Cross country finding team chemistry in final test for UAAs

By Kathryn Stewart

Although the weather was a bit on the chilly side, men’s and women’s cross countr’ put forth a lukewarm performance on Saturday. The women made progress, while the men found themselves stuck in a rut.

Facing the most competitive Division III field outside of the National Championships, both sides were hoping to get in a solid race before diving into conference and regional championships. The women turned in their best team performance of the season, taking home the number-five team spot with 132 points.

“The women had a really nice race,” head coach Chris Hall said. “The top five runners finished within 45 seconds of each other, which is the best spread in a 5,000-meter race that I’ve seen during my time here.”

Results weren’t as rosy on the men’s side, as the squad fell short of its pre-race expectations and was forced to accept a tepid 10-place team finish with 305 points.

“We definitely underperformed this weekend,” fourth-year captain Chetan Huded said. “We were hoping to run much better than we did. Hopefully we can use this meet as motivation to race better next time. We still haven’t run very close to our ability level.”

The men’s team saw several solid individual performances, but ultimately landed behind beatable challengers including UW–Steven’s Point (7/208), Wash U (8/222), and DePauw (9/280). Fourth-years Emil Bojanov (25:34) and Brian Hague (26:00) led the Maroons with 31st and 57th place finishes. Third-year Ryan McCarl crossed the line in 26:08 for the 67th spot with second-year John Ascolese (68/26:09) on his shoulder. But it was fourth-year Greg Rizzolo whose 26:23 showing earned the 82nd position and the distinction of being Saturday’s MVP.

“He stepped up for us and ran as our fifth man,” Huded said. “This was the first time that Greg has scored in our top five. Hopefully he’ll be able to run at that level for the rest of the season.”

On the women’s side, a smaller field eased pre-race jitters, but fierce competition still abounded on the course. Cross country powerhouses, including Calvin College and UAA rival Wash U, pushed the Maroons all the way through the finish for a satisfying overall position right in front of UW–Oshkosh (11/136).

“They showed great depth,” Hall said. “Of course, when you’re running a team with over 20 people on it, you won’t have everyone having their best day, but our runners in scoring positions all performed at the highest level really they could. Plus, it felt great to knock off Oshkosh.”

Hanging out at the head of the pack, fourth-year Vidthya Abraham broke the tape in 22:45, garnering the 18th spot while classmate Dilshanie Perera come in hot on her heels with a 22:50 5k for the 19th top ranking. Fourth-year Abby Sheldon was the next to cross the line in a swift 23:09 to take 26th, followed by second-year Rachel Venezia (34/23:25) and first-year Elizabeth So (35/23:30).

Conferences are only two weeks away and both squads are gearing up for the end of the season. For the women, a great performance last Saturday was the confidence boost they were looking for. Work remains, and a few more head-turning performances from key runners could mean that NCAAs are in reach for the squad that narrowly missed the chance to race in last year’s national meet.

“I think that Vidthya and Dilshanie can run even better,” Hall said. “Dilshanie was 16th at regionals last year. She’s definitely a big meet runner and can perform under pressure. If our top two runners can push through and deliver kind of a one-two punch at the next few meets like I think they can, then we should be able to go far.”

While their counterparts on the women’s side have the advantage of a satisfying showing under their belts, the men are still hoping that the next meet will be the race when everything comes together. The Maroons are hoping last Saturday’s so-so performance will be the motivation they’ll need to bring some heat to the UAAs, but the coming weeks will still see Chicago’s men doing some serious troubleshooting.

“Regarding Saturday, I can’t really put my finger on it. It just wasn’t our day, but the men haven’t been performing up their ability, and we really have no reason not to,” Hall explained. “Everything’s there mentally, training-wise, and their attitudes are all great. I have complete faith in the athletes, and I think they will pull it all together at some point.”

Coming off last season’s success that included the Maroons taking 9th at NCAAs, the best ranking men’s cross country has ever achieved at a national meet, this year’s batch of athletes has been saddled with the highest expectations in program history. Besting 2005’s triumph is no mean feat, especially with the team shake-up that inevitably occurs after the departure of integral senior squad members.

“It could be that we need a bit of swagger, and it could just be the pressure that comes with having gone to championships two years in a row, and especially after last year,” Hall said. “A great race on Saturday would’ve been an excellent confidence booster, but maybe being pursuers rather than the pursued at conferences will push us forward. Right now, there are roles that need to be filled on the team, and it’s not clear who is filling them.”

The Maroons will toe the line at the UAAs in St. Louis October 28. Going shoulder to shoulder with formidable opponents, including NYU’s men and Wash U’s women, both squads expect gut-wrenching competition.