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UMass men’s, women’s cross country to celebrate anniversaries at Minuteman Invitational

(Collegian File Photo)

(Collegian File Photo)

This Saturday, the Massachusetts women’s cross country team will be celebrating their 40th year in existence as they host the Minuteman Invitational and compete against Amherst College, Boston College, Connecticut, Maine and Vermont. Some members of the first women’s cross country team will be in attendance, including current coach Julie LaFreniere, who ran for the team in 1975.

Nostalgia aside, LaFreniere expressed excitement for this upcoming season.

“The recruiting class that we brought in this past year is very talented and I’m excited to see what they can do,” she said. “We have a more athletic group of returning runners as well”.

The team will be built around multiple runners, unlike last year when senior Rachel Hilliard was the undisputed leader on the team. The core group that will be returning this year includes junior captain Heather Maclean, senior captain Carly Zinner, junior Natilie Mako and sophomore Colleen Sands. According to LaFreniere, these runners have been training within seconds of each other, and there has been no stand out number one runner that has shown themselves yet.

“I like it this way,” LaFreniere said. “Our strength will be in pack running, and I think that having the rank order change from week to week will motivate the runners to race better”.

With not much to separate the runners, LaFreniere said she does not have a varsity line of seven runners for the championship season in mind yet. However, having a group of runners so close together should bode well for the team moving forward.

The sport is scored similar to golf, with the lowest score determining the winner and the top five runners counting for the score and the sixth and seventh runner serving as potential tiebreakers. Each runner’s placement in the race counts as points to the teams’ score.

Coming into the season with a healthy squad, LaFreniere is approaching this meet to keep it that way. With a hilly course that consists of rough terrain that is tough for runners who struggle with injury, LaFreniere will be keeping Heather Maclean and Natilie Mako on the sidelines in order to preserve them for later in the season. They will have a chance to compete at the Coast-To-Coast Battle in Beantown, which will take place in two weeks.

Minutemen ready to take next step

 The Massachusetts men’s cross country team will be also celebrating an anniversary this weekend, as this year will be its 140th as a UMass sports team.

Coach Ken O’Brien said he is excited for the team he has at his disposal, and believes that this team has grown tremendously since last year.

“When this group of individuals came on campus last year, they were very inexperienced,” he said. Then over the course of last year’s track seasons, they mentally and physically ‘got it’, and they deserve a lot of credit”.

Like the women’s team, the men will have a core group of returners who are coming off fantastic performances at the end of the spring season and are expected to be major contributors this season. Cory Thomas, Ben Groleau,, Paolo Tavares, Jay McMahon and Blake Croteau will all be back for another year. Overall, the team has ten runners who could all be part of the seven runners on the varsity line by the end of the season.

“There is no varsity seven set in stone yet,” O’Brien said. “I’ve told the team that I don’t want them to focus on how they can each make the team better and not waste time worrying about where they fall in the pecking order”.

For this upcoming meet,  O’Brien said the goal will be to test the depth of the team, and hopes that the team will have nine or ten runners running very close to each other. However, he said he doesn’t want to spend a lot of time deciding on who will be part of the seven-man roster on the weekend, as the sport tends to pick itself from week-to-week as the runners train and perform on a consistent basis.

“When the runners see that the team can be good and they can all have a shot at finishing near the front of the pack, they tend to invest more,” O’Brien said.

The meet is scheduled to begin at 11:30 a.m. in Amherst.

Nicholas Souza can be reached at njsouza@umass.edu.

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