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May 14, 2017

UMass places in top 5 of A-10 Conference Championships

It’s a mantra in sports that some teams live by: when things get tough, come together.

On Saturday, as the Massachusetts cross country teams headed to Saint Louis to compete in the Atlantic 10 Conference Championships, they knew they would not only face stiff competition but also adverse weather conditions. Their response to it, however, would prove that both teams were prepared.

The men’s and women’s teams turned in a gritty performance as they placed 2nd and 3rd respectively, in this weekend’s conference championship. Coaches from each side expressed that they were proud of the way their team battled and came together in such a big race.

Massachusetts coach Ken O’Brien was pleased with his team’s effort and mental tenacity on Saturday.

“In one word: it was muddy. [Bad conditions] can cause a physical and mental distraction, but I thought our team really didn’t let it bother us,” he said.

The course had undoubtedly been affected by the severe rainfall that had occurred in Missouri over the past week. The region, which tends to be relatively dry in October, received over ten inches of rain this month, including two to four inches just days preceding the race.

Although it did not rain Saturday, the course which is constructed on grasslands was wet, rough and muddy. UMass though, combated bad weather with several strong performances.

“I have nothing but positive feelings about this race. [The team] couldn’t have raced harder,” O’Brien said.

Five Minutemen runners placed in the top 20, and junior David Johnson came less than a half second to placing in the top fifteen and taking home All-Conference Honors. Three Minutemen earned A-10 Conference Honors by placing in the top 15. Junior Kevin Johnson lead the Minutemen as he finished seventh, with a time of 26:57:8. Senior Andrew McCain stepped up in his last conference championship meet by placing 10th overall with a time of 27:06.3.

In just his sophomore year, Zachary Gordon was able to take home All-Conference Honors by finishing 14th in the meet, with a time of 27:13.8. It took a team effort to hold off Dayton, which finished in third place, just three points behind UMass.

The Minutewomen earned their highest finish in the A-10 Championship since 2000 with their third place finish.

“I was ecstatic. I was extremely happy” UMass coach Julie Lafrieneire said.

Prior to the race, Lafrieniere had hoped to place in the top five, which would have been an improvement for the Minutewomen program. UMass, however, was able to exceed her expectations.

Courtney Baldwin, who has been essential late in the season, turned in yet another impressive performance on Saturday. The freshman finished 9th overall with a time of 20:09. Not only did her performance garner her All-Conference Honors, but she also became just the second UMass runner ever to receive the A-10 Rookie of the Year award.

“She truly is the rookie of the year,” Lafrieneire said.

Baldwin was a soccer player throughout high school and has made a remarkably smooth transition to collegiate cross country. In the three races she has run, she’s lead the Minutewomen each time.

Several of Baldwin’s teammates had noteworthy performances as well this weekend, including junior co-captain Shiyi Zan, who finished 17th overall.

Lafrienere noted that while other teams wore down due to the conditions, her athletes seemed to hold their own and come on strong. Zan was one of the runners who seemingly raced past her opponents during the final stretch.

Junior Karen Roa’s time of 20:40 helped place her in the top three for the Minutewomen and 19th overall. Roa had been struggling with illness earlier this season but returned to form on Saturday.

“Every time that kid toes the line, she gives it everything she has,” Lafrieneire said.

Freshman Danielle Allocco also came up big this weekend with her time of 21:09 and 38th overall finish in such a strong field.

Both teams will look to continue their successful seasons in two weeks as they compete in the NCAA Regional Qualifiers on Nov. 14.

Jeffrey Engmann can be reached at jengmann@student.umass.edu.

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