When Catalina Foothills’ Harvey Nelson finally reached the dirt section at the winding Marana High School cross country course, the senior said he felt himself pulling away from the rest of the pack.

“I was like, ‘I got this, I’m feeling good,’ ” he said, “and I kept pulling further and further away.”

Nelson’s confidence didn’t betray him as he held the lead from there on out to capture a first-place finish in 15 minutes 3.0 seconds at the 12th annual Valerie McGregor Rattler Invitational on Saturday morning, setting a career-best time in the 3.0-mile race.

“It’s definitely exciting going (toward the finish) and seeing there’s not really anyone around you, and you just push through that end there,” Nelson said. “It’s really thrilling. You just feel on top of the world.”

Nelson edged Phoenix Arizona Lutheran’s Josh Hoskinson (15:09.9) and Ironwood Ridge’s Jordan Hellebuyck (15:13.9) in the varsity boys race. Nelson, who finished third in the Division II state meet last year, also broke the career-best mark he set a week earlier at the Twilight Invitational, though he said the faster Rattle course makes the times fairly equal.

“He’s a workout warrior,” Foothills co-boys coach Michael Smith said. “He loves going out and putting in the mileage at a fast pace. Whatever we ask him to do, he does it.”

Despite Nelson’s victory, the Falcons (107 points) finished third as a team behind Rio Rico (72 points) and Ironwood Ridge (81).

While the experienced senior won it for the boys, Rio Rico freshman Alexandra Schadler (17:58.70) took first in the varsity girls race.

“She’s got great instincts, and that’s the part that you really can’t coach,” said Rio Rico coach Stephen Schadler, Alexandra’s father. “The competitive instinct, the competitive fire and just a sense of where she is in the field.”

Alexandra already has several wins this year and has changed her preseason goal from medaling in state to winning it. A top finish at the Rattler Invitational, which is hosted by Mountain View and featured 358 runners, is a good first step for Schadler because it’s the same course her sectional meet will be run on Nov. 2.

“I think I’m pretty prepared for sectionals, and I have confidence now that I can (win) it,” she said.

The Rio Rico girls finished second as a team ahead of I-Ridge with 94 points. Foothills scored 53 to win.

Foothills was the combined team champ (160), just ahead of Rio Rico (166).

The Falcons were second as a team in last year’s Division II state meet, and coach Eric Grossman said the win was a result of a more consistent and steady approach by the team.

Junior Hannah Whetzel (18:29.2) was the top placer for the Falcons, finishing just behind Sierra Vista Buena’s Morgan Woodman (18:27.3) for third.

“Today was a day they chose to do it on their own,” Grossman said. “I’m very, very proud of how each and every one of the girls ran today.”