November 17, 2006

Cross Country looks to make mark at NCAAs

For cross country, this weekend’s NCAA championship meet is a fitting conclusion to a season of hard-earned accomplishments. Spurred on by a program-building coach, the Maroons will look to carry on their success of seasons past.

Taking on the top runners in all of DIII, the Maroons will try to peak at the right time Saturday in West Chester, Ohio. Boosted by a strong fifth-place showing at the Midwest regional last Saturday, the women’s side earned an at-large bid and will send a varsity squad of five runners to the meet, while fourth-years Emil Bojanov and Brian Hague will toe the line for the men. The meet serves as the latest chapter in the ongoing development of the cross-country program from a fledgling UAA outlier to a perennial national power.

When Chris Hall took over as head coach of men’s and women’s cross country six years ago, the sport had little history of success in Hyde Park. In the decade leading up to his hiring, the men’s program had finished no better than fifth at UAAs and had not competed at the NCAA championships since the Carter administration. The women, while more successful, had slumped in the late ’90s, finding themselves in a rut of fourth-place league finishes.

“I came in at a good time,” Hall said. “[Former head coach] Jim Spivey did a good job; he really established some positive things. What I had an opportunity to do was to take over a culture that was beginning to be created. I did everything I could to make it a positive team environment. They’ve really adapted well to that. It makes things fun. That’s what I really wanted to do. Along with that, I wanted to do everything I could to break in good athletes who fit in here. Cross country is a cerebral sport and Chicago is a cerebral campus. It’s a good place to be.”

All that began to change in 2001, Hall’s first year on the South Side. With his youthful vigor and inside-out knowledge of the sport, the coach led the men to a best-ever second-place finish at the UAA meet, and made steps to turn the women’s fortunes around as well. Improving in depth and quality with each new season, in 2004 the men’s squad competed at nationals for the first time in 27 years and followed it up last year with a best-ever ninth-place finish.

“Not a whole lot changes from one year to the next,” Hall said. “What’s real good is we have veterans who buy into the training program. When you have leaders like that, who trust you and believe in you, it really helps.”

With last year’s leaders—Pat Hogan and Teage O’Connor (both A.B. ’06)—out of eligibility, less was expected from this year’s squad. Reflecting the depth that Hall has come to emphasize, though, a new crop of fourth-years led by Hague and Bojanov stepped up to assume the mantle. Although the season was plagued by inconsistencies and the squad slumped to fifth in the league, the talent and ability of the runners never wavered, and the two seniors earned their much-deserved final shot at glory.

The women, meanwhile, found themselves in an unfamiliar position at the beginning of the fall. For the first time in four years, they would be without the services of Jessica Winter (A.B. ’06), the versatile runner who paced the pack and capped things off last season with a 26th-place, All-American performance at nationals.

Stepping up to fill the void, though, was an often overlooked quartet of fourth-years. After playing second fiddle to Winter, Dilshanie Perera, Vidthya Abraham, Abby Shelton, and Jackie Kropp stepped out of Winter’s shadow and into the spotlight this season as well as anyone could have expected. Joining the seniors were a number of talented underclassmen, led by second-year Rachel Venezia.

With the competition fast and furious, the Maroons will be hard-pressed to repeat last season’s top performances. The women will benefit from something Winter did not have last season: a full squad of varsity runners to help push each other. Contrary to appearances, cross country is a team sport. Tactics and pre-race strategy play as much a part in determining the outcome of a meet as the grueling preseason practices in August and September do. With seven Maroons jostling with the rest of the field for positioning and pace, Chicago’s runners will be well set for a strong showing.

“Certainly there’s that familiarity,” Hall said. “Having teammates to run with gives us something as a group to run. We still have to put team goals ahead of individual ones. It’s really comforting to have six other people running with you.

“We got here as a team. None of us would have qualified as an individual. Delshanie was the odd person out in qualifying individually. The hope is that we’re going to continue to move up. We hope that on a good day we can be a top 15 team in the country.”

Bojanov and Hague, meanwhile, will work off of each other in the hopes of propelling at least one if not both of them to All-American status. In a rebuilding season of sorts for the men, it would be a remarkable testament to the strength of the program if they come through Saturday.

“Emil looked at me the other day and he said ‘I guess I don’t need to be careful.’ When he was a sophomore and a junior, he wasn’t really ready to be an All-American,” Hall said. “It would have been foolish for him to try for that with the whole team competing. For them to go out and run their race any way they want now is acceptable. I don’t think people are really expecting them to be All-Americans, but they’ll give it their best shot. I think they’ll do everything they can to run together; there’s not much that separates them.

“It’s kind of nice that we’ve had a team in the national meet each of the last four years. Ultimately we’re going to be working to get both teams here each year. It’ll come.”