When Angela Reckart took over as Duke’s head coach at the start of last season, she made a plan to send two teams to the national championships. Now, Reckart’s goal is right on the fringe of fruition; she was able to see a preview of its success in two individual Blue Devils.
On a crisp Saturday morning in Stillwater, Okla., sophomore Amina Maatoug and senior Zach Kinne closed out Duke’s season with a forceful showing at the NCAA Championships. Though they ran individually, these two Blue Devils did so in style, as Kinne crossed the finish line in 120th—on track with his goal—and Maatoug surged to 28th on the Greiner Family Course to carry home All-American honors.
“I'm proud of the individuals. I'm proud of the overall growth that this program has made this year and I'm excited to keep growing with both teams,” Reckart said.
As the day began at Oklahoma State, 254 women lined up to run their 6K in a bristling climate of 26 degrees. Maatoug braced herself—not only for the cold, but also to compete with the fastest runners in the country on one of the more difficult sites for the sport. This race marked the Leiden, Netherlands native’s first NCAA Championships appearance in her first collegiate season. Despite being a sophomore, Maatoug did not run with Duke last year; she ran exclusively in Europe before moving to Durham to start as a second-year student athlete.
Saturday’s race was not only difficult because of the competition or the discomfort of the weather. Greiner Family Course is characterized by hills—a significant obstacle to add to an already high-pressure day.
Yet none of these obstacles seemed to thwart Maatoug. She took off with the rest of the pack, finishing her first 1,000 meters in 35th place. It was only uphill from here, though—literally and metaphorically—as she made her way into the top 30 of the race and refused to leave.
Helping Maatoug out was the fact that the Blue Devils have trained to deal with difficult terrain. “Where we train here in Durham we have a ton of hills,” said Reckart. “The ACC course at UVA was pretty hilly as well, so we were prepping for that. So it kind of worked nicely for us. We were prepared for nationals.”
Indeed, Maatoug proved that she was prepared for this race, even as the only runner for the Duke women. When the sophomore clocked in with a final time of 20:04.6, she did so in 28th place; the top 40 runners are recognized as All-Americans, putting her comfortably amongst them.
Reckart had hoped that her runner would qualify as an All-American, but was unsure about what the results would really look like with such fierce competition. “She continues to exceed my expectations of what she can achieve … it's been a really fun season working with her,” Reckart said.
On the heels of his teammate’s success, Kinne took off for the men’s 10K. He began at the back of the crowd, bounding past the 1,000-meter mark in 214th place before quickly maneuvering his way to the middle.
From the 2K mark to the last meters, the senior from Sewickley, Penn., danced around the border of the fastest 100 runners. Right around the 9K mark, he propelled himself to 112th place—just outside the top 100, which he said was his goal at the race. The final stretch, however, forced him to drop a number of spots on an incline and he crossed the finish line in 120th place. For a Blue Devil making his NCAA championship debut and running without his team, the accomplishment constitutes a precious decoration on his final undergraduate season.
“With Zach, seeing the progress that he's made, I'm really excited to work with him as he transitions over to the track, building off from this finish,” said Reckart.
Saturday was another proud moment for N.C. State; the Wolfpack women won first-place at the end of the morning, led by sophomore Katelyn Tuohy in first place.
On the men’s side, a near tie between Northern Arizona and Oklahoma State was broken by the two teams’ sixth and seventh runners, ending with Northern Arizona edging the hosts for the title.
Duke did not head into the event looking for a team victory. With just two individual runners, that was never a possibility. Nonetheless, Maatoug and Kinne brought something back to the Blue Devils: hope for the future.
“It's good for the program,” said Reckart. “It's good for the younger individuals, both the men and women on our team to see what they can do.”
All season, Duke’s spotlight has been on growth. The journey to becoming a top-20 program is akin to climbing a steep hill in a race: It takes endurance, a strong mentality and a little bit of extra time. With Maatoug and Kinne getting over a number of tricky hills Saturday, there is no doubt that other Blue Devils will be able to do the same in coming seasons. If the pair can inspire their peers, the hill’s downward slope will carry the team far.
Reckart is confident about this future, especially after Duke’s performance Saturday. “Our goal is to have two teams [at nationals],” she said. “It keeps us hungry, as a program, to make sure that we have two teams on the starting line next year.”
Though the season is now over, most of the roster will be renewed for the indoor track and field season, which will open Dec. 3 at the Early Bird Invitational in Winston-Salem, N.C.
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Sophie Levenson is a Trinity sophomore and sports features editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.