NB Indoor GP: Fast finishing kicks win for veteran Pierce, fast-rising Engels

Haley Pierce wins the New Balance Boston Indoor Grand Prix girls junior mile. John Nepolitan/ESPNHS

NG Indoor GP Meet Index

Although they were competing in races that unfolded quite differently, Haley Pierce and Craig Engels both used strong final kicks to collect junior mile victories at Saturday’s New Balance Indoor Grand Prix at the Reggie Lewis Center in Boston.

For Pierce – the highly decorated Tatnall (Wilmington, Del.) senior who won the Penn Relays 3k last spring and the Great American XC Festival last fall – it was a matter of waiting patiently and hopefully in front of a strung-out group of followers until mid-race leader Cayla Hatton finally faded and she could pass her with 200 meters remaining to win with a US#2 4:48.59. On the other hand, Engels – a late-blooming, fast rising senior from Ronald Reagan (Pfafftown, N.C.) – was part of a big lead pack that produced 3-4 lead changes before his own decisive move with 300 left resulted in a US#3 4:13.70 triumph.

The miles highlighted five events that included preps during the otherwise professional USATF affair before a packed house. Neptune (Neptune, N.J.) senior 800 megastar Ajee Wilson battled the pros for the second straight week in her specialty and while she placed 6th out of six runners, she improved her US#1 to 2:07.37, just over a second off her indoor PR that also led the nation last winter.

Then the meet featured two prep relays that were packaged as regional battles between New York and New England, with five schools from each area invited to compete as a team and be scored – cross-country style – against the other. The girls 4x400 saw the Villabears TC (St. John Villa, Staten Island, N.Y.) roll to a 3:57.88 win, but the two regions of squads fight to an 18-18 tie (four squads scored). The boys 4x800, however, saw New York not only feature the winning quartet of Firebird TC (Kellenberg, Uniondale, N.Y.) in 7:55.67, but pull away to the overall team win.

Girls Mile: Pierce’s Patience

It looked like there would be at least four serious contenders for the girls title and, for quite a while, those named contenders – Pierce, Cosby (Midlothian, Va.) senior Megan Moye, Friends Academy (Locust Valley, N.Y.) senior Kelsey Margey and Ravenscroft (Raleigh, N.C.) junior Wesley Frazier – pushed lap after lap in single file. However, another girl who few knew about coming in – the aforementioned Hatton – was 30-40 meters ahead of them, first pushing, then hanging on.

That scenario evolved because no one wanted to really take charge during a very pedestrian first lap (38+ seconds) and Hatton, a Phillips Academy Andover (Andover, Mass) senior, decided she wanted none of that. “I was really surprised it went out that slow,” she said. “I wanted to get out of the pack and run my race.”

Hatton, whose her 1500 PR is 4:38, shot out from the group over the next circuit, hitting just over 34 seconds for a 72 first quarter split. She gained three seconds on Pierce and the rest and there was no turning back after that. “I probably overcompensated a little bit,” she admitted.

The move was dramatic enough and, not knowing Hatton, the other contenders settled for a steady push that would maintain a reasonable distance and inch back toward the surprise leader. “I knew we started out slow and needed to pick it up,” said Pierce. “I thought she would come back and I was able to stay confident.”

Hatton passed halfway at 2:23, with an even faster 400, and slowing a tad through three-quarters at 3:37. It still wasn’t clear she was catchable, but finally with 300 to go she really started having to go to her arms and her form began to tighten. Pierce picked up momentum and – having pulled away somewhat from Moye, Margey and Frazier – passed Hatton just before the bell. Her last 200 meters was 33.35. Hatton would have enough left to hold on to second in 4:51.37, while Frazier’s trademark kick (33.14) enabled her to snare Moye and Margey before the tape for 3rd in 4:52.18.

It was a fine win for Pierce, even if not quite the resounding stunner her Penn Relays 3k triumph was last April. But what his concerning the Georgetown signee the most is getting and staying healthy for national championships and other big races ahead. “The last few weeks have been the best I’ve felt since this started,” Pierce said, referring to a nagging foot injury she’s been battling since last summer. “The doctor I have now has really helped.” She had taken a couple of weeks off after leading Tatnall to 3rd at NXN in December with her individual runner-up finish (“more of a mental break than anything”), but was still was experiencing some pain until taking a new direction.

Pierce seems at least as interested in helping her squad to relay victories as any individual glory. “We really want it now,” she said with determination upon being reminded of last spring at NBON, when her struggles helped prevent Tatnall from going after a title in the 4x1 Mile. If she stays healthy, an opportunity for such a feat is just five weeks away at NBIN.

Boys Mile: Engels Arrives

Among a field of milers light on championship or major invitational experience, it took someone zeroed in on and confident in a winning strategy. In the junior boys mile Saturday, Craig Engels was that guy.

Though the pace was reasonable enough – 65-2:09 for the first half - the field was toiling along, rudderless, until the sixth lap. Then 2011 junior mile runner-up Chaminade (Mineola, N.Y.) senior Thomas Awad – the only runner in the field who had really raced at this level before – made his bid. “I wanted to make one big move,” he would say afterward. “It worked at Stanner.”

Indeed, Awad had run 4:15.67 at Stanner, which was the best coming in of the field. The contenders and pretenders began to separate, with Piscataway (Piscataway, N.J.) senior Tim Ball, Cary Academy (Raleigh, N.C.) senior Thomas Graham, and Engels giving serious chase. Marshfield (Marshfield, Mass.) senior Joel Hubbard, with a recent 4:13 DMR 1600 leg to his name and who fronted the field early with Ball, faded back.

Awad kept pushing and towed the chase trio past the three-quarter mark in 3:12. But halfway through the penultimate lap, Engels struck. The other contenders lifted and began to sprint, too, but no one could match Engels’ 29.99 7th lap. Awad didn’t have another gear and neither did the others as the Ronald Reagan senior maintained on the last circuit. The one who was able to do something was Hubbard, who was able to dig down and rally from 6th to 2nd, closing in 29.28. Awad was also passed by Graham and Ball dropped to 6th.

So it was Engels 4:13.70, Hubbard 4:14.35, Graham 4:14.75, Awad 4:14.85, Hubbard’s teammate Kevin Thomas 4:15.15, and Ball 4:15.34.

Said Awad afterward, “I kept pushing (after his big move with 600 left), but Craig made a big counter-move.”

Engels, meanwhile, had the look of someone dazzled by what he may have imagined to be a far-fetched plan having come true. Not that Engels didn’t have a great chance to win, but until you do it the first time on the big stage, you don’t necessarily know it’s possible. “I didn’t expect to run this fast,” he said. “The pace felt fairly hard, but I love kicking.

Engels said a 2:32 1k as part of a season-opening double, which was “not all out,” gave him a lot of confidence. After that, it was following the plan. “Coach (Chris Catton) told me to get in position with 600 to go and make my move during the lap after that. That’s what I did … It was all Coach Catton.”

While Engels is now in the elite group with a great chance to win an indoor championship, he’s most concerned with races closer to home. “I want to try and break the state 1600 record and help our team win state.”