Maroon Moments: Women’s Cross Country Finishes Fourth at NCAA Championships (Nov. 23, 2019)

Photo by Jermaine Bibb
Photo by Jermaine Bibb

*During the current hiatus of collegiate sport action, UChicago Athletics is running a new 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 – By the time the University of Chicago women's cross country team had reached the 2019 NCAA Division III Championships, a historic season had already taken shape. The Maroons were a dominating force all throughout the fall season. Through eight races, UChicago finished first or second in the team standings every time, with four victories. The momentum going into the final national meet was strong.

The stage was set and the Maroons captured the hardware, tying their program-best placing by taking fourth in the NCAA team standings.

Back in August when athletes were returning to campus for preseason training, Head Coach Chris Hall had plenty of optimism for the upcoming campaign. Entering his 19th season leading the Maroons, the veteran coach knew his squad had the ingredients to produce a special year. The women were riding a streak of nine-straight team appearances in the NCAA Championships, including six finishes in the top 15.

UChicago had four All-Region runners back in the fold – junior Sophie Elgamal, senior Claire Brockway, senior Maggie Boudreau and junior Emma Dyer. Elgamal's breakout 2018 season saw her earn All-American status as well. "We went into the season with high goals and expectations," Hall said. "Our team was very confident in their ability to be impactful at championship meets and prepared well in the summer."

The biggest strength the Maroons brought to the table was depth. The top seven runners would be the ones scoring points at the weekly meets, and UChicago's stable of talented and consistent runners was a luxury. Even if one or two runners had an off-day, the rest of the squad ably stepped up its performance accordingly to avoid drop off.

"We were blessed with tremendous depth this year," said Hall. "Because of this, we went in to each of our meets feeling we would succeed. The athletes that returned with regional and NCAA experience certainly set the tone out front, but it also allowed some of our less experienced athletes to kind of 'jump on their backs' and be pulled to strong performances."

Through the opening two weeks of the season, UChicago captured the University of St. Francis Invite team title and placed second at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside Invite (finishing only behind NCAA Division I school Butler University). But it was the next meet that proved what the Maroons could do – Wheaton College's Gil Dodds Invitational.

"Our first two meets went well but our third meet was the day we probably knew we could have a special season," Hall said. "That day we won the Gil Dodds Invite that had the defending NCAA champions and No. 1-ranked team in the nation competing. Afterwards, we knew we belonged in the conversation of a top team nationally."

UChicago won that meet with 34 points, outdueling conference rival and top-ranked Washington University – St. Louis (49 points). Junior Abigail Shoemaker took third in the race as her teammates placed six runners among the top 12 finishers.

A string of three-straight team victories and a pair of runner-up finishes brought the Maroons to the NCAA Regional meet. The top placing squads at the regional would automatically qualify for the NCAA Championships.

At the 35-team regional in Oshkosh, Wis., all seven UChicago runners earned All-Region status by finishing in the top 35 individually – the first time that feat had ever been achieved at UChicago.

"That was a first for us at UChicago and a really cool accomplishment," Hall said. "It obviously showed our depth and for all seven to perform so well on the same day was once again a real confidence boost going into the NCAAs. We didn't do anything different that day. I just feel we were peaking right then and again our lead runners did such a good job of executing a smart race up front that the others followed suit and raced confidently."

The NCAA national meet was held in Louisville, Ky. with 32 teams and 280 runners in attendance for the 6K race. Hall followed the flow of the race through the provided chip timing, which gave live scoring updates throughout the race at the 1K, 3K and 4K marks.

"Our team was consistently moving up and I knew they were finishing strong over the last 2K," said Hall. "We were in sixth at 4K, so we needed to have a great finish. The unofficial scores were up before I got to our team and let them know that although it was unofficial, we had finished fourth (just a point in front of Carleton College). The official results were announced about 10 minutes later and we ended up two points ahead of Carleton to finish fourth and to accomplish our team goal. It was awesome. The team was extremely excited and relieved to see the results."

The fourth-place team finish matched the 2013 squad that also took fourth. It was also the fourth time UChicago has placed in the top 10 at the women's national meet. Elgamal concluded her standout season with another All-American award as she took 16th individually. Senior team captains Boudreau (48th) and Brockway (51st) were the next Maroons to cross the line, followed by first-year Leah Ulrich, sophomore Kaitlyn Van Baalen, sophomore Sofia Natividad and junior Zoe Smith.