By Chris Lotsbom
GREENSBORO, N.C. (14-June) -- Ashley Erba of Winona Lakes, Indiana highlighted day one of the 2012 New Balance Nationals Outdoor meet by setting a meet record in the Girls Championship 5000m, stopping the clock at 16:18.21. Less than a half hour later, Jake Leingang of Bismarck, North Dakota came up just short in his own attempt at a meet record, winning the Boys Championship 5000m in 14:27.16. Erba and Leingang's 5000m races were just two of the many stellar performances recorded during day one of the three day high school competition here in North Carolina.
Coming into today's race, Erba, a junior at Warsaw Community High School, had her eyes set on achieving a personal best in the 5000m. But only briefly did she consider her chances at setting a new meet record; Ashley Brasovan's 16:18.91 mark seemed far on the horizon for Erba, who during the fall cross country season was stuck above 18:00 for 5-K.
"I wouldn't say I expected it," she said post-race. "I set my goals in tiers. First [tier is] running a good race, then I wanted to be under 16:30 or 17 minutes. Then I wanted to win, and if I was near the record, why not? But I wasn't coming in saying my goal was just to beat the meet record."
That all changed 3000m into tonight's race. With defending champion Wesley Frazier on her heels, the two passed 3000m in 9:53.
"I wanted to go out smooth and under control," detailed Erba. "But after the first mile, or mile and a half, I wanted to start moving."
From that point on, Erba extend her lead meter by meter, focusing on her form and the support her father and coach were giving from the stands.
"My dad and coach were on the back corner [of the track] and they just kept yelling out 'stay smooth, stay relaxed,'" she said. "That helped."
The Gatorade State Runner of the Year for Indiana kept picking her pace up, edging closer and closer to Brasovan's record. With 400m to go, Erba was giving it her all to get to the finish with time to spare. That she did, crossing in 16:18.21, seven-tenths of a second up on Brasovan's 2008 mark, and 25 seconds ahead of runner-up Danielle Anderson (16:43.65). Frazier wound up third in 16:51.04.
"I feel really good about how far I've come," said Erba, who was making her first appearance at a national championship meet. Traveling fifteen hours and a whopping 480 miles from home -- by car, no less -- Erba said it was well worth it.
"It feels pretty darn good," said the beaming champion. "I'm looking to be back next year."
Less than thirty minutes later, Leingang toed the starting line for the Boys' 5000m having traveled a long way from his home in Bismarck, North Dakota. After three long plane rides, the state champion in cross country began the race simply trying to earn his own national championship title.
Two miles into the race, it was clear that Leingang would win the title he seeked. But one question remained - could he break Edward Cheserek's 5000m meet record of 14:25.74, set last year?
"Towards the end, it started getting rough. I put in as much as I had left," Leingang noted. "That was the goal."
With 800m to go, Leingang had to run 2:15. As he heard the announcer list the needed split, Leingang picked it up again. With 200m remaining, the junior had just 32-seconds before the record would pass. That's when the tank ran all but empty.
Despite sprinting through the finish in full stride, Leingang missed the record by less than two seconds. His final time would be 14:27.16, the second fastest mark recorded in meet history.
"That was motivation pushing me, but I couldn't go any faster," he said, still happy with the win. When asked what it meant to come so close to Cheserek's mark, Leingang said it was an honor.
"It definitely means a lot, knowing how good he is. He gives me more motivation to be better."
Will the two meet in the future, possibly at next year's New Balance Nationals? After all, both are juniors and have a season of prep running ahead of them.
"I don't know, we'll see what happens," said Leingang.
Earlier in the day, for the first time at New Balance Nationals Outdoors, the Swedish Relay Championship was held. Rarely run in America, yet prevalent on the European circuit, the Swedish Relay consists of 100m, 200m, 300m, and 400m legs.
The boys of Smiths Station (Alabama) and girls of Columbia TC (New Jersey) came out with the victories, clocking 1:54.56 and 2:10.28, respectively.
"It feels great to be the first ones to win the event," said Columbia's Olivia Baker, who ran a 53.12 anchor leg. With 250m to go, Baker passed Western Branch of Virginia, running the final stretch in front.
"I just finished with all I had," Baker added. "It means a lot, we are all really excited. This is great." Joining Baker on the Columbia TC team was Whitney Jackson, Ambur Ballew, and Kayla Richardson.
Smiths Station, last year's 800m Sprint Medley Relay winners here, took the boys' title.
"All that hard work has been worth it," said senior Terrance Nellon. The Smiths Station quartet, made up of Brian Franklin, Tracy McKinney, Nellon, and Quincy Smith, will return to try and defend their sprint medley title on Saturday.
More than 3,300 athletes will participate in the three day meeting at North Carolina A&T State University. On Friday, twelve hours of track and field will be showcased, then on Saturday, the meet culminates with the crowning of more than thirty National Champions.
For a livestream of meet coverage, photo galleries, results, and pictures, make sure to check out New Balance Nationals Outdoors on Facebook at www.facebook.com/newbalancenationals.