WAPPINGERS FALLS, N.Y. -- As the crowd began to thin after the state Federation championships two weeks ago, a small group of runners jogged up the hill at Bowdoin Park, watching as happy high schoolers soaked in the final moments of the cross country season.
But, for those stealth joggers, the season wasn't over -- far from it. The group was Northport, and they were working out, choosing to rest their legs instead of competing in the Federation championship.
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They had bigger fish to fry.
The fish? A berth in the Nike Cross Nationals, scheduled for Saturday in Portland, Ore. But, before booking their tickets, they would have to be one of the top two teams in the New York race at the Nike Cross Regional Championships, held Saturday at Bowdoin Park.
Mission accomplished. The Tigers, led by Mike Brannigan, who won the 5k in 15 minutes, 29.9 seconds, scored 76 points -- placing second behind Manlius and guaranteeing themselves a cross-country trip to the national cross country summit. Northport is the first boys team in Long Island to qualify for the national meet, coach Jason Strom said.
The berth acted as redemption for the Tigers, who failed to qualify last season.
"Last year, this is what we wanted," Tim McGowan, who finished eighth in 15:48, said. "Going to a meet like the Nike Cross Nationals is such an honor. It's really cool that we got a second chance. Not a lot of teams get that."
After a tight opening mile, Brannigan broke away from the rest of the field and won by nearly 11 seconds.
Brannigan made his championship move at the top of a hill about a mile and a half into the race.
"It was all downhill from there," he said. "I opened a gap and pushed it. I just wanted to have a strong kick in the home straightaway and win."
Brannigan's victory was a bit of personal redemption as well. The junior lost by three-tenths of a second at the state championships on Nov. 9 at Queensbury High School. Despite the near-miss, he did glean an important bit of racing strategy that aided him tremendously Saturday.
"Sit back, let the other runners do all the work, and then out-kick them in the last mile," Brannigan said.
Jack McGowan finished 16th in 16:06.2. Nick Termine was 23rd in 16:24.3. Justin Leopold clocked a 17:01.5 good for 57th.
St. Anthony's Patrick Tucker qualified for the national meet as an individual, finishing ninth in 15:52.3.
Garden City's Stephanie Gerland will represent LI girls in Portland. She finished seventh in 18:39.2. Gerland ran the Bowdoin Park course two weeks ago, when she placed sixth at the state Federation championship.
"This race felt harder because there was so much more competition," Gerland said. "I ran a faster time than I ran two weeks ago, so I was really happy about that. Feds really helped because it gave me a lot of confidence."
Despite some slippery ground along the course, Gerland said she was happy with her final kick.
"I finished really strong," she said. "It was really close at the end. I tried really hard to pick it up."