CHICAGO - As the 2015 season approaches, the University of Chicago men's and women's cross country teams will rely on experience to carry them. Six All-Region and five All-University Athletic Association honorees are back in the fold. The Maroon women will look to extend their NCAA team qualification streak to six-straight years, and UChicago's men will seek to build on last year's results to get back to the postseason as well.
The UChicago women's cross country senior class will already go down as one of the best in school history. Over the past three years, the Maroons finished in the top 15 at the NCAA Division III Championship three times, including a fourth-place showing in 2013. UChicago capped another stellar season in 2014 by placing second at the UAA Championship and third at the NCAA Midwest Regional to gain an at-large bid to the NCAA Championship, where they took 12th as a team.
Senior Catherine Young will be seeking her third-straight All-American award after taking 27th place at the NCAAs last season and ninth place in 2013. She is joined by senior All-Region selections Brianna Hickey and Maggie Cornelius who finished 13th and 18th, respectively, at the NCAA Midwest Regional. At the conference championship, Young was runner-up to earn First Team All-UAA status while Hickey was 11th to garner Second Team All-UAA accolades.
Chris Hall enters his 15th season as head coach of the Maroon cross country teams. He expects another big year on the national stage from the women's squad.
"We do have a very strong senior class, but we also have many others with NCAA experience – eight members of our team have competed at the NCAA Championships," said Hall. "This senior class has experienced tremendous success in the time they have been at UChicago and after tasting what it was like to be on the podium at the national meet in 2013, they would very much like to get back to that level."
The Maroons have qualified for the NCAA Championship as a group 10 times in program history, including a current run of five years in-a-row. The experiences against the country's elite racers have served as valuable lessons that simultaneously raised UChicago's acumen in the big moments.
"I believe they have a very good understanding of when it is important to give their greatest effort – not just in competition, but also in training," Hall said. "This group should have a great understanding of the entire process of how to prep for that time of the year and what to expect when they get there. I also feel that due to the previous experience and success, they are very confident in what they could accomplish."
Scoring depth will also be a strength for the Maroons. The sophomore trio of Megan Verner-Crist, Cassidy McPherson and Claire Costelloe had successful debut campaigns with consistent finishes in the top seven. Verner-Crist was a Second Team All-UAA performer (14th place) who went on to grab All-Region status (24th place). Hall is hoping that the strong performers from the past track and field season will carry over that momentum to the fall. Hickey, Verner-Crist and junior Michelle Dobbs each earned All-American awards in the spring track season. Sophomore Khia Kurtenbach will also be making her cross country debut after an accomplished track season in the distance races.
UChicago's men are coming off a 2014 campaign that featured a third-place showing at the UAA Championship and a ninth-place finish at the NCAA Midwest Regional. Senior Michael Frasco was the lead racer for the Maroons all season and qualified for the NCAA Championship as an individual, where he took 61st place.
Frasco's big season included a runner-up showing at the UAAs, which earned him First Team All-UAA honors. He then placed 21st at the regional meet to net All-Region status. Junior Gareth Jones also had a standout season. He placed fifth in the UAA race (First Team All-UAA) and 27th in the Midwest Regional (All-Region).
Hall is counting on the duo to lead the lineup again following successful track results in the spring. Frasco won the UAA indoor 3,000-meter championship and Jones was All-UAA in the indoor and outdoor 5,000 meters.
"Both guys had really strong track seasons as well and seem to be getting better every year," said Hall. "Gareth had some injury problems last cross country season that disrupted his training. If he stays healthy this year, he should get better simply because his training will have gone to a different level. Michael is extraordinarily driven and I am confident that his senior season will be his best."
In addition, the Maroons return three other racers that were part of the 2014 regional lineup in junior Nick Nielsen, senior Henry Blood and junior Timofey Karginov. Hall said he will be counting on the trio heavily to score points throughout the year. He also pointed to junior Eyal Hanfling as someone who has consistently improved each year and may be ready to push some of those top racers.
UChicago will be looking to break through in the ultra-competitive NCAA Midwest Region after reaching the NCAA nationals in 2013. The Midwest Region typically qualifies the top 5-6 teams for nationals and is the elite region in the country in terms of top talent.
"Our team will do all the obvious things needed to succeed at the highest level," Hall said. "I feel they need to do the little things better and we must stay healthy. Taking care of themselves – sleeping, stretching, strength training – outside of the daily training is going to be perhaps the final thing they will need to be ready in November."
The veteran head coach feels good about his incoming class, but he prefers to let them learn how to compete at the collegiate level first and foremost. The distance jump to the college 8K is typically a big adjustment for the freshmen.
"My feeling is they need to adjust to so many other things that I would prefer that they just learn how to train like a collegiate runner and to adapt to the 8K distance," said Hall. "With that said, we do have a very talented freshmen class and I believe that a few of them could make a difference in our team's success."