In cross country, endurance is the name of the game. It may not be a marathon, but it’s certainly not a sprint for Duke, a team that is just meters away from their goal of eventually earning national eligibility.
On Friday, Duke cross country met with 32 other teams in the Southeast Regional Championships in Louisville, Ky., including, once again, state rivals North Carolina, Wake Forest and N.C. State. Racing around the course in E.P. “Tom” Sawyer State Park, the Blue Devils achieved two fifth-place team finishes, rounding off their postseason competition with a considerable leap in the right direction. They also earned two individual spots in the national competition for sophomore star Amina Maatoug and speedy senior Zach Kinne.
“We’re getting closer and closer every single year, which is obviously a positive step for us,” said Angela Reckart, who is now finishing her second season as head coach. “I would have been a little bit more pleased if our team had qualified, but I think it was a great day for the program.”
Friday’s meet was all about progress. Last year, regional competition saw the women’s team in 11th place and the men’s in sixth, meaning that both contingents—especially the former—have revved up their speed considerably this year.
According to Reckart, the Blue Devils' spirit is there; their feet just haven’t quite caught up yet: “Both programs are bought in; they're seeing the progress that they're making in their races,” she said. “And they believe that we can do it, which I think is probably one of the biggest challenges for coaches: getting teams to believe.”
Leading the women’s team in Friday’s race was Maatoug, whose presence has brought unparalleled force to Duke in her two seasons on the team. On the Sawyer course, the Leiden, Netherlands native claimed a 6K time of 20:11.5 minutes—about thirty seconds slower than her pace in the ACC championship two weeks ago, which might be due to any combination of humid weather, a muddy trail or simply a different mindset. Nonetheless, a sixth-place win was a notable accolade for this Blue Devil, and also worthy of a spot in the national competition, which accepts the top four teams from the race as well as the top four individual runners from non-qualifying teams. Of the latter, Maatoug was second.
As usual, freshman Dalia Frias crossed the finish line just moments after Maatoug: this time crossing the stripe at 21:06.6. Her performance, though stellar—she finished fourth out of true freshmen on the course—was hampered by a sprained ankle which she suffered partway through the race. Without it, the ACC Freshman of the Year may have fared even better than she did.
Contrary to popular belief, cross country is not an individual sport: not only do the Blue Devils train and race as a team, but they also place as one. The surprising fifth-place finish for the women’s team came largely as a result of graduate student Ashlyn Ramos, senior Emily Cole and sophomore Katie Hamilton holding steady spots on the course.
“Ashlyn [Ramos] has been pretty solid and consistent all season long,'' said Reckart. “Emily [Cole] and Katie Hamilton had a really strong base for us. And Hamilton, she has just been getting better and better as the season has been going on.”
Where steadiness and consistency seemed to rule the race for the women’s team, a change in pace took over on the men’s side. In the regional competition, the men raced a 10K course, a sneaky extension from their usual eight. This meant a shuffle in team results: Kinne took first for Duke, and ninth overall, with a time of 29:59.9; his teammate Owen MacKenzie, a senior, followed ten places and just thirteen seconds behind him. Team captain Chris Theodore, a graduate student who usually leads the Blue Devil pack, settled for 35th, with a time of 30:27.2; he finished the race a second behind 34th-place and fellow grad student Matyas Csiki-Fejer.
According to Reckart, this reshuffling of ranks was the result of the distance change. “Kinne has had experience in the 10Ks, run a couple more 10Ks than some of the other guys have,” she said. “It just goes to show he was ready to hit it.”
While nationals dangled like a carrot on a stick in front of Reckart’s team, it was once again rival schools that managed to grab hold of it. Lightning quick on their Tar Heeled feet, North Carolina snagged a first-place victory in the men’s division, while the Wolfpack dashed their way to yet another women’s title.
At the end of the day, the Blue Devils left Louisville as a herd: men and women moving in unison towards their ultimate goal of national qualification. The herd was not satisfied this year—the Blue Devils are still on the hunt—but they have undoubtedly formed a feasible plan of attack for next season.
“It’s a little bittersweet,” reflected Reckart. “We ran very well for who we are, but we came up just short of qualifying for nationals. But it keeps us hungry.”
Maatoug and Kinne will close out Duke’s season with the NCAA championships in Stillwater, Okla., on Saturday.
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