November 15, 2005

Men’s cross country, Winter set for Nationals

Men’s and women’s cross country raced admirably despite suffering some unusual mishaps at the NCAA Regional Championships. But at the end of the day, one team basked in glory while the other was left to wonder what might have been.

The men ran at their collective zenith in Peoria on Saturday, earning a chance to toe the line at Nationals for the second year in a row. The squad was led by All-Region runners fourth-years Pat Hogan (14/25:28.9) and Teage O’Connor (25/25.43.2) and third-year Brian Hague (25:46.2/29), but it was the neck-and-neck finish by third-year Emil Bojanov (38/25:54.2) and second-year Ryan McCarl (39/25:54.9) that nudged the Maroons two points ahead of Wheaton and into fourth-place with 145 points.

The women, valiantly battling both an asthma attack by one of the squad’s best and poor luck, were forced to settle for a frustrating sixth-place finish. They were left out in the cold, only seven points from the top-five standing necessary to qualify for the NCAA meet. The squad didn’t go home completely empty-handed, as fourth-year captain Jessica Winter (21:11.9) took second place, securing an individual berth at the national championships. Third-year Dilshanie Perera (17/22:06.6) joined Winter in earning All-Midwest honors.

With the men (19th) and women (18th) ranked among Division III’s best and a bevy of NCAA regional and national meet veterans on both squads, the Maroons headed south with enough confidence and experience to warrant the highest expectations even while competing in a notoriously strong region. Both squads raced against multiple cross-country powerhouses, including second-ranked UW–LaCrosse for the men and fourth-ranked UAA champs Wash U for the women.

Even in the face of formidable foes, the men proved that their fine-tuned, season-long strategy could conquer all. The men ‘ran like a dream,’ with only 26 seconds separating the first runner from the fifth.

Things got off to a fast start, with the runners racing together in order to combat extremely crowded conditions on the course. Hogan and Bojanov began to move forward in the latter half of the race and led the team until O’Connor and Hague caught up in the last mile. Remaining faithful to their strategy and avoiding physical catastrophe, the men swept across the finish line with the prospect of NCAA glory to meet them.

The same pack of seven, including first-year Jon Ascolese (74/26:35.5), will stand for the team at NCAAs.

“We ran as a team,” McCarl said. “We also ran an intelligent race. We went out at a reasonable pace and avoided getting caught up in the hype, and our training gave us the confidence to move up and pass a lot of people in the second half of the race.”

Cool-headed conservative starts have been a particularly effective strategy for the men’s team. Adrenaline and nerves often cause runners to start too fast and result in a slow competitive death in the middle of the race. An especially cool cranium belonged to third-year Dan Raleigh, who lost a shoe at the start of the day’s action, running five miles with one bare foot but still finishing ahead of 121 runners.

While the men are getting psyched for NCAAs, the women’s team will take the next week off, with the exception of Winter. A three-time cross country all-conference and all-region runner, Winter will make her third fall national championship appearance this Saturday. Her primary objective in Ohio will be to place in the top 30, earning All-American honors.

“Jessica Winter has had perhaps one of the greatest cross country seasons at Chicago since Rhaina Echols,” head coach Chris Hall said. Echols (A.B. ’00) remains Chicago’s only women’s individual national cross-country champion, winning the honor in 1999. She was also an All-American in 1998 and won three national championships during the winter and spring track seasons in 2000.

Even with one of their captains honing in on some major accomplishments and their own brief respite from training, the lack of serious physical exertion will be bittersweet for the women. Their chance to rest is tied to the knowledge that they narrowly missed their season-long goal of running at NCAAs.

The afternoon started well for the women. Winter steadily moved up from the 15th spot to the fifth, before finally nabbing second. Perera and season-long training partner third-year Vidthya Abraham held their own in the top 30 until Abraham was stricken with a serious asthma attack in the last 500 meters. She dug deep, but fell back to the 37th spot.

“Vidthya showed tremendous heart to simply finish the race but lost several places,” Hall said. “Had that not happened we would have qualified through easily.”

“I feel we have a team that belongs in the NCAAs. If we ran Regionals 10 times, we would have qualified nine out of 10,” head coach Chris Hall said. “Our athletes were prepared and very focused on the task of qualifying and sometimes it simply just isn’t your day and our women raced with exceptional desire.”

Even with a disappointing last race, Hall considers the 2005 women’s cross country squad to be the most unified group the program has ever seen.

“This was one of the best teams I’ve ever had the pleasure to coach,” Hall said. “At all times they were on the same page and completely committed to one another. I believe that in many ways they overachieved.”

With the Battle of Delaware only four days away, the men are focused on racing well and staying strong while following Coach Hall’s admonition to “run for fun and personal bests.”

“The only goal any of us have for Nationals is to run smart and run together,” O’Connor said. “I think if we just race like we run in practice and have run in races leading up to this, we’ll do well.”