going into Saturday's race, which begins at 2:35 p.m. EST, is Utah's Casey Clinger of American Folk, the defending champion. In the 2015 race, Clinger won by a mere 1.6 seconds with his winning time of 15 minutes, 3.2 seconds. He was just ahead of Carmel High's Ben Veatch of Indiana, who was timed in 15:04.8. In fact, the top four finishers in the race were separated by a little more than five seconds.
Expect a similar down-to-the-wire affair this weekend at the Glendoveer Golf Course, site of the NXN. The field is loaded with several runners capable of dethroning Clinger, including Principe.
Clinger goes into the race as the No. 1 ranked runner in the country. He has been undefeated the last two years and won the Nike Southwest Regionals on Nov. 19 in 14:53. But if you go by the speed ratings of TullyRunners.com, a reputable ranking system that bases a runner's times on the course and conditions, Principe, who was 17th at last year's national meet, ranks ahead of Clinger and the rest of his competition. According to the rankings, he owns the top three times among his competitors with his victories at the State Meet, Bowdoin X-C Classic and Nike Northeast Regionals. His performance at NXN-NE in Wappinger Falls, NY, is the biggest eye-opener that the Ram senior has the potential to make it happen at the nationals. It was there that Principe smashed his own course record by five seconds with a 15:18 effort on a very-difficult 5K course at Bowdoin Park. His previous mark of 15:23 was established at the Bowdoin Classic in late September. In both races, and his win at the State Meet, another CR of 14:56 at Ponaganset, the La Salle runner won by a large margin.
That same strategy of taking the pace out hard early to rid himself from his rivals won't work on Saturday. And Skelly and Co. know that the Stanford-bound Principe is ready to change his game plan for possible prosperity at the end.
"It's going to be a matter of patience for him," Skelly said. "Last year a lot of the top 10 were around 22nd and-25th place after the first mile...I think he's just got to be patient and relaxed in the pack. He's just got to have the right temperament. He's is certainly confident in his ability."
Besides Clinger and Principe, among some of the leading contenders that will answer the gun are Finn Gessner of Madison La Follette (WI), Seth Hirsch of Millard West (NE) and Brodey Hasty of Brentwood (TN). Gessner, who was eighth at NXN last year, recently won the Heartland Regionals in 14:39.40. He also qualified for next week's Foot Locker Nationals by taking ninth at the Midwest Regionals. Hirsch, who also will be competing at both national meets, clocked 14:39.5 to take runner-up honors at Heartland.
As for Hasty, the talented junior was involved in the only close race for Principe this fall when he edged the La Salle harrier at the finish line of the Great American X-C Festival in North Carolina in early October. Both runners clocked the two fastest times this season with Hasty winning in 14:32.20 and Principe crossing the line at 14:32.40.
Except for Hasty, this will be the first time that Principe faces his other competitors head-to-head this year.
"I think it's going to be good for him," Skelly admitted. "Most of the other runners have seen each other two of three times this season at other meets. DJ has been by himself, except against Hasty, and look how that turned out."
The Nike meet, which has 20 boys' and 20 girls' teams as well as 90 individuals, has seven of the top 10 runners in the country. Regardless if Principe wins or not this weekend, it's been an amazing year for the La Salle standout. A victory on Saturday would just make it all the more special.
"We are hoping for something magical to happen. That's sometimes what you need," Skelly said. "We're looking forward to it."