October 3, 2006

Cross Country rolls on at Loyola Invite

The Maroons proved there was no place like home on Saturday at the Sean Earl Loyola Lakefront Invitational. Pounding down a very familiar course and going up against some top-notch opponents, men’s and women’s cross country saw several solid individual finishes and decent, if not spectacular, team performances from both sides.

Facing some of the season’s most formidable foes outside of NCAAs, including seven men’s and thirteen women’s Division I squads, Chicago managed to improve on last year’s finishes, with the men collecting 231 points to claim the 10th spot while their female counterparts’ 312 points tied them with Creighton University for 12th place. Overall, both teams came away with the satisfaction of being the only Division III program in the “gold” division and strutting their stuff to the tune of ably overtaking scholarship athletes and getting a feel for late season competition more than a month ahead of regionals and nationals.

“I think we all really enjoy being in that race, because the intensity is a little bit higher, and we get a chance to beat a bunch of scholarship schools,” said fourth-year captain Chetan Huded. “The Gold division race is great preparation for later in the season, because it serves as a pretty close simulation of the national championship meet. It’s a good way to get used to running in a fast-paced meet in a large crowd where it’s not as easy to pack up with teammates.”

Returning runners found plenty to look forward to while they toed the line at this weekend’s event. With the race location only a Red Line ride away, the Maroons had a sizable hometown crowd present to cheer them on. Agreeable weather, a lovely location on Lake Michigan and a bevy of veterans who could anticipate every knoll and hairpin turn on the course made this year’s Loyola Invite one of the season’s most enjoyable races.

“The lakefront course is definitely one that we’re pretty familiar with,” said Huded. “We run at the Loyola meet every year and we hosted the UAA conference meet there in 2003. It’s always fun to run there, because it’s the closest thing that we have to a home course. It allows us to be well prepared going into the meet, because we know where potential problems could arise.”

Men’s team veterans fourth-year Brian Hague and second-year John Ascolese, who cemented his rookie-of-the-year status at the Loyola Invite last season when he broke into the team’s top three, put their experience on Loyola’s turf to good use. Hague led his squad, delivering a fleet-footed eight kilometers in 25:33 for the 22nd spot, and Ascolese was close behind his senior teammate, finishing 27th in 25:42. Rounding out the men’s top five, fourth-year Emil Bojanov was the 45th man across the line with a 26:08 mark in front of third-year Ryan McCarl (71/26:45) and second-year David Yu (86/27:01).

On the women’s end, fourth-year Dilshanie Perera was, once again, the first Maroon across the finish line. The women’s team captain sped into the 31st spot in a swift 18:52. First-year Natalie Doss may be the team’s freshman phenom as she garnered the 66th spot in 19:28, a step ahead of fourth-year Jackie Kropp (71/19:31). Fourth-year Abby Sheldon (86/19:56), a former swimmer who crossed over to running only two years ago, was the fourth Maroon and 86th competitor to break the tape and capped off the women’s top performances on the day.

While the Maroons’ showing this Saturday was entirely respectable for a race so early in the season, both squads are still a little wobbly and have yet to completely get their bearings.

“I would say Saturday was very average,” head coach Chris Hall said. “It wasn’t really bad and it wasn’t really good. We have a group of very capable athletes; however, we haven’t really had a weekend where all our top five to seven runners ran their best races. We were thinking Saturday might be the day, but as it turned out it wasn’t. I saw some excellent races from half our runners, but the other half just couldn’t quite bring that level of performance.”

With the inevitable shifting that accompanies the opening of a new season plus the exit of senior athletes and the introduction of rookies, members of either squad have been adjusting to new roles and the various and sundry expectations that come with their new positions on the team.

“Some of our athletes have moved up in the pecking order and now they find themselves in a position that requires them to consistently score points and run way outside of their comfort level all the time,” Hall explained. “That’s hard, especially for our runners who are in the top five to seven for the first time. It’s a matter of gaining experience. Being able to run at that level of intensity is still something that some of our athletes need to cultivate. And that’s just training. It’s why we race.”

The men’s and women’s teams will go up against a pack of their conference rivals, including NYU’s fifth-in-the-nation men’s squad, on October 14 at the UW-Oshkosh Invite. Faced with a field of the best of the best in the Division III, Hall is hoping the men’s and women’s teams will finally kick it up that one extra notch.

“We’re really going get thrown to the wolves two weeks from now,” Hall said. “If we can’t get pumped for that meet, we’ll really have to change something.”