The Yale women’s cross country team entered 2016 with high expectations after finishing second at the Ivy League Championships last fall.
With one mile remaining in Saturday’s Harvard–Yale–Princeton meet in New Jersey, Yale head coach Amy Gosztyla watched as an unmatchable troop of Bulldog veterans shattered those expectations in historic fashion.
Just minutes after passing their coach on the side of the course, six Elis, led by captain and meet runner-up Frances Schmiede ’17, crossed the finish line in sequence to clinch the team’s first win at the Harvard–Yale–Princeton meet since 2002. In total, Yale squeezed seven runners — Schmiede, Emily Waligurski ’17, Dana Klein ’18, Meredith Rizzo ’17, Andrea Masterson ’19, Kelli Reagan ’18 and Elli Atkinson ’19 — into the top 10 finishers, translating to a 33-point victory over the Crimson.
“It’s kind of a dream in cross country to have such a solid group of women that you’re training with,” Klein said. “[Saturday] was the culmination of a year of work. It was very clear in the race, and we demonstrated what we had been working on all summer and all year.”
Despite entering the rivalry weekend as the preliminary favorites — rare for a team that had finished fourth or worst at Ivies in 10 straight seasons before 2015 — the Yale team began its day as it would before any other race.
Rizzo remarked that though she and her teammates felt a slight “buzz” gearing up for a potential win, the Bulldogs were relaxed going through their pre-race routines.
Toeing the starting line and anticipating the starter’s gun, Schmiede looked down the line at her teammates, cautiously optimistic about the meet.
“We had strength in numbers,” she said. “Lining up, we had a big group of girls. We had really high expectations to start with, but it’s hard to know how it’s going to play out.”
That strength in numbers came into focus early in the race, as a pack of Yale runners durably emerged at the front of the competition. Though Klein owned the first-place position with a 5:48.8 split at the one-mile mark, the Elis alternated leading throughout the early stages of the meet.
As the frontrunners passed the halfway mark and closed in on the final stretch, it became evident that Yale’s group mentality would prevail over the lone Harvard and Princeton representatives jockeying for top points.
“We were all focusing on running as a pack and maintaining our lead,” Schmiede said. “We got to a mile to go and our coach yelled ‘There’s two Princeton and one Harvard with you!’ It was cool knowing that unless we imploded we were going to win.”
Though Harvard’s Courtney Smith edged the Yale contingent for the individual title with a 19:07.8 mark in the five-kilometer race, it was all Yale to follow. Schmiede and Waligurski, who also finished within a second of each other at last year’s Heptagonal Championships, took second and third with times of 19:08.6 and 19:08.9, respectively. Klein, Rizzo, Masterson and Reagan all finished immediately behind the Yale trailblazers, and Atkinson curtailed the scoring for the Bulldogs with a 10th-place finish, just one spot behind Princeton’s best runner.
“We [went into the race] confident and we had a game plan,” Rizzo said. “I knew that we could all work together. We ran it almost like we do workouts, just tucked in together and went for it. We just sort of walled everyone out … and took control of the race.”
Yale’s emphatic win put Saturday’s race in the company of the team’s all-time best performances at the HYP meet. The team’s 20 total points tied the mark put up by the 1986 Bulldog squad as the third-lowest team score in the 40-year history of the meet, and its staggering 33-point margin of victory rivals only the 1987 Yale team, which trounced second-place Princeton by 34, the greatest margin in program history.
But since the start of the season, the 2016 Bulldogs have had more in mind than success in Saturday’s three-team contest — Yale’s first Ivy League cross country championship since 2001.
“We’ve grown and matured over the years in terms of how we approach our races,” Rizzo said. “It’s weird to think we have a target on our backs but at the same time we can handle that. [A championship] won’t be handed to us, but its not out of our reach at all. If we trust each other, I think we can have an exciting season.”
Yale will run four more meets before journeying to Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx on Oct. 29 for the Ivy League Championship meet.