CHICAGO – With the 2017 cross country season set to begin on September 1, the University of Chicago men's and women's squads will resume their annual quest to reach the biggest stage at the NCAA Division III Championships.
The Maroon women are coming off their seventh-straight trip to the NCAA nationals – the team placed 25th in 2016's final team standings. Head Coach Chris Hall has presided over UChicago's emergence as a national power and now enters his 17th season at the helm.
The 2016 season also featured a second-place showing at the University Athletic Association (UAA) Championship for the Maroons. They followed up by taking third place at the NCAA Midwest Regional, which marked the sixth year in-a-row that UChicago has finished in the top three at that meet.
At the top of the lineup, Khia Kurtenbach is back for her senior season and seeking a third cross country All-American honor. After placing 25th at NCAAs in 2015, she jumped up to 10th last year. Kurtenbach was a dominant presence in 2016 with a second-place finish at the UAA Championship and a medalist victory at the NCAA Midwest Regional. Hall expects another landmark season from his star cross country and track athlete.
"When Khia is healthy, she is simply one of the best runners in the country," said the veteran head coach. "I feel she has prepared well this summer and we expect her to have another great cross country season that takes her to the top of our conference, region and nation. She is capable to running in the top five in the nation if healthy all fall."
Kurtenbach highlights a senior class that boasts plenty of accolades. Cassidy McPherson and Kelsey Dunn both received All-Region accolades after taking 25th and 27th, respectively, last year. Dunn was also a Second Team All-UAA pick with a 12th-place finish. Claire Costelloe earned a UAA title during track season in the outdoor 10,000 meters, and Megan Verner-Crist was All-UAA in four different track events.
"We have an exceptional senior class. Five members of our team have NCAA experience in that group," said Hall. "Khia is a multiple All-American, Cassidy McPherson and Megan Verner-Crist have both been All-Americans in track, Claire Costelloe is a UAA champion and Kelsey Dunn has been an All-Region runner the past two years. I expect all of those athletes to make a major contribution to our season and we will rely on them to not only compete at the level they did last year, but to take another step forward as seniors."
With an experienced and successful top seven in place, Hall feels good about his incoming group of freshmen being able to acclimate over time and absorb the winning habits of the upperclassmen.
"We have a good freshman class joining us this fall," he said. "They are in a fortunate position of being able to use this fall to learn from some outstanding veterans. It will be difficult for any of our first years to crack our top seven due to the depth we have in our returning classes. However, I do believe we have a couple – Emily Schmitt and Emma Dyer in particular – that had performances this past track season that could quickly translate onto our team."
The UChicago men enter 2017 with two team berths into the NCAA Championship in the past four years (2013 and 2015). Last season, the Maroons placed sixth at the UAAs and ninth at the NCAA Midwest Regional.
Timofey Karginov led the charge throughout the year as the team's top runner and put together his best season in his senior campaign. He was a First Team All-UAA honoree after placing seventh. Fellow graduate Nick Nielsen picked up All-Region status by taking 34th in the NCAA Regional field.
Hall is now looking for a few of his current runners to make a Karginov-style leap in form and results in 2017. "Over the last several years, we have consistently had members of our team take big steps forward from season to season," he said. "Two people in particular made those big steps during track season – Peter Kreuch and Andrew Kates – and I believe they will continue to race well this fall. I also believe we have some other members of our sophomore class that are ready to elevate now that they understand the 8K distance and our training – Tim Koenning, Ralph Patejunas and Joe Previdi."
This year's UChicago squad features plenty of youth. The 31-member squad includes 11 freshmen and 10 sophomores. The Maroons will be counting on the seniors to lead by results and example, both on and off the course to get the group clicking. With so many underclassmen in the mix, the development of the youngsters could be crucial to the team's success.
"We will be looking to senior leaders like Peter Kreuch, Jacob Amiri and Kirk Lancaster to set the tone," said Hall. "Those guys are very team orientated and will help to create a wonderful culture within our squad... This is a very talented team but also a fairly inexperienced one. More than most of our other teams recently, we will be depending upon a lot of youth to race well. So what we are most in need of is guidance from our veterans and the ability of our younger athletes to follow their advice and leadership."
The incoming freshman class looks to be impactful right away at the 8K distance, and Hall is high on their potential to break into the top scoring group.
"We are adding, on paper, perhaps the best freshman class we have had in many years," Hall said. "We are bringing in six first-years to our preseason camp and all of them have the ability to run in our top seven at some time during the season. However, the individuals that I feel could make the quickest transition would be Ryan Cutter, Jordan Olson and William Shine."