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'We will continue to do better. I guarantee it': Duke cross country stumbles in NCAA Southeast Regional

There’s no worse feeling than that of a missed opportunity.

Unfortunately for Duke cross country, one could argue that the NCAA Southeast Regional was such an occasion. The Blue Devils, who finished sixth and fifth in the men’s and women’s races, respectively, in 2019, took to the Louisville, Ky., course with the expectation to avenge a relatively disappointing showing at the ACC Championships in South Bend, Ind., a couple of weeks ago. Though the individual efforts of a few runners shone through, Friday’s meet will be one that the Blue Devils hope to move on from quickly and use as motivation for future seasons.

On the women’s end, traditional pacesetter Michaela Reinhart once again led the Blue Devils with her 20th place finish and stamped her third-consecutive All-Region recognition. Breakout star of 2021 and All-ACC recipient Charlotte Tomkinson was notably absent from Reinhart’s heels at the front pack, finishing 71st after collapsing midway through the race. In a season that has seen inconsistent, yet sometimes encouraging performances from the Duke women (especially by Reinhart and Tomkinson), Friday was undoubtedly not what the team was hoping to accomplish in the final race of the season. The women placed 11th overall.

Head coach Angela Reckart summarized it bluntly: “We’re disappointed. We’re very disappointed.”

On the men’s end, the story is slightly brighter and the aura is less of disappointment and more of the knowledge that this squad has more in the tank. Led by another stellar showing from graduate student Josh Romine in 20th place and a tight following pack of Chris Theodore, Sam Rivera and Zach Kinne in 33rd, 34th and 35th, respectively, Duke finished in sixth and an agonizing three points behind fifth-placed Charlotte. The scoring in cross country functions so that if one of Duke’s runners was one or two places higher than one of Charlotte’s, the Blue Devils would have been the ones narrowly holding fifth in the 49ers’ place. It was a knife’s edge finale, but hardly one that’s catastrophic.

This last-gasp pip by the 49ers could in part be due to an uncharacteristic off-day by perennial Duke star CJ Ambrosio, one of the team’s consistent top runners of the past few seasons. After sitting as high as seventh in the first half of the race, he fell off in the second half, ultimately notching 50th place overall and fifth for his team.

“CJ may have gone out a little aggressively and faded the last 2k,” Reckart said. “I think he faded 30 spots or so. So that hurt our team score. But you know, he wanted it and probably wanted a little bit too much and may have [gone] out a little too hard.”

The best part of cross country is working your way up to the “big day,” adding in bits of fitness week by week, all in preparation for 25-30 minutes of pure pain. The goal of any program is to make its athletes most competitive and viable for the races at the end of the year that competitively matter. But sometimes the cards just don’t play the way they’re supposed to, and sometimes the last race is not the best race, even if all the training and work along the way indicates that it should be. 

“It's been a season of transition,” Reckart said. “It's a whole new coaching mentality that they've had to embrace. But we're growing together as a program and we will continue to do better. I guarantee it.”

While the men’s team will qualify for next week’s NCAA championship meet in Tallahassee, Fla., the Blue Devils will fail to replicate their late-season heroics of 2020 by defying the odds and any expectations to place 16th at nationals. It’s been a transitional year for Duke, with a new coach, new faces to the squad and fiercely competitive ACC landscape all playing a factor in diminished results. There were good days and there were plenty of good performances, but here’s to hoping that if this year was the fallow, those to come will be a return to the swashbuckling, fearless Blue Devil cross country of the not-too-distant past.

“It was not a stellar day at the office,” said Reckart. “We want to process these results. And we want to do better.”

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