Rachel Hillard leads UMass in season opener, young Minutemen make statement

By Frank Corona

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On Saturday, the Massachusetts women’s cross country team finally got to show off a team it’s been excited about throughout the offseason, and did so against a heap of talented teams from the Northeast area.

The Minutewomen, compromised of a mixture of their talented returning upperclassmen and highly coveted freshmen, fared well against a group of teams that included No. 25 Boston College and Connecticut. UMass finished fourth out of the six teams and were led by junior Rachel Hilliard, who finished 12th overall and finished the course in 17 minutes, 56.50 seconds.

“Our team this year is a lot stronger than it’s been in any previous year coming into a season,” Hillard said. “I like our team a lot this year.”

Hilliard was followed by freshmen Natalie Mako and Christine Davis, who finished 14th and 16th, respectively, while Co-Captain Alexandra Perdue-Smithe and freshman Heather MacLean rounded out the UMass top five, finishing 18th and 23rd, respectively.

With three freshmen finishing in the top five for the team, a lot of excitement has been built up regarding the surge of energy coming from the inexperienced group that was ranked No. 8 in the Atlantic 10 in the preseason polls.

“It’s only the beginning of the season,” Hilliard said, “there’s still more training to do so we should only get better which is definitely exciting.”

Although UMass coach Julie LaFreniere is excited for her freshmen, she’s also excited to have back some of her top runners from last year after having one of the youngest rosters in the conference in2012.

The Minutewomen return Purdue-Smithe, who’s back from injury and finished with a time of 18 minutes, 16.38 seconds on Saturday.

UMass proved its potential on Saturday in its first taste of a tough start to their 2013 schedule. The Minutewomen have arguably their toughest meet of the year coming up on the Sept. 27 when they take on three teams ranked in the Top 10, including No. 1 Providence.

The team doesn’t seem fazed by the difficult road ahead..

“We put in a lot of extra miles to prepare for the tough schedule,” Hillard said. “We don’t want to be intimidated by a lot of these other schools because we know we have the caliber of people on our team to compete with them.”

Young runners shine for Minutemen

The Minutemen opened the 2013 season with a majority of their roster consisting of underclassmen. On Saturday, it was those underclassmen that impressed. UMass finished third overall in its season opener, and its top seven finishers were all freshmen and sophomores.

Jeff Bernstein/Collegian File Photo

The Minutemen were led by freshman Blake Croteau, who finished seventh overall with a time of 19 minutes, 33.85 seconds. UMass racked up 70 points, which was one behind Maine (69) and seven behind Uconn (63) on the new and improved 6,200-meter course.

Croteau was followed by five sophomores, including Daniel Shelton (19 minutes, 37.95 seconds) and Benjamin Thomas (19 minutes, 38.81 seconds), who finished 10th and 11th, respectively.

The UMass top five was rounded out by Miles Hodge with a 20th overall finish and time of 19 minutes, 54.92 seconds, and Quentin Stipp, who took the 22nd place at a time of 19 minutes, 59.36 seconds.

Though this team is loaded with underclassmen, it doesn’t mean the Minutemen have no experience. Antony Taylor looks to lead the team after a 2012 All-Conference nod. The redshirt junior is one of the top runners returning for the squad.

Both teams will compete again on Sept. 27 in the Boston College Invite at 3 p.m.

Frank Corona can be reached at [email protected]