CHICAGO – The NCAA Division III Championship meet is a familiar setting for the University of Chicago cross country teams. The men's and women's squads have qualified for the season finale a combined six times in the past four seasons. The Maroons know what it takes to get to that postseason stage and they will have it in their sights once again in 2016.
UChicago women's cross country is currently on a six-year streak of reaching the NCAA Championship as a team. The run is tied for the second-longest consecutive stretch of postseason appearances during the modern era of Maroon Athletics.
"I believe we have an expectation of being in the NCAAs now," said Head Coach Chris Hall. "What I hope our team does is to stay patient in the early stages of the season so that they are really ready to elevate during the championship time of the year. I feel we will wait a while before establishing concrete team goals as we see people take on new roles within our team."
The younger racers will step in to fill the shoes of the departed senior class, which lifted the program to new heights in their four years. UChicago finished in the top 18 at the NCAAs in each of those seasons, including a fourth-place showing in 2013. The class was highlighted by two-time All-American Catherine Young and four-time All-Region honoree Brianna Hickey.
"One of the great things about college athletics is the constant evolution of teams," Hall said. "We will of course miss our graduates. They were a special group that competed in four NCAA meets and won two University Athletic Association (UAA) titles. I do feel they left behind a group of women that are ready to step into leadership roles and certainly learned from watching the graduates. I don't plan on replacing any of those athletes, but I believe that we have a wonderful group of women returning that will be ready to take on a greater role this season. We are returning five of the seven members of the team that competed at the NCAAs last fall and have a strong incoming class."
In 2015, the Maroons placed third in both the UAA and the NCAA Midwest Regional before ultimately finishing 18th at NCAA nationals. Five of the seven runners at last year's NCAAs are back with junior Khia Kurtenbach, junior Claire Costelloe, junior Kelsey Dunn, senior Madeleine Horvath and junior Cassidy McPherson. Junior Megan Verner-Crist also brings postseason experience with All-Region accolades in 2014.
Kurtenbach headlines the returners after a stellar cross country debut. The junior placed second at the UAA Championship, third at the NCAA Midwest Regional and 25th at the NCAA Championships to earn All-American status. She carried that success over to the track and field season in the spring, where she nabbed three more All-American awards. Dunn is also a returning All-Region racer after placing 28th at the Midwest Regional.
"Khia is a great competitor and what makes her special is her eagerness to test herself against other top athletes," Hall said. "I feel that instead of getting nervous about racing great athletes, Khia truly gets excited about the opportunity to challenge them. I also feel that she has the ability to get much better as she gains experience. Last fall was her first cross country season and after a year in which she was All-America four times, she has high goals for the fall season. The expectations right now are to follow the process of going through her training stages without trying to do too much too early. If she goes into the championship portion of our season healthy, she will really make a major impact upon our conference, regional and national meets."
The new crop of incoming freshmen will also figure into the equation by providing team depth.
"We have a very good incoming class with several athletes that will be joining us with state meet experience from across the country," said Hall. "They need to go through a learning curve of what it is to be a student-athlete at UChicago, but I feel confident that a few of them will be making a push to be a part of the NCAA roster at the end of the season."
The Maroon men joined the women's team at the NCAA Championship meet last season for the second time in three years. Prior to nationals, UChicago took third at the UAA Championship and seventh in the deep and formidable NCAA Midwest Regional. Now entering his 16th season at UChicago, Hall pointed to the regional as the race that showed the true potential of his runners.
"We had a great regional meet in 2015 and needed it to advance to the NCAAs," he said. "We only lost two members of that squad, so I feel the team will have goals of returning. I feel the key to them getting back to the NCAAs is putting together a strong resume over the last month of the season and then doing what they did in 2015 – elevating at championship time."
Two main contributors who graduated off the team included two-time All-Region honoree Michael Frasco and Henry Blood.
Junior Peter Kreuch burst onto the scene last year and became a consistent point scorer in the lineup. At the UAA Championship, he improved his placement from 50th as a freshman to ninth as a sophomore. That placement netted him Second Team All-UAA status. The Maroons will also rely heavily on their other racers with NCAA Regional meet experience – senior Eyal Hanfling, senior Timofey Karginov, senior Nick Nielsen and sophomore Jacob Gosselin. Hall also mentioned that the team has a number of other athletes such as senior Jeremy Ferguson, senior Michael Shumaker and sophomore Ansel Richards who will be ready to take another step forward this season and impact the roster.
The freshman class will be taking on the new challenge of a longer distance at the collegiate level. The adaptation and comfort level will be keys to their first-year development.
"Adjusting to the collegiate 8K distance is a challenging thing to do," Hall said. "We have a very good incoming class this fall and I do expect a couple of those athletes to challenge to make our regional team. But while they are trying to learn the 8K distance, we will be primarily relying on the veterans to lead the way."