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Cross country: LA has a great time at national meet

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By Mike Cote

To an extent, the emotions were mixed.Getting as close to a national championship as the Los Alamos XC club did Saturday made some of the team members second-guess their individual performances.“Everyone thinks they could’ve done it if they’d pushed it,” runner Tom Witherell said. “I know I did.”But, after realizing how incredible a season 2007 turned out to be, the team seemed to realize it wasn’t too bad at all.Los Alamos XC — formerly the Los Alamos Hilltoper boys cross country squad — ended a stunning season with a second-place finish at the Nike Team Nationals championship race, held at Portland Meadows racetrack in Portland, Ore.The difference between Los Alamos and champion Naperville, Ill., was the thinnest of margins: two points.Naperville was a fairly solid favorite heading into Saturday’s 5-kilometer race after its defeat of national powerhouse and 2004 NTN champion York, Penn., by 38 points to win the NTN Midwest regional qualifier.But Los Alamos, placing four runners into the top 20 overall — the only one among the 22 teams to have done so — gave Naperville all it could handle. The final tally was Naperville 125, Los Alamos 127.“Had it been a bigger margin, I would’ve been happier,” Tom Bowidowicz said.But most of the team got over the disappointment of just missing out on a national title with the realization that Los Alamos was the second-best club in the nation.NTN, put on by Nike Inc., is the only recognized national prep-level team championship in the country in any sport.“Getting second by two points, it’s so close, but it’s still pretty amazing,” Kyle Pittman said.Los Alamos’ boys qualified for the event by finishing in a virtual dead-heat with Albuquerque XC, the alter-ego of their prep arch-rival Albuquerque Academy, in a qualifying race held Nov. 17 at Tempe, Ariz.The two teams ended that race with 93 points apiece. And, although Albuquerque won the regional title on the tiebreaker, both teams advanced to the NTN national meet.The team flew to Portland, Ore., Thursday for an all-expenses-paid trip to compete in the race.Los Alamos spent a fair portion of time at the Nike campus, and was in awe of it.“It’s like going to Disneyland, except everything’s Nike,” Allen Pittman said.The team spent some time at the Tiger Woods facility, at the Lance Armstrong facility, and working out in one of the two fully-equipped campus exercise facilities in preparation for the race. Additionally, the runners got to hang out with several of the top professional athletes who were in attendance for the meet.The experience, combined with the race, made a couple of runners lament coming home afterward.“I kind of miss Portland,” runner Kevin Hemphill said.“School’s kind of a downer,” teammate Gareth Gilna concurred.For Los Alamos, five of the team’s seven runners, Witherell, Bowidowicz, Gilna, Allen Pittman and Kyle Pittman, had competed in the event in 2006.The mood for the veterans was different this season than it was last season, when the team finished 13th overall“The experience was totally different than last year,” Gilna said. “Last year, we were all thankful to be there. This time, with our team having a chance, it was a totally different feel.”Los Alamos felt heading into the race it had a fair chance to finish among the top four teams in the meet.And Los Alamos found out soon after the race that it had, in fact, finished in the top four, although because of the way the announcement was made, it didn’t know exactly how it had finished.Allen Pittman led the Los Alamos contingent, coming in 11th overall, finishing in a time of 16:33.1. The next three Los Alamos runners, Gilna, Kyle Pittman and Bowidowicz finished 18th, 19th and 20th, with only six-tenths of a second separating them.Los Alamos was recognized for its achievements in a ceremony Saturday night following the race, then flew home Sunday. More than one of the runners said it was disappointing leaving Portland, and even more disappointing having to get caught up on schoolwork.“It was worth it,” Vierra said.