Catarina Rocha is going out on top.
The Peabody senior bested a field of top scholastic runners Saturday, finishing the 5,000-meter course at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx in 17 minutes 49.5 seconds to claim the Northeast Regional title in the Foot Locker Cross-Country Championship. Rocha qualified for the national finals, to be held in San Diego Dec. 8.
“I didn’t think I was going to win,” Rocha said via phone. “I just wanted to qualify [for nationals]. That was the plan going in.”
Rocha may have deviated from that plan by winning, but she certainly stayed the course when it came to the race strategy laid out by her and her coach, Joe Rocha, who is also her father.
Both Rochas said Catarina planned to stay toward the back of the front pack — it helped her contend with the windy first mile, Joe said — and keep close until the 2-mile mark, at which point Catarina would gauge how she felt and decide whether to make a move.
“I felt really good, so I started to pick it up a little,” said Catarina, who last week won her second Division 1 state title.
From there, Rocha cruised to the finish, beating second-place Megan Curham of Warren, N.J., by 19 seconds.
“She wasn’t one of the favorites, but she was there to compete,” Joe Rocha said. “She’s peaking at the right time.”
Father and daughter will look for her to continue to do just that for the national championship race in two weeks. The top finishers in each of the four regionals qualify for the nationals.
The trip to San Diego will be nothing new for the Rochas. Catarina has competed in the event the last two years, placing 31st as a sophomore before jumping to seventh last year.
She’s looking to use that experience to her advantage for her final high school cross-country race, completing a career that began a year late after she played soccer as a freshman.
“I know the [San Diego] course, I know some of the girls going,” Catarina said. “So hopefully that’ll help. Hopefully I can place [in the top 10] again, and if I place higher, that’s great.”
Finishing in the girls’ top 25 were Bedford sophomore Erin Dietz (18th, 19:06.1), Acton-Boxboro senior Christine Davis (19th, 19:06.3), and Tyngsboro sophomore Kerri Keohane (25th, 19:19.8).
On the boys’ side, St. John’s (Shrewsbury) senior Jonathan Green finished second in 15:36.8, 15 seconds behind Edward Cheserek of St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark, who won his second consecutive Northeast Regional. Cheserek is also the reigning national champion.
Green, a two-time Division 2 state champ, will also be going to San Diego, where he will run in the finals for the second year in a row. He finished 22d in 2011.
Methuen senior Mike O’Donnell placed 11th in 15:54.8, missing the top-10 nationals cutoff by less than four seconds.
Westfield senior Tim Dostie was 18th in 16:09.8 and Burlington’s Paul Hogan finished 24th (16:20.0), seventh among juniors.