Cross-country teams race at nationally competitive meets

by Lauren Brown | 10/16/17 2:15am

Given how taxing each race can be, the men’s and women’s cross-country teams will compete in three or four important races each season. This past weekend, the men’s and women’s teams raced their first important meets of the season, getting a feel for how they stack up against other teams in the Ivy League, the northeast region and the nation.

The women’s team went to the smallest of three major meets this weekend, Pennsylvania State University’s Penn State National Open hosted at State College, Pennsylvania. The team placed third with 122 points, beating every Ivy League team and a few teams that are ranked in the top 30 in the nation. Meanwhile, the men’s team competed at the Pre-National Invitational at E.P. “Tom” Sawyer State Park in Louisville, Kentucky against a field of almost 300 runners, and placed 38th out of 41 teams with 910 points.

In cross country, the first five runners score. The teams that perform well, such as Brigham Young University, which won the Pre-National Invitational by placing all five in the top-15, will have at least five comparable runners have a solid showing at a race. Coaches typically enter at least seven runners, with the order of the top seven being relatively consistent from meet to meet. But the women’s team has a strong pack of girls at the top, so it took nine runners.

“We don’t have a set lineup,” co-captain Olivia Lantz ’19 said. “There is no set girl who always comes in first. Everything is jostled, and everyone knows that they have a responsibility to run as fast as they can.”

Lantz was the first finisher in Friday’s 6-kilometer race, finishing 13th in 20:44. Leigh Moffett ’18 finished a mere second behind in 20:45. There was just a 21-second gap before the third finisher, Julia Stevenson ’20, crossed the line, with two first-years, Ella Ketchum ’21 and Glendora Murphy ’21, in hot pursuit to round out the scoring field. Even the ninth finisher was only about a minute behind the first.

“That top group has been really close during the workouts,” women’s head coach Courtney Jaworski said. “It helps them to build confidence in what they’re doing in a race and gives them context clues, knowing what your teammate is doing and being able to assess what you’re doing off of their performance.”

Not only does this dynamic field make for some exciting races, but it provides stability to the team when someone has a rough day. Co-captain Bridget O’Neill ’18 said she was disappointed in her finish on Friday, but the other girls had her back.

“They stepped up and did what they needed to do,” O’Neill said.

Both teams are looking ahead to the Ivy League Heptagonal Championships, widely known as Heps. While other races feature up to 40 teams, Heps is the smallest race of the season.

“There’s eight schools,” men’s head coach Barry Harwick said. “You’re allowed to run 12 [runners], so there’s less than 100 people on the starting line ... In this particular race, you’ll know exactly where you can be, and I think that’ll work well in our advantage.”

Because Heps include just the Ivy League teams, it’s a high-competition race with a familiar feel not present in high-volume races such as the Penn State National Open and Pre-National Invitational.

“It’s the best time of the year,” O’Neill said. “You know all the competitors when you get on the line, you know the girls’ names, you’re used to racing them, so it’s a very personal race.”

With the diversity of performances coming out of the Ivy League on the men’s side in the past few weeks, the Heps will come down to which teams get everything together on race day.

“This year’s Heps is probably the most wide-open it’s been in several years,” Harwick said. “There’s certain things you can simulate in practice that can get you ready for a competition, but at the end of the day, you have to get on the starting line.”

Pre-Nationals may not have gone as planned, but the men have another race under their belts. The experience of a high-pressure race can help them prepare mentally for the competition.

“My job as a coach is to boost the guys’ mental confidence as much as possible going into the race,” Harwick said. “Physically they’ve demonstrated to me in practices that they’re in very good shape, they just haven’t done it on race day yet.”

On the women’s side, the outcome of the race is similarly up in the air, but with strong performances throughout this season they’re hopeful for a great showing against the other Ivy League schools despite the tough competition.

“Our league is one of the best distance leagues in the country, so I expect to see pretty close scores,” Jaworski said.

In terms of strategy on the women’s side, consistency is key for maintaining steady improvement through Heps and beyond.

“We’ll focus on groups, staying together and trusting their strength,” Jaworski said. “They’ve been doing really well, and if they continue doing what they’re doing, we’ll have some awesome results.”

After Heps, the teams will need to refocus and prepare for the NCAA Regional meet. The top two finishing teams will automatically qualify for Nationals. The women placed ahead of Oklahoma State University and West Virginia University this weekend, two teams ranked in the top 30 in the nation. But the team is just staying focused and taking it one race at a time.

“Nationals would be a bonus,” Lantz said. “But that’s not what our eyes are set on right now.”