In a season of ups and downs, any day could be the day that the team finally comes through. Men’s and women’s cross country are hoping that their day to pull it all together comes this Saturday, when both teams vie for conference honors at the UAA Championships on Boston’s famed Franklin Park course.
If Chicago’s runners do hit their stride in this meet, it will be against some of the nation’s very best squads. In the men’s half, second-ranked NYU, 17th-ranked Carnegie Mellon, 25th-ranked Case, and 32nd-ranked Wash U are all national powers. It doesn’t get much easier on the women’s side, with Wash U ranked third in the nation, Case eighth, and Emory 28th.
“Our conference is really tough. It may be the best conference in the country, top to bottom,” head coach Chris Hall said.
The Maroon runners are no strangers to tough competition, having raced against teams ranked in the D-II and D-III polls, as well as against teams like Iowa and Purdue that compete in DI. Unfortunately, Chicago has struggled to keep pace with ranked schools, a fact that does not bode well for this weekend’s races.
Most of the squads’ missteps this fall can be chalked up to their youth, something that they’ll have to deal with again at the UAA Championships. Each team will bring eight runners to the meet; two first-years will be making the trip for the women, and five for the men.
Throughout the first part of the season, Chicago’s teams have worked to address their relative inexperience, as the runners, especially on the men’s side, have gotten acclimated to college competition.
“This has been a year where we’ve been going through a lot of learning,” Hall said. “We’ve used the first several meets of the season to adjust to college training and how to get in scoring position.”
As the year has progressed, several runners on both teams have proven to be consistent threats to finish at the front of the pack. For the men, fourth-year Ryan McCarl has finished first among the Chicago runners in each of his races this season. Beyond McCarl, third-year Chris Peverada and first-year Arthur Baptist have had strong seasons, and both have a shot at garnering all-conference honors, which will be given out to the top 14 runners Saturday.
For the women, first-year Liz Lawton and fourth-year Hannah Moots are both primed for strong showings. Lawton, in particular, has performed well recently, crossing the finish line first among the Maroons, and seventh overall, at the Wisconsin-Parkside Invitational October 13.
On the whole, though, Chicago has struggled to perform up to its potential and has had trouble placing five runners high enough to succeed as a team.
“We’ve been a bit disappointed that we haven’t put it all together on one day,” Hall said.
Amid these difficulties, it is hard to say if it will be the Maroons’ talent or inconsistency that will shine through on Saturday.
“Our guys can finish as high as third or as low as seventh,” Hall said. “You can go from the penthouse to the outhouse just by opening the wrong door.”
The outlook for the women’s team Saturday is similarly mixed. Although there are a couple strong teams that appear certain to take first and second, a solid performance from five runners could slip the Maroons into the top three.
“Washington and Case have extraordinarily good teams, some of the best in the nation,” Hall said. “But there are some teams after them that aren’t as strong.”
Even though talent may drop off toward the bottom of the conference and spots are up for grabs, the importance of the UAA Championships is sure to have the Maroons’ competitors ready to race.
“The season so far has prepared us well, but all the teams here are in championship mode. People aren’t happy with less than their best,” Hall said.
No matter how ready the Maroons are for Saturday’s big race, the reality is that in such a packed conference, gold, silver, and bronze are hard to come by. Even last year, when the women put three runners on the All-UAA team and the men added two more, the teams only finished third and fifth, respectively.
“Fourth place would be a very good day in men’s and women’s,” Hall concluded on Chicago’s chances.
While the Franklin Park course should not provide many surprises, rain is expected in Boston this weekend, which could make for some sloppy terrain.
After the races, the Maroons will begin preparing for the Midwest Regional on November 10 in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Chicago’s performance in Boston and Oshkosh will determine whether or not the teams receive at-large bids to the D-III Championships.
Even with their post-season hopes potentially riding on Saturday’s meet, for now, the team is focused only on the task at hand.
“We take our conference very seriously,” said Hall. “This is our team championship.”