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Heather MacLean qualifies for NCAA Championship meet

(Courtesy of the Atlantic 10)

The conditions couldn’t have been worse to race in. The Audubon Golf Course outside of Buffalo, New York had experienced weeks of rain, and the NCAA Division II Cross Country Northeast Championship had torn the grass to shreds a week earlier.

On Thursday, a day before teams from all over the northeast would gather for the Division I Regional Championships, sub-freezing temperatures swept in, hardening the mud and leaving uneven ridges for runners to slip and slide on as they tested out the terrain for Friday’s race.

UMass coach Julie LaFreniere surveyed the situation as her runners jogged the course they’d race the next day. Portions of the grass were entirely submerged, and many of the women’s training shoes sank into the mud and water as they ran.

But as LaFreniere had told them all season, everyone deals with the same course.

So on Friday morning, when thermometers registered 22 degrees and 15 mile-per-hour winds dropped the temperature into the single digits, UMass redshirt senior Heather MacLean toed the line with her teammates and runners who came from New York to Maine, and understood that she was prepared to handle whatever was tossed her way.

21 minutes and 38 seconds later, MacLean punched her ticket to the NCAA Division I Championship in Louisville, Kentucky, becoming only the fifth runner in program history, and the first in 16 years, to accomplish that feat.

Battling against some of the top cross country collegiate athletes in the nation, MacLean held her stride and ran her race, crossing the first mile marker at the front of the lead pack.

At the halfway mark of the six kilometer course, a clear front five had emerged: New Hampshire’s Elinor Purrier was beginning to cement her lead, followed by a pair of Syracuse runners. Just behind them were MacLean and her high school teammate Catarina Rocha of Providence, whose family has long dominated high school and collegiate running.

The top two teams at the Regional Championships are guaranteed a spot at Nationals, as are the top four individual runners outside of those two teams. Providence was the favorite to win, and Rocha finishing before MacLean would not prevent MacLean from earning a spot

But the last team spot was up for grabs. With 1,500 meters to go, and the pack beginning to split up, MacLean, sitting in fifth place (fourth if you ignore Rocha), knew that she’d have to work the last quarter of the race to earn her place. The 30 meters she had on her nearest competitor were significant, but at that point in a race, a lead can disappear in the blink of an eye.

Like she has throughout this season, MacLean found the strength that has been built over the course of a five-year career. The redshirt senior’s work paid off, and she held her spot to cross the line as the final individual qualifier for Nationals.

During her first two years at UMass, MacLean had told LaFreniere’s team that she was an 800 meter runner. But as the coach remembers, MacLean embraced the team and its culture and put in the work to develop into its leader as a fifth-year redshirt senior.

This season, understanding that she had potential to qualify for the national meet, MacLean took on additional training, sometimes adding workout repetitions and miles after the rest of her team had finished.

On Saturday, her cross country career will come to a close as she will compete with the best in the nation, and she hopes to run well enough to earn All-American status.

“I just want to finish well,” says MacLean, who has a few days to rest before she journeys with her coach to Louisville for her final race. “And I want to represent UMass well.”

The Minutewomen as a team placed 15th out of 36 teams. Providence and Dartmouth were the top two teams, qualifying them for an automatic bid.

The NCAA Championship meet will be held at Tom Sawyer Park in Louisville, Kentucky at 10:45 a.m. on Saturday.

Will Katcher can be reached at wkatcher@umass.edu and followed on Twitter at @will_katcher.

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