CROSS COUNTRY | Yale teams aim for nationals

The women’s cross country team  is hoping to finish in the top three at Heps this season.
The women’s cross country team is hoping to finish in the top three at Heps this season. Photo by Toshiki Sakiyama.

With the cross country teams hoping to make the national championships for the first time in team history, the women’s team is determined to capitalize on its successes from last year, while the men’s team aims to improve upon a series of low league finishes.

Last season, the women’s team skyrocketed from one of the worst in the Ivy League to a major championship contender. Under new head coach, Amy Gosztyla, the team reversed its streak of three consecutive last-place finishes at the Ivy League Heptagonal Championships (Heps), placing a hard-fought fourth. Two weeks later, the Bulldogs ended the season, by finishing sixth at NCAA Regionals, the team’s best result since 2005.

“Everyone on the team was very focused and shared a belief that we could turn the program around,” team captain Nihal Kayali ’13 said. “It definitely paid off last year.”

Kayali said that this year she expects the team to do even better: While last season, Gosztyla jumped into her role without a full understanding of the team and how it best responds to training, she now has a year of Yale coaching experience under her belt.

In addition, each of last season’s top seven Bulldog finishers has returned this year. Kayali said the graduating seniors provided great leadership but did not rack up many points for the team. Many of the fastest runners — including Kayali and last year’s All-Northeast Elizabeth Marvin ’13 — are entering their senior year, providing an extra incentive for the team to do well.

“We want to go out with a bang and end on a high note,” Marvin said.

By the time this year’s Heps rolls around at the end of October, the team plans to challenge for the title. Kayali said the team aims to improve upon last year’s fourth-place finish and break into the top three, ideally finishing first if possible.

“Now we’ve shown ourselves to be contenders,” Kayali said. “It’s not just something to believe in anymore. It’s more concrete.”

The men’s team has not finished in the top half of the Ivy League since 2006, and the Bulldogs have seen similar disappointments at the regional level. While the Elis began the season with a new head coach, Paul Harkins, the team placed sixth at Heps and 11th at NCAA Regionals.

“We’re a team with a lot of talent, but we’ve underperformed at key meets,” Michael Cunetta ’14 said. “For the last four or five years, we have been in the lower end of the Ivies, when really we shouldn’t be that far down.”

Team captain Kevin Lunn ’13 said that the many changes Harkins has inspired have not really taken hold until this season. Harkins stresses recovery and slow consistent progress in a sport where injury can take a runner out of the game for a season or longer.

This year, the team has one fewer intense workout a week so its athletes can approach, but not exceed, their personal limits.

“You don’t get faster by killing yourself in a workout,” Lunn said. “You get faster after the workout ends when your body recovers on its own and gets stronger.”

Although the men’s team graduated a few top runners, Lunn said the team is looking strong. New threats include track standouts John McGowan ’15 and Timothy Hillas ’13. Hillas, who was elected men’s track and field captain at the end of last year, is running cross country for the first time at Yale.

Additionally, the current senior class, including Lunn and Demetri Goutos ’13, is looking to lead the team in practice and the rankings at meets.

“We’re a lot more focused than last year,” Cunetta said. “The senior class has set a great example in terms of dedication and commitments. The younger guys have a good group to look up to.”

For the first time, freshman runners were incorporated into preseason training, and both captains mentioned the strength of the incoming freshman class. Key freshmen to look out for include Emily Stark ’16, who Kayali said may break into the top seven, and Kevin Dooney ’16, the younger brother of former cross country runner Conor Dooney ’12.

Last season, both the men’s and women’s teams fell short of a ticket to the NCAA National Championships, but this year qualifying for the November meet is a key goal for both teams. In addition to the Paul Short Invitational, both teams will travel to the Wisconsin Invitational to rack up points against ranked cross country programs. This national experience, coupled with a high finish at regionals, may launch the teams to the national championships.

“If we didn’t think we could compete at the highest level, we wouldn’t be going to Wisconsin,” Cunetta said.

The Elis will first compete at Fordham Follies and Fiasco on Sept. 8. The annual Yale-Harvard-Princeton meet, earlier than usual this year, will follow at the Yale Golf Course Sept. 14.

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