ELON, N.C.—It’s tough to have a better start to a head coaching career than Angela Reckart’s Friday night.
Duke dominated both the men’s and women’s races at the Elon Opener, Reckart’s first meet as the new head coach of the cross country program. In the women’s four-kilometer race, the Blue Devils swept the top-three and secured five of the top 10 spots for a total score of 22, while the 23rd-ranked men took home places two-through-six for a score of 20 in their six-kilometer race.
For comparison, Elon and Eastern Carolina placed second and third in the 10-team women’s race with scores of 37 and 73, respectively, with Eastern Carolina and UNC-Greensboro taking second and third in the 12-team men’s event with scores of 75 and 84, respectively.
It became clear fairly quickly that the competition was no match for Duke. By the third lap of the four-lap women’s race, the top three Blue Devils had separated themselves from the rest of the pack and the emcee announced that Duke had virtually clinched the team event. And by the fourth lap of the six-lap men’s race around the same one-kilometer loop, a stampede of blue and white took up spots two-through-12.
While it can be tough to judge too much from a race so early in the season and against opposition not quite at the ACC level, Reckart did say she’s pleased with what she saw from her group.
“The goal of today—I wanted them working together, working as a pack and testing themselves over the second portion of the race,” Reckart said. “The ladies packed up really well…. The men ran really well. I think, again, the goal was putting emphasis on our pack. We’re only as strong as our fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth guys.”
As Reckart mentioned, pack running was the theme of the evening, with a large group of Blue Devils quickly forming near the front of each race and holding strong throughout. However, there were still some standout individual performances.
While the leading Blue Devil women of sophomore Charlotte Tomkinson, senior Clara Savchik and graduate student Michaela Reinhart remained neck-and-neck for most of the race, it was Tomkinson who outkicked her teammates to secure her first career collegiate victory. The California native placed top-seven on the team in all of the races she competed in last fall, but hadn’t showcased this kind of front-running potential until Friday. If she can stay close to the front of the pack in Duke’s bigger meets, that’s huge news for the Blue Devils’ hopes at a top-three place at ACCs and an NCAA Championships berth.
“I think just a lot more confidence racing collegiately, and believing in myself a little more as a cross country runner,” Tomkinson said of what’s helped the most between this season and last. “And definitely a lot of support and mentorship from my teammates.”
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Tomkinson’s win is that she came to Duke as mostly an 800-meter specialist, and still focuses more on the middle-distance events during track season. But Reckart says that Tomkinson is starting to embrace the “aerobic component of cross country” and figures to be one of the team’s leading runners throughout the year.
Savchik followed Tomkinson in second place, and Reinhart—Duke’s leading runner at ACCs and NCAAs a year ago—finished third to round out the lead pack. While senior Elizabeth Reneau and freshman Katie Hamilton didn’t place too far behind at sixth and 10th, respectively, Reckart did say one goal over the next few weeks will be to cut down on the gap between the two groups. The return of junior Emily Cole—who's been running with that lead pack in practice but had to miss the meet for her sister’s wedding—should help add some depth.
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On the men’s side, things got a little interesting over the final few laps.
While the Blue Devils held a formidable pack of 11 runners in the top 12, Campbell graduate student Athanas Kioko dropped the hammer and gained a seemingly insurmountable lead by the end of lap three. During the fifth lap, however, Duke’s leading trio of junior Zach Kinne, graduate transfer Nick Dahl and junior Sam Rivera closed the gap and even passed Kioko for a stretch, setting up a sprint to the finish over the final kilometer.
Kioko—who placed 19th at the 2019 NCAA Championships to earn All-America status—ended up holding on for the win, but the challenge put forth by the Blue Devils’ top three is a bright sign of things to come.
“I told those guys, ‘Hey, focus on the pack. If he wants to go, let him go,’” Reckart said. “I knew they would close it down. I wasn't sure if they would catch him so it was kinda fun to see that. They’re competitors, so if they're in a race and they see someone going, they're gonna want to try to close it down. So it was fun to see [Kioko] test them a bit, but I was more happy that they were able to close it down and do [it] together.”
Kinne came closest to edging Kioko en route to a second-place finish, while Dahl, Rivera, junior Rory Cavan and graduate student Michael Ungvarsky took the next four places to round out Duke’s top five. Graduate student CJ Ambrosio, who led the Blue Devil men for every meet except one last season, was held out of the race while getting over a cold.
The Blue Devils will get a little bit more of a test at the Adidas XC Challenge in Cary, N.C., Sept. 17, a meet that figures to include a good chunk of Duke’s nearby ACC rivals, with an even bigger test coming the following Friday at the Battle in Beantown in Chestnut Hill, Mass.
“We have some key workouts that I like to do in the next training block that will kinda challenge the aerobic component, and I'll know more when I see them do these workouts kind of where things stand and where their fitness is,” Reckart said. “So I think it's going to be a fun next two weeks.”
Andrew Long contributed reporting.