With team captain Pat Dantzer ’06 mysteriously absent from the Bulldog pack, the men’s cross country team stood little chance in the strong field at the Heptagonal Championships.

Overwhelming favorite Dartmouth dominated in the Bronx last Friday, taking its first Ivy League title since 2002 with all five Big Green scorers placing in the top 12 individually. Meanwhile, the Elis lagged well behind in seventh place. Placings shook out as many expected they would, but that did not help dull the Bulldogs’ disappointment.

Dartmouth’s Ben True, an All-American Nordic skier in the off-season, took the individual crown in 24:36.2, followed by Owen Washburn of Brown (24:38.3) and Princeton’s Frank Macreery (24:39.4). Andrew Pitts ’07 led Yale across the finish line in 29th place with a time of 25:39.0, over a minute behind True. Pitts was followed by David Napper ’07 in 32nd place, Erik Brown ’06 in 41st, Brian Gertzen ’07 in 44th, and Jared Bell ’09 in 48th.

As has been the case all year, the Elis entered the race expecting a pack mentality to be critical in picking off runners from other teams. Before the race, Pitts, Napper, Brown and Dantzer were delegated to form the first group, while Gertzen and Bell were to lead the second. But the hills of Van Cortlandt Park broke up and slowed down the Bulldog packs early, forcing some runners to lag back in order to maintain group cohesion.

Most importantly, Dantzer’s inexplicable disappearance from the lead group weakened Yale’s top five. His 80th place finish left several runners with questions about his performance.

“I’m really not sure what happened to him,” Pitts said.

Two weeks ago in Terre Haute for Pre-Nationals, Dantzer also fell out of the team’s five scorers. That weekend he was battling respiratory problems, but he downplayed the effects of that sickness on this weekend’s race.

“Clearly something is wrong, but I don’t want to make any excuses,” Dantzer said. “I can’t really say exactly what happened.”

The team has suffered from a series of injuries and sicknesses, beginning with the losses of Jake Gallagher ’09 and Tadhq O’Callaghan ’08 earlier in the season to stress fractures. Both Gallagher and O’Callaghan were running in the top tier of the team, and their injuries weakened the Eli pack.

But wear and tear has taken its toll on the entire team as the season has progressed.

“It’s definitely unique to a sport where day after day you’re pounding on your body,” Bell said. “There’s a fine line you have to play when training for a sport as physical as cross country, a balance between training and staying healthy.”

Expectations for the team have changed with the injuries, but Pitts and others said hopes were still high heading into the weekend. With the exception of Dantzer, the remaining healthy Bulldogs maintained the packs they expected. But times lagged behind the team’s goals. The Elis had hoped to place all five scorers under 25:50; only Pitts and Napper did so.

Even Pitts, who led the Bulldogs, said he left Van Cortlandt Park disappointed.

“I’m really not satisfied with the way I’m racing yet,” he said. “I know we’re capable of a lot more as a team, and I think a lot of the guys have that attitude.”

Regionals are in two weeks. With slim prospects of reaching Nationals, the team is searching for motivation. Usually, Ivy competition gives the Bulldogs concrete goals and offers a field composed entirely of rivals. But with the anticlimactic finish at Heps, Regionals appears to be just another race.

Pitts said he wants to use Regionals as a building block for next season and a chance to salvage some sense of progress from the latter portion of this year.

“It’s hard to say whether Regionals can heal the wounds from this weekend,” he said. “But one race can also turn around a season, and I definitely think we can use Regionals to reinvent ourselves as a team.”