*During the current hiatus of collegiate sport action, UChicago Athletics is running a story series throughout the spring and summer called "Maroon Moments", which will highlight some of the top performances and most pivotal contests from the last two years across all Maroon athletic teams.
CHICAGO – Over the past two fall seasons, the University of Chicago men's cross country team has emerged as a squad to be reckoned with on the national stage. The Maroons qualified for the NCAA Division III Championships as a team in back-to-back years for the first time since 2004-05, and made their presence felt with consecutive 12th-place finishes at both meets.
The groundwork for the recent surge began on the recruiting trail for Head Coach Chris Hall. "I feel we have been fortunate to string together a few strong recruiting classes in-a-row," said Hall, who will enter his 20th season at UChicago. "However, if I had to point to one class it is our third-years. That class was a large talented class that also seemed to quickly bond together and establish goals. I wouldn't say there were any major surprises in the way they progressed, but the fact they have moved forward together has been a great development."
The juniors have led the way with top performers at the lead of the pack, along with significant depth. The seven-member group has tallied two All-American awards, four All-Region honors and five All-University Athletic Association accolades. While they made their impact felt in their 2017 debuts, the 2018 season saw the team take a significant developmental step.
Hall's goals were high for the 2018 squad. The Maroons returned six of their top scorers from the previous year, and the youngsters had already demonstrated their ability after quickly adapting to the 8K distance as rookies in 2017. The squad proceeded to tally top three finishes at the University of St. Francis Invite, Wheaton College's Gil Dodds Invite, the Benedictine University Invite and the UAA Championship.
The momentum continued at the NCAA Midwest Regional, where UChicago finished sixth out of 35 teams and earned a team bid to the NCAA Championship meet. Three racers achieved All-Region status and the Maroons boasted the top two rookie finishers in Henry Myers (22nd) and Sam Craig (39th).
Everything came together at the 2018 NCAAs in Winneconne, Wis. Ryan Cutter earned All-American honors by finishing 20th overall as the men placed 12th as a team.
"Our men had a really good performance at the NCAAs," Hall said. "We defeated a number of teams that had beaten us in the previous two meets and laid a foundation for future seasons. I was really pleased with the results of the NCAAs in 2018."
The success of 2018 created excitement for 2019, and with it, even greater expectations. The top racers were back in the fold with additional experience under their belts.
"First of all our team wasn't trying to get back to the NCAAs – they expected to be there," said Hall. "I feel this gave us the opportunity to begin establishing team goals for the NCAAs and that was the focus throughout the season. Our athletes had a really strong track season following 2018 as well and seemed to be racing with much more confidence in each of their races."
The fall campaign started off with a bang as the Maroons claimed four team victories in the opening five races of the season. The team's poise grew with each week; small time gaps across the top seven gave the squad the necessary depth that could overcome an individual having an off day.
After another third-place showing at UAAs, the NCAA Midwest Regional would again serve as UChicago's proving ground. The Maroons passed the test with flying colors. Competing in a stacked field of 253 participants, Cutter became the first UChicago man to win the regional meet as he crossed the finish line in 24:32. Chase Gardner, Sam Craig and Cy Chittenden all placed in the top 25 individually to garner All-Region status. That led to a fourth-place team finish and another bid to the NCAA national meet.
"Ryan is a pretty special athlete and this was the first time in our program's history that we had the individual champion in our regional meet which was a special moment," Hall said. "Ryan has helped to set a tone for the rest of our team and because of him they expect more from themselves.
"The Midwest region is consistently the best in the country and a great challenge going into postseason. I feel this meet can really help to prep teams for the NCAAs. We were pretty ready going into the meet and had a solid performance. Four All-Region performers are the most we have had since 2004."
The 2019 NCAA Championships were hosted in Louisville, Ky. where Cutter made more history. The junior finished ninth overall to become the third men's cross country athlete to earn multiple All-American honors during Hall's tenure. His standout season also featured a UAA individual title – the third in UChicago men's history. The Maroons finished 12th as a team in the final NCAA standings.
When thinking about memorable moments from the past two seasons, a number of standouts come to Hall's mind. "I will long remember the way our team performed at the 2019 Augustana Invitational," said the veteran coach. "A meet with over 300 athletes and more than 20 teams and we had a perfect score of 15 points, placing 1-2-3-4-5-6. We raced so well together that day. The 2018 NCAAs will stand out as well, and finally I was really pleased with the results of the Gil Dodds Wheaton Invitational in 2019. That day we ran within three points of a very good Washington-St. Louis team that was highly ranked. That gave us a lot of belief in our ability to do some special things."