Fourth-years bring XC back to NCAAs

By Kathryn Stewart

Expectations for men’s and women’s cross country were high going into the regional meet. In the end, the Maroons churned out performances that matched Saturday’s forecast.

After a fierce trial on a sodden course, the women’s squad plus two from the men’s team qualified to represent Chicago next weekend at the national meet. Fourth-years Emil Bojanov and Brian Hague ran career best performances, reserving their spots at the starting line at NCAAs in Wilmington, Ohio. In the team competition, their compatriots finished, as seeded, in ninth place.

On the women’s side, a squadron of Maroons including fourth-years Vidthya Abraham, Jackie Kropp, Dilshanie Perera, and Abby Sheldon, and second-year Rachel Venezia finished fifth overall, earning the chance to run with the best in DIII. After missing last year’s NCAA cutoff by the thinnest of margins, this year’s group of runners was intent on sending their top five to Wilmington. When the last Maroon crossed the line at Augustana, the women had garnered a success two seasons in the making.

“We went into the race expecting the women to qualify for nationals and to send Emil and Brian to NCAAs, also,” head coach Chris Hall said. “And that’s exactly what happened. We couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Perera led the women, breaking the tape in 22:12.3 for the 17th spot with Abraham on her heels coming home in 22:13.8 for 18th place. Venezia squeaked into the top 30 with a time of 22:30.6 to rank 29th and Abby Sheldon garnered the 39th position after a 22:45.8 effort. Pulling out all the stops, Kropp traversed the swamp of a course in 22:52.2 and pulled into the 42nd spot, earning the title of the day’s MVP and cementing the women’s bid to run against the top teams in the nation.

“Our top five just ran great on Saturday,” Hall said. “You could tell they really, really wanted to go back to NCAAs. If I had to choose one person who did particularly well, it would be Jackie Kropp. She really rose above and beyond.”

For the men’s team, Saturday was bittersweet. While the season ended earlier than most would have liked, two of the Maroons’ finest will go on to strut their stuff in the biggest race of the season. Hague ran not only a career-best time of 25:02.2 but scored a program best ninth-place finish. Bojanov sealed his opportunity to run at NCAAs after ranking 13th with a 25:13.3 performance. Third-year Ryan McCarl was the next Maroon to break the tape, finishing in 26:01 to rank 56th overall.

“Brian Hague had one of the best finishes at a regional during my time here,” Hall said. “He’s right up there with Tom Haxton (A.B. ’04), who was a national champion.”

Finally, although he wasn’t chasing down a chance to run at Nationals, fourth-year Greg Rizzolo was in top form, running one of his best races as a Maroon and landing in the 71st spot in 26:16.6.

“Obviously, Brian and Emil had fantastic races and qualified for nationals,” fourth-year captain Dan Dickinson said. “But Greg Rizzolo had a pretty studly race.”

Two of the men’s goals for Saturday’s meet were hampered by inclement weather the night before, which turned an otherwise easy course into a field of treacherous, muddy slop.

“Without a likely chance of qualifying for NCAAs as a team, we went in focused on trying to have everyone run personal records and career bests, but the quality of the course really made that extra difficult,” Hall said. “It had rained really hard all night the night before, and by race time it was like running through a bog.”

On top of the less-than-ideal conditions, the Maroons as usual faced stiff competition from all sides. While the team had hoped to move up from their original seed, Saturday afternoon saw the men locked into the ninth spot.

“It’s just always hard to gauge where everyone else is at. We did pull ahead of Augustana, which was a goal, but a few other teams managed to get in front of us,” Hall explained.

With the 2006 cross country season officially over, the men’s squad will enjoy a little down time before gearing up for the approaching indoor track season. Everyone is hoping to use lessons learned during the fall to bolster performances when the distance squad hits the turf in only a few weeks’ time.

“We established some nice things this season, such as excellent workout groups and very successful practices, which hopefully we can continue to build on,” Dickinson said. “However, we have to work on bringing it all together on race day and perhaps fight just a bit harder. This season should also provide us with excellent motivation for next year.”

For the women’s team, however, the party is just getting started. Only days away from the big race, the Maroons plan to stay sharp and focused during the week leading up to the national meet. With the ghost of last season’s missed opportunity in mind, this weekend’s showing will be the culmination of more than a year of relentless preparation and a shot at reclaiming a spot among the top DIII teams in the country.

“I think the women have been preparing for this since the end of the last cross country season,” Hall explained. “Vidthya, Dil, and Jackie were all part of the team that put the women’s squad at the starting line at the 2003 NCAAs. So this has been a career goal for all of them, and I think the women have the potential to do some great things on Saturday.”