March 5, 2015

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UMass men’s and women’s cross country finish top five in A-10 Championships

Jeff Bernstein/Collegian File Photo

The Massachusetts women’s cross country team took it upon itself to make some noise in the Atlantic10 Championships with a fifth place finish in the 12 team event.

The Minutewomen had been riding a bit of a hot streak as of late and the momentum carried into the highly anticipated race as they shattered their preseason conference prediction of eighth overall.

UMass coach Julie LaFreniere did not seem all that surprised with the finish.

“We knew we were not going to be eighth,” LaFreniere said. “The girls like being the dark horse and the team nobody expected to do a whole lot.”

The team was lead once again by junior Rachel Hilliard, who was nursing a foot injury merely days before the event. She placed 19th overall with a time of 17:48.7 and was four spots away from an All-Conference finish.

“I’m very excited about how we did as a team,” Hilliard said. “This is the best finish we’ve had in my whole career here at UMass so that’s very exciting,”

Behind Hilliard was freshmen phenom Christine Davis, who took the teams second place spot after coming in 22nd overall in a field of 111 runners. Davis was last weeks Atlantic 10 Performer of the Week as well as UMass Athlete of the Week and backed that up on Saturday with a time of 17:58.1.

“By this time next year she’ll be one of the top runners in the conference,” LaFreniere said of Davis.

Taking the third spot was Alexandra Purdue-Smithe, who finished 31st overall with a time of 18:05.6. Purdue-Smithe has managed to stay healthy this season and has taken advantage of that with some powerful running, and still has another year of eligibility left.

Upperclassmen Katie Powers and Sarah Barrett took the fourth and fifth spots for the women’s team and finished with times of 18:10.7 and 18:34.0, respectively.

The team looks to build on this finish and has even higher hopes for the future.

“We’re really excited that we have such a young, strong team,” Hilliard said. LaFreniere added to that.

“Next A-10’s our goal is to win it,” she said..

It seems as if the team definitely has the confidence and the talent to make good on those promises in the immediate future.

Men take fourth place

UMass men’s cross country didn’t just walk away from Richmond, Va., with a fourth place finish in the Atlantic 10 conference, they also walked away with two All-Conference runners in Antony Taylor and Ben Groleau. This is Taylor’s second All- Conference finish in as many years.

The Minutemen were picked to finish eighth out of a possible 13 teams in the preseason rankings, but eclipsed that with their No. 4 finish this weekend. However, this was something that UMasscoach Ken O’Brien said his team wasn’t focused on.

“We were aware we were ranked eighth but you don’t really pay attention to the polls.” O’Brien said. “I was really happy with our team’s performance.”

Taylor lead the team with a 10th place finish in the field of 117 runners and finished with a time of 24:18.3.

Behind him and also claiming and All-Conference finish was Ben Groleau, who finished in 24:24.7 for the 13th spot.

“Ben was a very pleasant surprise,” O’Brien said. “He’s starting to form his own identity as a distance runner.”

Following Groleau was Blake Croteau who was a two time Atlantic-10 Rookie of the Week in early October. Croteau clocked a time of 24:48.9 and finished 29th overall in the field.

Rounding out the top five and taking the fourth and fifth spots for the Minutemen was sophomore duo Benjamin Thomas and Miles Hodge. Thomas and Hodge finished 36th and 46th, respectively, with times of 24:56.9 and 25:13.7.

Coming into the season, many saw this as a rebuilding year where the team would take the time to develop it’s younger runners. Things seem to be moving ahead of schedule and O’Brien credits his veteran leadership for the quick progression.

“(Taylor) has really taken it upon himself to show the younger runners the ins and outs of college running,” O’Brien said.

With an impressive finish in the conference meet and the emergence of their young runners ahead of schedule, the team looks to build on this finish and emerge as one of, if not the best team in the conference.

“We’ve established a base we can continue to develop for the future.” said O’Brien. “Everyone in the program is excited about it.”

Both the men’s and women’s teams will race again on Nov. 15 in the NCAA Northeast Regional Championships in the Bronx, NY.

Frank Corona can be reached at fcorona@umass.edu.

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