By Matt Williams
---- — Catarina Rocha didn’t have to use her kick at all this fall, winning race after race well ahead of her competition.
That kick, a distance runner’s best friend, was there when she needed it most.
Rocha turned on the after-burners Saturday at the 34th Foot Locker Cross Country Championships, overcoming two runners in the final 300 meters to finish second in girls national finals held at Balboa Park in San Diego, Calif.
The pride of Peabody cleared the 5K course in 17:29 and her second place medal stand spot is the best ever Foot Locker showing for a girl from Massachusetts.
“It’s exciting. I felt like I ran my best and left it all out there,” Rocha said from San Diego Saturday afternoon.
The tail end of the course features a steep hill, the second incline of the race. Rocha was running fifth coming off the hill and figured she began sprinting around the 3-mile mark.
Though winner Anna Rohrer from Indiana (17:25) was out of reach, Rocha chased down Maria Hauger and Jordyn Colter in a breathtaking finish seen by close to 4,500 people watching a live Webcast put out by Foot Locker.
“I was a little surprised,” said Rocha. “I didn’t think I was going to be able to catch them so that was really exciting. I didn’t expect to be second.”
By finishing second, Rocha earned first-team All-American honors. It was her second straight All-America nod following last year’s seventh place effort.
Almost immediately after the exciting finish, Rocha began receiving congratulations and well-wishes via text message and social media from the Tanner City. Members of the Peabody track team gathered together in the school’s library to watch the race.
“They all supported me throughout this whole thing and I’m so happy to be able to represent them here,” Rocha said. “I couldn’t have done it without everyone’s help.”
The Peabody High senior and 5-time Massachusetts all-state champion was one of the most experienced runners in the Foot Locker field, having qualified in all three of her cross country seasons. The race features 40 runners, the top ten from each of four regional races. Rocha won the Northeast Regional two weeks ago.
What was the most memorable part of the three year Foot Locker odyssey, that includes several days in San Diego, meeting accomplished US national runners and all kinds of running gear?
“Everything here is awesome. The places, the people you meet, making friends with girls from other regions,” said Rocha. “It’s cool to see some people year after year, and maybe if you keep running in college, you’ll see them along the way again.”
Rocha’s plaque from the Foot Locker folks had a special touch this year, including the names of her parents, Joe and Gina, and the years they competed in the national championships. Joe Rocha, the Peabody cross country coach, ran for New Bedford in 1982 and mom Gina was 21st in 1984.
“It’s awesome to have them here to support me. I know they’re there for me no matter what place I come in,” Rocha said in the winner’s circle after the race.
Girls from Massachusetts have finished in the top-10 at Foot Locker nationals just nine times. Three of those instances came out of Peabody High with Rocha in 2011 and 2012 and Leslie Welch running 8th at the first race in 1979.
Rocha and Lexington alum Natasha Roetter are the only Bay State girls to top-10 at Foot Locker twice.
Saturday’s national final, which began at 9:15 pacific time, saw Marissa Williams cut out ahead of the pack with a fast pace to start. Rocha, wearing a black Northeast jersey, stuck with a pack of Midwest runners as the leaders finished the first mile in 5:18.
“I’m glad it happened like that,” said Rocha. “I was a little hesitant at first but I knew I wanted to be with that pack. That was the plan, stick in the top 10 and see how I feel.”
Rohrer recovered from an early fall and joined the pack of six as Williams fell back. The group worked together, finished two miles around 11:10 as Rohrer took control. Rocha stuck with the pack, opting to make her push on the second hill.
“We did a lot of hill work this summer and I wanted to use the hill to my advantage,” said Rocha. “I felt really good after that. Off the hill there’s a little ways before the finish and I really started going with about 200 to go.”
Rocha was in fourth coming off the hill as the leaders hit the 3-mile mark at 16:47. She drew on increased strength and confidence to make an inspiring push on the last straightaway, leaving everything she had on the course.
“I’m pretty tired,” admitted Rocha, who celebrates her 18th birthday today.
One of Foot Locker’s Webcast analysts marveled at Rocha’s finish, saying that the type of kid that can kick like she did after such a steep hill is the gutsy kid you want on your team when the chips are down.
Exactly the type of kid that Peabody is thrilled to have on theirs.