Duke cross country falls short at NCAA Southeast Regionals, Maatoug advances to national championships

The Duke men race during October's ACC Championships.
The Duke men race during October's ACC Championships.

In a team sport that is so dependent on the performance of every individual, it can seem unfair how many things can go wrong. But even in the face of injury, adversity or just an off-day, athletes have to show up and cross country runners have to run.

On Friday, the Blue Devils traveled down to Spartanburg, S.C., to face off against more than 30 other teams at Milliken Research Park for the NCAA Southeast Regional Championships. In both the men’s 10k and the women’s 6k, the pressure was high, as the outcome of the race would determine the qualifiers for the NCAA Championships. The Duke women finished sixth overall while the men placed seventh. In no surprise, the N.C. State women and North Carolina men secured the top team spots. 

There was a bright spot for Duke in the women’s race as junior Amina Maatoug clinched the first of four individual qualifying spots with her runner-up finish, but the rest of the team did not do as well as they had hoped. Neither team was in ideal condition, faced with all-too-common culprits like IT band syndrome and hamstring strains. 

But that’s just the nature of the sport. The way of the game. 

“At the end of the day … we weren't at our best today on the starting line,” said head coach Angela Reckart after the races.

Despite all that, Maatoug appeared to be at her best, clocking a blistering 19:41.0 to lead the Blue Devil women as regional runner-up. Just over 11 seconds behind N.C. State’s defending individual national champion, Katelyn Tuohy, Maatoug worked her way up throughout the race to stay on Tuohy’s heels, mirroring their one-two finish at the ACC Championships in October. 

The Leiden, Netherlands, native stayed comfortable up until the 2k mark, where she began her climb. Over the next 1.5k, she rose to the front of the pack, positioning herself into fifth place. By the 5k mark, Maatoug had risen to second, sailing on until the finish line and beyond, punching her ticket to the NCAAs.

Along with Maatoug, the rest of the Blue Devil women battled it out. Graduate student Emily Cole was their next-highest finisher, running a career-best 20:48.2 for 34th place — a strong comeback after a fall in the final stretch at the ACC Championships. Not far behind Cole for Duke was the middle-distance duo of graduate students Karly Forker and Julia Fenerty, who finished within a tenth of a second of each other in 47th and 48th place, respectively. 

Freshman Thais Rolly brought up the rear for the scorers as the 53rd finisher, capping off a standout rookie season. 

"I think she was hoping for a little bit more today,” Reckart said of Rolly. “She has a really bright future.”

For the men’s team, the race did not unfold entirely as expected. Looking to follow their fifth-place showing at last year’s Southeast Regional with at least a sixth-place finish, the men fell slightly short in seventh.

While the result is due in part to the loss of last year’s sole Blue Devil NCAA qualifier, Zach Kinne, the race was also the men’s first go at the 10k distance this season. It was a bit of a learning curve. 

“I think we might have fallen asleep for some of the middle [kilometers],” Reckart said. And thankfully, they woke back up and were able to close it down and make up some ground on the last 3k [of] the race.”

Made up some ground Duke did: All five of the men’s scorers ran personal bests in the 10k. 

In just the right race of the season, Jared Kreis ran 29:58.8 to join usual leader and fellow senior Austin Gabay, who finished just ahead in 29:58.4. Their sub-30-minute times were good for 32nd and 33rd place. Graduate student Sam Rivera wasn’t far behind, running 30:08.6 to place 39th. Graduate transfers Zubeir Dagane and Michael Keehan rounded out the top five for the Blue Devils, finishing within the first 70 individuals.

While both the men and the women had hoped to place higher in Friday’s regional meet, that is only a one-day narrative. With incoming graduate transfers next year and ripening underclassman talent like sub-four-minute miler freshman Jackson Heidisch, Reckart envisions a Duke distance squad with increased depth, one that will only get better.

“It's my goal for us to have two teams at the national championships,” Reckart said. “We’re gonna continue our vision of making that happen.” 

On Saturday, the women's team will be at the national championships, but this time on the sidelines of the Panorama Falls course in Charlottesville, Va. There, they will cheer on Maatoug as she takes on the heavy favorites, Tuohy and Florida’s Parker Valby, in what will be a race for the ages.


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