Men’s cross country ninth, Winter 26th at NCAAs; Top-10 standing marks best showing in program history for men

By Kathryn Stewart

For years to come, Chicago cross country will fondly recall the events of Saturday, November 19. It was a historic day for the men, who achieved the unanticipated, and a satisfying end of the year for the women, whose captain did just as well as expected.

Delaware, Ohio was good to the men as they placed ninth overall at the Division III national championships, the first time any Chicago men’s cross-country team has broken into the nation’s top 10. Fourth-years Teage O’Connor (26:50.2) and Pat Hogan (26:51.4) and third-year Emil Bojanov (27:06.3) established the Maroons’ presence in the top 100, crossing the line 56th, 59th, and 85th. Second-year Ryan McCarl contributed a 121st place finish (27:27.7) as third-year Brian Hague (27:37.7) followed him home only ten seconds later to take the 141st spot. Third-year Dan Raleigh (196/28:29.5) and first-year Jon Ascolese (165/27:56.6) finally sent the Maroons (304) barreling past the 10th-place College of New Jersey (311) and lifting the squad to a mere point behind the eighth-standing UAA champion Carnegie Mellon (303). Fourth-year Jessica Winter fulfilled everyone’s predictions, placing 26th in 21:52.7 to achieve her season and career-long goal of taking All-American honors with a top-35 placing.

While Winter’s individual victory came as no surprise to fans and fellow athletes, the men enjoyed an exhilarating improvement over last year’s lukewarm performance. Although a program best, last fall’s 16th-place NCAA meet finish was a disappointing end to a season that could have closed with a top-10 ranking. Instead, undisciplined running, nerves, and a lack of previous experience kept the men above the 10th spot. The men intended to better their 2004 mark, but experience caused them to fear that the top 10 might be out of reach.

“We feel great about that finish,” head coach Chris Hall said. “We went into the weekend with a goal of placing in the top 10 and felt it was attainable but going to be very difficult.”

The men toed the starting line with their past blunders fresh in their minds. Applying the season-long strategy of maintaining a mind and body balance even in the middle of a grueling race, the Maroons focused on starting conservatively, staying strong and hanging together from the sound of the gun until the final sprint home.

Their already formidable task was complicated by an arduous course. The men contended not just with ferocious foes, but with a muddy trail peppered with creeks, persistent uphills, steep downhills, and a multitude of terrains including city streets, gravel roads, and grassy expanses.

Ignoring the brutal landscape and concentrating on their group-running strategy, the men emerged from a particularly crowded start unscathed and in a good position to move up. The Maroons hung back for the first half of the race staying in their packs, helping to maintain the team’s collective morale. They took advantage late, dashing the will of the competition as they streaked by in groups. With their confidence high and their race tactic pushing them through the remainder of the race, the men gradually advanced. O’Connor and Hogan stayed together but broke away from the group to burst forward into the top 60. As their plan came together in the final miles of the race, the men were able to ignore the topography and the competition and apply all their mental and physical prowess to finishing well.

Even with their well practiced strategy, the men just missed beating their league rivals, the Tartans. They can take comfort in the fact that the Tartans had the advantage of top-five individual finisher fourth-year Dana Irrer (25:39.9). The Maroons relied on superior depth and simply placed more men in the top 100. Over half the team contributed to a very respectable finish for the Maroons.

Even after making Chicago athletic history, the men were quick to attribute their unprecedented achievements to their team-first philosophy, while acknowledging the importance of personal motivation.

“I thought this season was amazing,” Raleigh said. “Not just for the ninth-place finish, but more for the enjoyment of being around 30 or so guys who dedicate themselves completely to succeeding in the sport. If there’s one thing I have learned, it’s that cross country is not always about being in the top 10 or running at Nationals. It’s about being with a group of guys who would give anything to help you become a better runner.”

“We all have our personal inspirations whenever we compete,” Bojanov said. “At big races like Nationals, those prove to be even more important.”

Winter, the only woman from Chicago to run at NCAAs, was deprived of the benefits of team running. Her determination to return home with an All-American certificate, however, provided a sufficient amount of incentive to propel her through the race. With two cross-country championship races under her belt and an excellent senior season behind her, nothing short of the most severe natural disaster could be expected to slow her down.

“Jess competed really well,” Hall said. “This course was really challenging, and she had to really dig deep to hang on over the last mile of this race. It was a tremendous test for her, and she really responded well.”

Even the slightly inhumane course proved to be easily dealt with by the great Winter. Like the men, Winter maintained a level head at the start, content to stay in the top 60 after the first mile before gradually moving forward into the top 30 in the middle miles. She then dashed past 10 more opponents in the last 1,000 meters to take 26th and All-American distinction. She is Chicago’s first women’s cross-country All-American since Erin Steiner (A.B.’04). Even after chasing her individual goals through the mud, over never-ending hills and across the water, Winter put all self-congratulation on hold and instead attributed her success to quality coaching.

“Lots of credit should go to Coach Hall,” Winter said. “He’s the best coach anyone could ever hope to have.”

With the men’s long-sought goal attained and Winter’s award in hand on Saturday, the Maroons can close the book on the 2005 cross country season. The men’s team had their most successful season since the program’s inception, and Winter won the University’s sixth woman’s All-American title. As fall turns to winter, the Maroons will now take a short rest before beginning training for indoor and outdoor track. Still, the squad is already focusing on the 2006 cross country season.

“We’ll get Carnegie Mellon next year,” Ascolese said.