Arguably one of the biggest events on the winter calendar, we’re back at Bundoora for the combined Victorian All Schools Cross-Country Championships and Round 4 of the XCR’17 competition. What makes this day even bigger is the fact it’s selection trials for the Australian Cross-Country Championships.

Junior athletes from Under-14 all the way up to Under-20 will be competing over 3km, 4km, 6km and 8km whilst representing their schools, with Open athletes competing over 10km for their respective clubs.

This year School Sport Australia have decided to host their own Cross-Country Championships, which means junior athletes (who are nominated) will have the choice to compete down in Tasmania or up in Wollongong for the traditional Australian Cross-Country Championships. However, given the time between both events, athletes may decide to compete at both!

Bundoora and good performances are synonymous with each other, as over the past couple of years junior athletes have made a name for themselves, before going onto bigger and better things in their cross-country careers.

Historically it’s been the bigger APS schools who have performed well collectively throughout the day, however it hasn’t necessarily been the case when it comes to individual performances, with the likes of Abbey Caldwell (Doncaster) backing up a 2015 victory with a silver medal last year! No doubt she’ll be out for redemption when taking on the in-form Sophie O’Sullivan (Wesley) who has just about won everything this year and happens to be the defending Victorian All School Cross-Country Champion. They’ll both be lining up in the Women’s Under-17/18 division along with Sophie McMinimee (Bacchus Marsh), who’s featured in the top five over the last two years.

Competing for their schools for the last time in the Women’s Under-20 division will be the likes of Amelia Mazza-Downie (Maribyrnong & Athletics Essendon), Heidi Demeo (Sacred Heart) and Maddison Caulfield (Lowther Hall). All three have had exceptional junior careers, with Amelia having represented Australia at the World Cross-Country Championships, and claiming two XCR’17 gold medals this year at Wandin Park and Cruden Farm. Shania Murray (Diamond Valley) may not be representing a school, but has been dominant force this year, having secured a bronze medal at Wandin Park and a silver medal (behind Amelia) at Cruden Farm. Maxine Paholek (South Melbourne Athletics Club) has been a revelation for her new club this year, starting off the individual season well with a silver medal at Wandin Park. Maxine missed Cruden Farm, but will no doubt be looking for a strong return when she lines up against a stacked Women’s Under-20 field.

Ryhan Thomas (Wesley) will be looking at going back-to-back in the Men’s under-20 division, having taken out the Victorian All Schools Championships last year ahead of Haftu Strinzos (Haileybury). Both are feature athletes amongst their respective teams and have had solid seasons with some quality times being posted. William Ockenden was in the same field as Ryhan and Haftu last year and placed 4th representing his school McKinnon in the Under-18 division. This year he’ll don the Glenhuntly colours and look to improve on a 7th place (Wandin) and 12th place (Cruden) already achieved in the XCR’17 season. Archie Wallis (Scotch) is known for his 800m prowess, but finds himself always in contention at the longer distances. Was at his best at Albert Park and clearly prefers the shorter distance events. Consistency and Nick Fidler (Melbourne Grammar) go hand-in-hand. Nick took out the Victorian All Schools Cross-Country Championships last year in the Under-16 division and came second the year before. He has shown solid form in both cross-country relay events this year, clocking the fastest times for his team. Will be looking for back-to-back victories this Saturday when he steps up into the Under-17/18 division.

There’s no denying individual performances announce an athlete onto the cross-country stage, however, it’s the experiences and opportunities schools allow for their students to have which is what the Victorian All School Cross Country Championships is all about. This year (after becoming involved with the Jells Park Relays) John Paul College will be making their debut at Bundoora. Brendan Newcomb is the Head of Sport at John Paul and decided he wanted to “offer an extension above and beyond what our school running events the opportunity to represent our school at an Athletics Victoria meet.” As it’s not compulsory to become involved with weekend sport at John Paul, events such as this are the perfect opportunity for his students to experience what it’s like to compete at a high level. When asked about their cross-country program, Brendan described it as a rebuilding stage. “We started a running club last year and the response from students has been fantastic. I am trying to improve out school’s overall sporting culture and I have chosen to do this through running. We have some amazing talented students when it comes to your common sports like footy, soccer, basketball and netball – however, when I ask them to run cross-country for the school the common response is ‘Nah, I can’t run long distance’ even though by improving their overall aerobic base/running fitness, their performances in their sport of choice would also improve.” For Brendan, trying to convince his students it’s a win/win is the real challenge. However, as John Paul have entered a total of 22 athletes this year, it would appear they’re heading in the right direction. “We started a running club in October last year, which is the first time it has been done since I have been at the school. We train once a week and students are given running programs which they are expected to complete each week.” A slight contrast to the bigger APS schools, however, Brendan says the “atmosphere has been fantastic” when it comes to training once a week. It’s always hard to compete with other winter sports, and at John Paul it’s no different. “It’s a battle against your traditional sports. However, it’s starting to change through the introduction of the running club, and by offering other opportunities to run and compete in events throughout the year such as the AV Cross-country series.” As this is the first year John Paul have competed at the Victorian All Schools Cross Country Championships, it’s all about progression and exposure for their students. “I want to give our athletes the opportunity to run, feel empowered and gain a sense of accomplishment by showing them that nothing comes easy and if you are willing to put in the hard work your results will improve – which I can then hope to relate to them and their academic progress.” It’s not about medals for Brendan (at this stage), but more so seeing the “look of accomplishment after a student has done a race knowing they have done the best they could have”. Seeing each of his students determined and nervous before a race shows Brendan that they are ready to give it all they’ve got. As the students from John Paul have never been involved with Bundoora before, everything will be a first for them. “What I am looking most forward to seeing is the level the top student runners in our state operate at. I can then use this with our running group as a marker for our students. I am hoping this will motivate our core squad of runners to train consistently to improve their result next time they are the starting line.” Being new to the game doesn’t mean they won’t have any rivals there. “We participate in the SIS (Southern Independent Schools) sporting association and I think with most school sports associations there would be some friendly rivalry that already exists between schools.” Win or lose, John Paul College aren’t concerned one bit. “It’s all about the experience for the students and seeing what it takes to be the best age group runner in the state!”

It’s a different ball game for the Open athletes who’ll be battling it out for their clubs whilst attempting to make the State Team for the Australian Cross-Country Championships. There is no denying the competition this year has been red hot with a couple of breakthrough performances from the new guard, and of course familiar XCR faces being extremely consistent.

Anna Kelly (South Melbourne) took our her first XCR event this year at Wandin Park in emphatic fashion, beating the likes of Virginia Moloney (Collinwood), Alexandra Paterson (Old Xaverians) and Karina Fyfe (Glenhuntly). Anna then went close to making it two from two starts at Cruden Farm, but just fell short to a very determined Virginia who ran a very solid and tactical race in what was trying conditions with the wind playing havoc around the course. Karina’s consistent start to the year (two third place finishes) puts her in a really good position to take it up to Anna and Virginia this Saturday, with the distance of 10km playing into her hands. No doubt Alexandra will be in the mix after finishing second at Wandin and fourth at Cruden. Defending Bundoora champion Tarli Bird was a notable absentee at Wandin this year, but made her first XCR’17 appearance at Cruden Farm and finished a very respectable fifth place. Gemma Maini hasn’t been spotted in her Frankston colours since Jells Park, and even though she hasn’t claimed an XCR’17 yet, Gemma was able to take out the Great Train Race earlier on in the season. If her body is right, Gemma will be a genuine chance after finishing third at this event last year. It’s one of the most anticipated races of the year with all six women looking to make the Victorian team for the Australian Cross-Country Championships.

Dejen Gebreselassi (Mentone) has had a breakthrough season, finishing third at Wandin and having his first ever XCR win at Cruden Farm. Dejen’s choice to compete in Tasmania this weekend really opens the door for the likes of William Potter (Box Hill), Harry Smithers (Geelong), Matthew Johnsen (Doncaster) and Thomas Hynes (Ballarat) to take it up to Andrew Buchanan (Bendigo) who is the defending Bundoora champion. Andrew has already had a first place victory this year at Wandin Park (ahead of veteran Nick Earl) and will be looking to make it two victories, after missing Cruden Farm. Will be the one to beat. Veteran Stephen Dineen (Box Hill) will no doubt be amongst the top ten finishers, after coming in sixth place last year. With the likes of Liam Adams (Essendon), Nick Earl (MUAC), Mitchel Brown (Essendon) and Isaac Hockey (MUAC) not lining up at Bundoora, it’s the new guard who’ll be looking to get themselves selected for the Victorian team competing at the Australian Cross-Country Championships.

It’s going to be an epic day of competition and we can’t wait to see how the junior (Schools) and Opens go about their business!

Weather forecast:

Saturday is looking mostly sunny with a maximum temperature of 14 degrees and a minimum of 4 degrees. Which basically means it’s going to be frosty in the morning so definitely bring a jacket and beanie. There’s only a 20% chance of rain, so leave the umbrella at home and chance it. The frost risk is ‘slight’ so again nothing to really worry about there. The wind speed is about 1km/h in a northerly direction, so again if you’re down the coast, make sure you get (wet)suited up and try and get some barrels – Cathedrals will be firing on the right tide. The relative humidity is at 100%, but as I don’t know in the slightest what that means, just ignore it. All in all it’s going to be a devine day!