The pressure is mounting for Regionals.
After finishing fourth at the Heptagonal Championships last Friday in the Bronx, the women’s cross country team will have to shoot for a first or second place finish at Regionals in two weeks as the only likely route to Nationals.
In the fastest Heps race ever, Columbia’s Caroline Bierbaum repeated as league champion and led the Lions, ranked seventh nationally, to their fourth straight Ivy League title. The top three finishers all broke the course record: Bierbaum won in 17:01.4, followed by Yale’s Lindsay Donaldson ’08 (17:04.3) and Princeton’s Cack Ferrell (17:08.1).
Despite Donaldson’s second straight year finishing in second behind Bierbaum, the Bulldogs were unable to maintain a pack that could keep up with the breakneck pace. Katie McKinstry ’07 finished second for the Elis and tenth overall in 17:40.6, and Bevin Peters ’09 came in 21st in 18:07.8. Peters was followed by Elizabeth Calle ’08 and up-and-coming Kelli Buck ’09, who placed 38th and 40th, respectively.
Donaldson said while the Bulldogs did not run poorly, several other teams — including third-place finisher Penn — ran exceptional races.
“I guess this is the time of the year all the teams focus on, so it is sort of a culmination of training,” she said. “I think it was a matter of everybody having their best race on the same day, and unfortunately that didn’t happen for us.”
Some runners saw other teams’ strong showings as a form of encouragement.
“Penn really showed up to compete on Friday,” Meredith Leenhouts ’08 said. “We’ve seen that can happen to any team, including us, at Regionals.”
The season began with the Bulldogs, then ranked 20th, eyeing Nationals. Pre-Nationals presented the first of two chances to run well against national competition and improve the likelihood of earning one of the at-large selections given out in mid-November, but an 18th-place finish did nothing to further the quest for a bid. And now, with a mediocre performance this weekend, the odds of securing a bid through the selection committee are waning.
Part of the sense of disappointment may stem from the team’s quick start to open the season. Strong performances in the Harvard-Yale-Princeton meet and at Penn State’s Spiked Shoe Invitational elevated the team’s profile. But now, only one chance remains to fulfill national expectations.
Regionals have become paramount, and several runners have said that they expect a top-two finish in Boston in two weeks to be the only ticket to Terre Haute.
“Given our placing at Heps and Pre-Nationals, we need to finish in the top two at Regionals,” Donaldson said. “An at-large bid is unlikely, but there’s always that hope.”
This season has been a fast-paced learning experience for the young Elis. With a corps of runners in their first or second year of collegiate competition, the team has struggled to meet expectations in the biggest meets of the season. But several newcomers, especially Peters and Buck, have shined.
Peters began the season with high expectations and has performed up to par. But Buck has gone from junior varsity status to the 40th-fastest runner in the Ivy League in a matter of two months.
“It’s been pretty incredible,” Buck said of her recent surge.
Several runners, including Donaldson, said they are encouraged by the youth of the team.
“Kelli Buck has been phenomenal,” Donaldson said. “To be in the top five when she wasn’t even running varsity races — she really deserved the placing she earned this weekend.”
But the reality remains that the young corps will have to perform even better come Regionals. With only two races left, the team is not looking ahead to next season, though they said they can see promise.
“We’re still focused on this year,” Buck said. “But we still have great potential for the future, too.”