After legendary men’s head coach Norm Ogilvie retired this past summer, it was a new era for now-men’s and women’s head coach Rhonda Riley and the Duke cross country program.
It’s safe to say that new era is off to a strong start.
The women’s and men’s teams finished fourth and fifth, respectively, in Friday’s ACC Championships in Cary, N.C., both programs’ best finishes since 2012. Three runners earned All-ACC honors by finishing in the top 21 of their respective races, with senior Michaela Reinhart and sophomore Samantha Schadler finishing fourth and 10th overall, respectively, on the women’s side and senior CJ Ambrosio finishing 16th overall for the men.
The N.C. State women dominated en route to their fifth straight conference crown, while Notre Dame took home its second men's title in three years. Both winners were selected as the preseason favorites back in September.
North Carolina finished fifth in the women's race and seventh in the men's race.
Last season, Duke placed ninth on the women’s side and seventh on the men’s side, with no runners bringing in All-ACC honors. So what allowed the Blue Devils to make such a big jump this year?
“As a combined program, there's just been a lot more positive energy,” Schadler said. “And I know a lot of people have noticed similar things. I just think that coming to practice every day with people who want to be there, and people who are excited to put in the work, but also excited to support their teammates in the process, just has helped us all and our individual performances.
“And so I think just having the team behind me, and knowing that I'm racing for something bigger than myself, was kind of the biggest thing that helped me make that jump.”
Schadler, who competed in only one meet during her freshman season due to injury, placed within the top three of the team in each of the Blue Devil women's two regular-season races this year. But the Arizona native saved her best for the biggest meet of them all.
While she placed just 39th overall at the three-kilometer mark and 20th at the 4.7-kilometer mark of the sixth-kilometer race, Schadler continued to move up right until the finish line, including passing “about 10 people” in the final 600 meters. Her performance Friday is undoubtedly a great sign for the future of the program.
“For her to come out and have a great season for us and to place second [on the team] and top 10 in the ACC was incredible,” Riley said. “Her confidence has grown each week, each workout, each race. And we're just getting started with her and excited to have her the next three years.”
Reinhart—who finished 22nd, 20th and 16th at the ACC Championships her previous three seasons—also credited her improvement to the team culture, specifically being more “relaxed” before races.
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“We’ve done a much better job about realizing that it’s a race, and an important race, but also just a race,” Reinhart said. “And that racing is a gift.”
Following Reinhart and Schadler on the women’s side was senior Amanda Beach in 26th place and junior Sara Platek in 27th. Beach’s performance marked her best finish in the ACC Championships since placing 17th her freshman season, while Platek greatly improved upon her 47th-place finish from last year.
Freshman Charlotte Tomkinson rounded out the scoring for the women with a 49th-place finish, an astounding feat for someone who wasn’t recruited as a pure distance runner.
“[Tomkinson] is an 800-meter specialist, so she has had an incredible season that has surprised a lot of people and herself,” Riley said. “We've had a lot of fun just seeing her develop and, again, know that the next four years with her are going to be outstanding.”
Sophomore Clara Savchik and senior Helen Williams finished off the women’s team’s top seven in 56th and 75th place, respectively, in the 134-person race.
For the men, Ambrosio once again got out fast and did his best to stick with the top of the pack. The Ohio native placed as high as third overall at the 3.8-kilometer mark of the eight-kilometer race, and while he couldn’t quite finish that high, his strategy to start out strong undoubtedly helped him improve upon his 26th and 43rd-place finishes in his previous two ACC Championship races.
“CJ had a lot of confidence based off his last race,” Riley said. “Getting out that hard is one of his strengths.”
Sophomore Zach Kinne, junior Chris Theodore, senior Josh Romine, freshmen Austin Gabay and Jared Kreis, and sophomore Sam Rivera rounded out the men’s top seven in 22nd, 25th, 33rd, 40th, 46th and 56th-place, respectively, in the 135-person race.
Theodore and Romine’s finishes were both personal bests in the ACC Championships, but it was the performance of the team’s youth that really shone Friday.
“[Gabay] being a freshman and being in our top five for the second meet in a row is huge,” Riley said. “We have some young freshmen and sophomores that are going to be the future of this program.”
And in the end, that’s probably the biggest bright spot from a day full of them for this Duke cross country program.
“We still know that there’s more left with us,” Riley said. “The great thing about racing is that we know we can improve.”