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Duke fall sports preview: cross country

Michaela Reinhart paced the women's cross country team all of last season.
Michaela Reinhart paced the women's cross country team all of last season.

Overview

There’s been a lot of turnover in the Duke cross country program over the past few years. First, longtime men’s head coach (as well as the Blue Devils’ director of track and field) Norm Ogilvie retired in the summer of 2020. Then-women’s cross country head coach Rhonda Riley promptly took on Ogilvie’s role in cross country and coached both the men’s and women’s teams last season. Then, after Shawn Wilbourn took over as Duke’s new director of both track and field and cross country this past summer, he hired former North Carolina and Penn State assistant Angela Reckart to replace Riley as the new head coach of men’s and women’s cross country. 

Being in the midst of a program shakeover can be difficult to navigate for any group, but it seems like the current crop of Blue Devils are taking it in stride. Last season, both the men and women posted their best performances at the ACC and national level since at least 2012. And with several top runners returning for their extra year of eligibility and a few newcomers ready to make an immediate impact, they should be set for another strong campaign this fall.

New runners to watch

Men: Nick Dahl

Dahl comes to Duke as a graduate transfer from Yale, where he placed 15th in the 2019 Ivy League Cross Country Championships. On the track, the Pennsylvania native won the conference title in the mile at the 2020 Ivy League Indoor Track and Field Championships and set personal bests in the 800-meter (1:48.80) and 1500-meter (3:38.60) as an unattached runner this past spring (Yale, along with the rest of the Ivy League, did not compete in athletics last year). Don’t be surprised if he’s consistently in the upper half of the Blue Devils’ top seven.

Women: Katie Hamilton

Hamilton saw most of her success in high school come in the 800-meter, 1600-meter and mile on the track. Nevertheless, Reckart says the incoming freshman has shown that she can hang in the longer distances as well over the first few weeks of practice. The women’s team has a solid group of returners that should lead the way for most of the year, but Hamilton could easily squeak her way into the top seven by season’s end.

Returning runners to watch

Men: CJ Ambrosio

Ambrosio fell to fifth on the team at the NCAA Championships last season, but placed top-two for the Blue Devil men in every other race he ran, including a team-leading 16th overall finish at the ACC Championships. The graduate student showed flashes he can improve upon that place as well, hanging with the top few runners in the conference meet before falling behind over the final few kilometers. He, along with fellow graduate student Josh Romine, should anchor the men most of the season.

Women: Michaela Reinhart

Reinhart is the unquestioned leader of the women’s team. The Kentucky native led the Blue Devils in every race she ran in last season except for one, including a fourth-place finish at the ACC Championships that marked the best finish for a Duke women’s runner at the meet since 2013. Reckart says there are “big goals” on the horizon for Reinhart's final season.

Most anticipated meet: Pre-Nationals Invitational, Oct. 15

To secure a spot at the NCAA Championships, a squad must either place top-two at one of the nine NCAA Regionals (for an automatic bid) or hope for one of the 13 at-large bids (which puts an emphasis on your place at Regionals but takes into account performance throughout the season as well). 

This section is limited to the regular season, though, so I’m going to go with the Pre-Nationals Invitational in Tallahassee, Fla. It’ll be Duke’s best measuring stick entering the postseason, both in terms of its status as the team’s final regular-season meet of the year as well as the broad selection of teams across the country that are set to participate.

Best-case scenario

Last season, the men and women finished fifth and fourth at the ACC Championships, respectively, with both squads eventually earning their first NCAA Championship berths since 2012. There, the men shocked nearly everybody en route to a 16th-place finish, while the women disappointed and fell to 27th. With both teams returning a majority of their top-seven from last season, top-three in the conference and top-15 nationally for each is certainly within reach.

Worst-case scenario

As the women’s team knows all too well from last season’s NCAA Championships, cross country is a sport that comes down to running your best in the biggest races. If either the men or women have a disappointing day in one of the three postseason meets, either could fall to the middle pack of the ACC and miss out on the NCAA Championships.

Prediction

Men’s: 5th in the ACC, 21st in the NCAA

Women’s: 3rd in the ACC, 16th in the NCAA

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