Women's cross country secures automatic bid to Nationals

by Lauren Brown | 11/13/17 2:15am

crosscountry_courtesy
Source: Courtesy of Julia Stevenson

Women’s cross country is headed to Kentucky. The women continued their consistent season with a second-place team finish in the 6-kilometer race, automatically qualifying for the NCAA National Championship to be held on Nov. 18 at Tom Sawyer Park in Louisville, Kentucky. The men emerged from the muddy, windy 10-kilometer course in 13th out of 37 teams in their last race of the fall season.

The race, run at Audubon Golf Course in Buffalo, New York, was held in 20-degree weather, but 25-mile-per-hour winds made for a cold day of racing.

“It would be so lovely to run on in late September,” Julia Stevenson ’20 said. “But Buffalo in November was a little uglier than I thought.”

As has been consistent for the women all season, there wasn’t a large disparity between top five runners. Stevenson was first on the team with a ninth-place finish, completing the course in 22:04.6. Co-captain Olivia Lantz ’19 was 13 seconds behind in 22:17.7. The Big Green’s next three all finished within six seconds of each other: Ella Ketchum ’21 finished in 28th (22:32.2), Glendora Murphy ’21 was 31st (22:35.0) and Leigh Moffett ’18 rounded out the top five in 34th (22:38.1).

The tough conditions made it difficult to set personal bests. The Dartmouth runners, along with a number of others at the meet, sported long spandex, gloves and headbands. Some competitors even applied Vaseline to their legs to help trap the warmth — a practice some members of the Big Green also considered. But despite their best efforts, all runners had a rough time dealing with the course.

“People were falling all over the place,” Ketchum said. “I felt like I was twisting my ankles left and right.”

Co-captain Bridget O’Neill ’18 was one of the victims, falling mid-race. Moffett got frostbite in a few toes.

“It was definitely the worst conditions I’ve ever raced in,” co-captain Patrick Gregory ’18 said. “[We] just tried to be tough because that’s the only thing you can do — it’s not really racing, it’s surviving.”

Lantz said she found some of the difficult racing conditions helpful — the overwhelming distraction of slogging through thick mud and icy winds kept her from dwelling too much on pressure-inducing details of the race.

The conditions worsened for the men’s race.

“Luckily for the women, they were first ­— the men raced second, so the course for [the women] at least was a bit frozen,” women’s head coach Courtney Jaworski said.

Gregory was the first finisher for the Big Green in his final collegiate cross country race. Gregory placed 36th, completing the 10-K course in 32:58.8. Marco Pompilj ’19 was just behind in 41st (33:05.2). Juniors Sander Kushen ’19 (33:52.2) and Ben Szuhaj ’19 (34:17.9) were 86th and 108th, respectively. Will Shafer ’18 rounded out the top-five in 119th in 34:25.4.

Fortunately, place is far more important than time when it comes to qualifying for Nationals, and all teams face the same conditions. The top two teams in each region automatically qualify for the race, making up 18 of the 31 teams. The remaining 13 teams qualify at-large, in which coaches across the nation take into account comparative race performance against other top teams in the country. Fortunately, the women’s team snagged the ideal runner-up finish, ahead of Syracuse University and Columbia University, which edged them for first place at the Ivy League championships by seven points.

The Big Green’s tight spread between all seven runners has been a key part of its success all season.

“If [the race] was scored one through seven instead of one through five, we would’ve won it,” Stevenson said. “[Winning team] Providence [College] has a really strong top five, but they trail off after that.”

Although only the top five runners score in cross country, the sixth and seventh runners are important because they can displace other teams’ scoring runners, Stevenson said. The women edged third-place Syracuse University by only two points, thanks to sixth and seventh runners O’Neill and Lillian Anderson ’19. Had they not finished in front of Syracuse’s fifth runner, the Big Green might have been edged out of second place.

In a mentally and physically exhausting race like Regionals, the team’s closeness was more important than ever.

“When [O’Neill] fell, there was another teammate behind her and she was like, ‘Get up, Bridget, you can do it!’” Lantz said. “That camaraderie and support we have for each other was really key.”

Ketchum also mentioned that seeing Murphy late in the race helped energize her.

“This race was the hardest, mentally, for me, and I was really [starting to] give into the poor conditions,” Ketchum said. “[Murphy] encouraged me and that was when I decided to pick it up and run with her — run with my teammate.”

Stevenson and Ketchum also worked together late in the race. The two often finish close together during races, and as Stevenson moved up to pass Ketchum during the race, Stevenson reached out her hand and said, “Let’s go, let’s go,” something Ketchum described as “simply awesome.”

“It made me feel so supported,” Ketchum says. “It just gives you that extra motivation in the race.”

Thanks to shrewd training and support for each another, the team will compete against the best schools in the country in Kentucky. The last time the Big Green qualified for Nationals as a full team was in the 2014. But that year, the Big Green earned an at-large bid.

“Learning that we’d made it to Nationals after finishing was definitely one of my favorite moments of the day,” Moffett said. “All of the hard work that we’ve put in since June finally paid off.”

Nationals is another opportunity to prove its toughness and compete against the best in the country, but the team seems focused on performing and savoring the experience.

“We’re going to go, we’re going to have a good time, be tough and do what we can do,” Ketchum said. “We’re going to take it seriously, but we’re going to make sure we enjoy the experience. This is definitely a special event.”