After coming up short last November, the Blue Devils will run with their backs against the wall Friday with ambitions of returning to Louisville, Ky., for the NCAA championships for the first time in two years. 

Duke will send its top runners to Charlottesville to compete at the NCAA Southeast Regional Championships, hoping to qualify a runner for nationals for the first time since Shaun Thompson advanced in November 2015. The Blue Devils have high hopes to send runners back to Louisville, where Thompson placed 95th out of 252 competitors with a 10-kilometer time of 30:55.2.

This year, Duke will bring a young group longing to keep its season alive. The women’s team is led by the freshman duo of Michaela Reinhart and Amanda Beach, who finished 16th and 17th, respectively, in the ACC championships last week. Reinhart will be running in the biggest event of her young career only days after being named ACC Freshman of the Year. 

Following impressive performances in both the conference championships and Pre Nationals earlier in October, women’s head coach Rhonda Riley has reason for optimism. 

“I think one of our strengths is we were very patient early on and then attacked the second half of the course,” Riley said of the Blue Devils’ October success. “That is something if we can replicate that and do that at regionals, then we’re going to do really well.”

Riley will also bring sophomores Lindsay Billings and Sophia Parvizi-Wayne—who finished 42nd in the ACC—and juniors Olivia Gwynn, Kim Hallowes and Sheridan Wilbur to Friday’s meet.

On the Men’s side, head coach Norm Ogilvie will bring a young but talented group including a trio of freshmen. Among those competing will be Stephen Garrett, Nikhil Pulimood, Jordan Burton, Matt Wisner, Tom Sullivan, Alex Miley and Paul Dellinger.

“We’ve been saying all year we have a young team. It’s especially true this weekend,” Ogilvie said. “We have three freshmen and then two sophomores and two juniors, so it’s a young group.” 

To make the trip even more intriguing, four of the seven Duke runners will be competing in their first competitive 10-kilometer race.

“It’s not that they can’t do it. They are very capable, but psychologically, I think there’s always a question in the back of your mind. ‘What’s going to happen once I get past eight kilometers?’ And the answer is they’ll be fine,” Ogilvie said. “You have to experience it—a longer distance—once, just to get through it. I just don’t know how they will react.”

In order for Duke to advance to the NCAA championships, it will either have to finish in the top two in the region or hope to receive one of 13 at-large bids given based on regular-season performances.

“We’re not even thinking about nationals,” Ogilvie said. “It’s all about this. This is the meet.”

Both the men and women will be competing in what is widely regarded as one of the most difficult courses in the nation. Although the scenic course is pleasant for spectators—featuring wavy hills through a Charlottesville horse farm—it is not as much fun to run.

“It’s the hardest course that we run on this year, and it’s certainly the hardest regional,” Ogilvie said. “What makes it interesting is about five miles into the race you run up a huge, difficult hill.... It’s not just a little speed bump, it’s a tough hill, and you also run across a creek about a quarter-mile from the finish as well.”

Despite the high level of difficulty, both Riley and Ogilvie are convinced that the team is well prepared.

“We’ve known all along that this is going to be the hilliest course that we’re running up against, so we have trained on hills all season long,” Riley said. “Even just our easy runs are on hills in Durham, so I feel like we are prepared.”

Mitchell Gladstone contributed reporting.