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Head coach Rhonda Riley looks to lead Duke cross country into post-Ogilvie era

Senior Michaela Reinhart looks to lead an experienced group on the women's side.
Senior Michaela Reinhart looks to lead an experienced group on the women's side.

It’s been nearly 30 years since Norm Ogilvie wasn’t involved in Duke distance running.

But after his retirement this past summer, it’s time to move forward and look to the future for the Blue Devils’ men’s and women’s cross country teams.

At the time of the April announcement, women’s cross country head coach Rhonda Riley was named interim head coach for the men’s squad, with the team saying an extended search for Ogilvie's permanent replacement will occur at a later date due to COVID-19 precautions.

Four months later, however, Riley remains the leader of both the women’s and men’s programs, a role she has fully embraced thus far.

“I see myself in this role for as long as Duke will have me,” Riley, who has been the women’s coach since 2016, said. “It is interim right now, but for the year we will stay with this structure of how we have it. Next summer we will look for a director to lead the program. But as of now, I’m in this role and feel very comfortable in this role and plan to stay in this role.”

Despite the question marks regarding the program’s long-term future, the uncertainty surrounding the season itself seems to have settled down for the time being. 

While there won’t be any NCAA Championships this fall, and Duke’s regular-season schedule is still up in the air, it does seem like the ACC is planning on moving forward with its fall sports seasons. For Riley, that puts one major end goal in mind: placing as high as possible at the ACC Championships.

Last season, the women’s team placed ninth out of the 15 ACC schools, with their male counterparts placing seventh. But this year, both groups have their sights set a bit higher.

“Last year, the girls had wanted to get in the top-three,” women’s cross country senior Michaela Reinhart said. “And I don’t think we quite got there. But I think this year that would definitely be the goal, top-three team-wise in that race.” 

On the men’s side, senior CJ Ambrosio expressed the same aspirations.

“I think top-four is a very reasonable goal for the men’s side,” Ambrosio said. “Last year we were seventh and we were a little bit disappointed with that. We didn’t get out too well. But I think top-three, top-four would be awesome.”

The only question that remains is how each squad plans on making those kinds of jumps.

For the women’s team, Reinhart said that one strength of this year’s group is that everyone’s healthy, specifically her senior class.

“Running is one of those sports where overuse injuries are pretty darn common,” Reinhart said. “And they happen because we’re pounding all the time. But right now, everyone is healthy and building back to full mileage, including the whole senior class. 

“So that’s five girls that I’m really excited about. I’ve kind of been waiting for this to happen. [It’s] the first time we’ve all been in the same place and all healthy and all ready to go.”

That group of five seniors is led by Reinhart herself, who finished a team-high 22nd at the ACC Championships last year. Reinhart was followed in that November meet by fellow seniors Sara Platek, Helen Williams and Leigha Torino, who finished third, fourth and sixth on the team, respectively. 

The big returner, however, is Amanda Beach.

Beach came to Durham as one of the best incoming freshman in the country, placing 12th overall at Foot Locker Nationals during her senior year of high school, and didn’t disappoint during her first season in the Bull City. The Florida native finished top-two among the Blue Devils in all six of the races she competed in during her freshman campaign, including 17th overall at the ACC Championships.

Since then, Beach has competed in only six total races, finishing a disappointing 52nd at the 2018 ACC Championships and missing the meet altogether last season. While it remains to be seen what kind of impact she’ll be able to have on the cross country terrain upon returning from injury, Beach definitely has the potential to be an impact runner for the Blue Devils.

For the men, Ambrosio brought up how deep this year’s group is, returning its top six finishers from last year’s ACC Championships.

Leading that pack is, again, Ambrosio himself, who finished 26th at the November meet. Classmates Alex Miley, Josh Romine and Paul Dellinger weren’t far behind at 28th, 35th and 36th, respectively.

The X-Factor, though, could be sophomore Sam Rivera.

Rivera finished 37th at last year’s ACC Championships, tops among all true freshmen. The Chicago native was thus awarded with ACC Freshman of the Year honors, the first Duke men’s runner to ever take home the honor.

According to Riley, that was only the beginning for the Whitney Young High School product.

“Sam is extremely talented, and he has the mindset as well to be very good and another impact [runner],” Riley said. “He had a solid amount of training behind him this summer, and he’s fit right now and he’s really just kind of stepping into still developing but will be a high impact person for us this year.”

In addition to the returners, Ambrosio noted the men’s “stud freshman class,” headlined by North Carolina native Ben Armentrout and Austin Gabay, who will be reuniting with fellow Cinnaminson High School product and Duke senior Mike Ungvarksy.

Of course, in a sport like cross country where virtually the entire season can hinge on a single race, final results aren’t always the only objective. Especially in a year like this one, Reinhart and Ambrosio also want to use their roles as team leaders to bring everyone closer together.

“I just want to be the best leader that I can be,” Ambrosio said. “We have a very young team, and this team isn’t going anywhere. The coronavirus is going away before this team will go away. So I want to make sure that our class’ legacy is pointing the ship in the right direction.”

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