With a slew of fresh talent and a strong core of veterans in place, men's and women's cross country are poised to return to the national stage this fall.
Usually fixtures in the national rankings or at the NCAA championships, neither Maroon squad qualified for nationals last year. Both the men's and women's teams have enjoyed a perfect start to the 2008 season, though, as Chicago took first place at the August 29 Elmhurst Invitational and the September 6 Ted Hedstrand Invitational at North Park.
"We had every expectation to win the meet," head coach Chris Hall said, "but I felt our team ran at a higher level then what I thought they would in the first meet of the season. We showed very good depth, which is a real positive sign as we look ahead."
Not only did Chicago take home gold; it did so by wide margins. At Elmhurst, the Maroon men topped the 13-team field by placing four runners in the top 10 and then boasted five top-10 results at North Park. The women had five top-10 times at each competition.
"This is just an early indication of what our team is capable of achieving later in the season," second-year Liz Lawton said. "From how it looks, we have the makings of an awesome team this year."
With 15 first-years filling out the women's recruiting class, Chicago has added more talent to an already youthful team, and the rookies are earning their keep. First-year Rachel Ohman was the Maroons' third-place team finisher at each meet, taking sixth place overall in both competitions, while classmate Alison Klooster finished second for Chicago and fifth individually at Elmhurst.
Returning from a freshman campaign in which she earned All-Region honors, Lawton led the pack of Chicago women at each meet, placing second overall in each outing.
With the infusion of new blood, the Maroons need experienced leadership to focus the squad's talent and potential, and fourth-year captains Julia Moriarty and Rachel Venezia each bring this focus to the table. Fresh off her national ninth-place finish in steeplechase this spring, Venezia has been hot on Lawton's heels so far, with fourth- and eighth-place finishes to her credit.
On the men's side, 11 newcomers bolster another young roster that is looking to replace NCAA-qualifier Ryan McCarl (B.A. '08). The first-years join a team that boasts a deep roster this season after experiencing struggles last year.
"I believe we have as many as 10 to 12 runners that could race in our top five at different times this season," Hall said. "That depth will allow our teams to succeed on weekends when some key members are not at their best and also push everyone on a daily basis."
Out of that depth, fourth-year captain Chris Peverada has emerged as Chicago's on- and off-field leader. In the only individual victory for a Maroon so far this fall, Peverada followed up his fourth-place showing at Elmhurst with a time of 28:02 that topped the field at North Park.
Close behind Peverada, second-year Arthur Baptist and first-year Moe Bahrini have cracked the top 10 in each of their meets. Baptist was just behind Peverada to take fourth at North Park and finished sixth at Elmhurst, while Bahrini has sixth- and 10th-place times to his credit. Rounding out the young talent, Bahrini's classmate Brian Wille took second for Chicago and fifth overall in his collegiate debut.
As his rookies adjust to the pace of college competition, Hall has the Maroons' schedule begin with low intensity meets against local schools in order to give his squads some room to grow before high stake conference championships and regional qualifiers.
"The important thing, at least early in the season, is that they do not look too far ahead and that they use these early season meets as valuable learning tools to be ready for the championship portion of the season," Hall said.
With the results so far backing up Chicago's high initial expectations, both Hall and his athletes are optimistic about the season, even daring to hope a Maroon squad will return to the national championships this fall.
"We look like a team that can do some damage at the large invitationals, put up a fight at conference, and make ourselves known at nationals," Lawton said. "We need to stay healthy, stay motivated, and build ourselves into a close team. People need to make some sacrifices, trust the plan, and give it hell at races, and we should be able to make some noise this season."
Although a strong start for both teams has pointed the Maroons back to the Nationals, Hall's squad knows that the cross country season can be a long haul.
"[Nationals] is a high but achievable goal," Hall added. "I am pleased they are looking at that goal, as we do have that type of talent."