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Maatoug, Frias headline Duke cross country's formidable finish at ACC Championships

Duke's Amina Maatoug placed fourth on the women's side Friday.
Duke's Amina Maatoug placed fourth on the women's side Friday.

It was a fair-weathered day in Earlysville, Va., when Duke put on a performance based on effort, endurance and consistency. The Blue Devils lined up for their race at the ACC Championships on a cloudy but bright morning and dashed away with expectations.

“I'm very pleased on both sides. Very solid day across the board for our program,” said head coach Angela Reckart.

Friday morning, Virginia welcomed 15 ACC teams to the Panorama Farms Course for the conference championship. Women’s teams competed in a standard six-kilometer race, while men’s rosters ran their typical 8K. Given their success in their last two seasons—which most recently manifested in a first-place title at the Nuttycombe Invitational—it was no surprise to see the N.C. State women's team run home to Raleigh with an ACC title. On the men’s side, another state rival in Wake Forest claimed first place. Still, Duke ran like the wind, and at the end of the morning, both the men’s and women’s teams had placed seventh overall: an excellent showing for the Blue Devils.

At the onset of the men’s race, senior Zach Kinne led a tight pack of Blue Devils over the 2K mark with a 5:43 split. This is how the men’s team works: trampling the idea that running is an individual sport. The Blue Devils have a herd mentality, and it is what motivates their success.

Ten minutes into the race—just shy of halfway through—the Blue Devils held court in eighth place. Fast-forward to 11:36, and Kinne was still leading the troupe, pushing from 20th place at the 3K mark to 19th at the 4K. The Blue Devils were on the come-up.

The course narrative changed when the boys crossed the 5K line: Duke, now in seventh place, was suddenly led by graduate student Matyas Csiki-Fejer in 16th place, followed closely by team captain and fellow graduate student Chris Theodore, who finished first amongst Blue Devils at Nuttycombe and would ultimately do the same in this race.

“He’s definitely a team leader,” said Reckart of Theodore. “He was our number one guy today and he was our number one guy at Nuttycombe as well.”

Duke’s acceleration was soon met with a challenge: Right around the 16-minute mark, the men ran into a piece of the course adorned with steep inclines and sudden declines. Until this point, Panorama Farms had proven manageable—largely flat and straightforward, though in a grassy field without much of a demarcated trail. But this particular patch of treacherous track had Heartbreak Hill potential: it re-shuffled the racers for the last stretch. The effect it had on the Blue Devils was to pull apart their previously inseparable pack.

Still, as the race wrapped up, Duke landed in seventh place—right on track for where it should be, given the immensity of competition in the ACC, which has the most ranked teams of any conference.

“I think it’s a good day when you can go in and execute and finish where you were ranked,” said Reckart, who was “very pleased” with the men’s performance.

Theodore finished first for Duke in 28th place, followed by Kinne in 33rd; the captain led the Blue Devils with a time of 23:32.1, which was bookended by graduate student Will Dixon’s time of 24:55.8 as the team accumulated a total of 181 points.

“They executed our plan almost perfectly. Unfortunately for us, the ACC is just that good … [there were] seven ranked teams on the men’s side,” said Reckart. “But I wouldn't say that our performance today was anything negative. I was pleased—they went in and executed and did exactly what they needed to do.”

What Reckart did worry about, though, was Csiki-Fejer’s finish: just feet away from the finish line, the runner almost collapsed, only barely managing to pull himself through the last few steps of the race after a similar incident went down at Nuttycombe. 

“He pushed the pace a bit from 4k to 6k,” Reckard said. “He was in 15th place with [1000 meters] to go and then kind of faded 20 places. He was struggling.”

Shortly after, the women’s team lined up to shoot off on their 6K run. As they did so, North Carolina and N.C. State were both named possible conference champions, while Duke sophomore Amina Maatoug was called out by the ACC Network as a runner to watch.

Indeed, Maatoug certainly was one to keep an eye on. She began the race toward the front of the pack, keeping pace to finish the first third of the course in sixth place. Freshman Dalia Frias, a three-time ACC Freshman of the Week, followed in 23rd with a 2K split of 6:32, just four seconds behind Maatoug’s 6:28.

These two Blue Devils kept up their efforts for the whole of the Panorama Farms course: at the halfway mark, Maatoug kept her sixth-place spot, while Frias claimed 18th. Duke rose in rank too, settling at a seventh-place position which it managed to maintain for the rest of the race.

On a shorter path with a different route, Heartbreak Hill came around the 11th minute. But for Maatoug, there was absolutely no heartbreaking to be had—on the contrary, this was when the speedy Blue Devil revved up her game and began the latter half of her race, in which she ultimately schooled two Fighting Irish to take a valiant fourth place finish.

“Those are some really talented ladies that she beat today and stuck her nose right in with. So a very, very impressive finish for her,” said Reckart.

The sophomore’s victory was complemented by Frias’ success: In 31st place overall, the freshman outran every other true freshman on the course and earned ACC Freshman of the Year honors after the race.

A seventh-place finish for the women’s team is remarkable, especially considering Duke’s performances earlier this season. Now, Reckart’s mindset is all about team development. 

“With being where we are, in my second year in the program, we are moving in the right direction. We obviously have bigger goals and aspirations as we continue to grow as a program. But this year, we're definitely taking steps in the right direction. So I'm pleased with where we are and where the program is going.”

Next, the Blue Devils head to Louisville, Ky., Nov. 11 for the NCAA Southeast Regional Championships.

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