UMass cross country teams look to surprise at Friday’s Atlantic 10 championship

By Nick Souza

Shannon Broderick/Daily Collegian
Shannon Broderick/Daily Collegian

The Massachusetts men’s and women’s cross country teams will make the journey down to Pole Green Park in Mechanicsville, Virginia along with 14 other schools for the 2015 Atlantic 10 championship meet Friday morning.

Both teams will be largely flying under the radar with neither expected to finish in the top half of the meet. However, neither coach is putting much stock into what the predictions say.

“That have us projected as only the eighth best team in the conference, but  I don’t concern myself too much with that, if people expect you to finish poorly, you might as well perform really well and put it back on them,” Minutemen coach Ken O’Brien said.

The prediction being as low as it is could be related to the disappointing finish for the UMass last year when the meet was being held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The team had spent much of their time preparing for the difficult course last year by taking advantage of their own home course that was equally as difficult. They went into the meet confident they could finish in the top three, but over anxiousness got the better of them.

“We blew it last year, but we’re using that experience to give the runners a tangible example so that doesn’t happen again,” O’Brien said.

Since then, the team has improved immensely through the indoor and outdoor seasons. However, others in the conference may not have noticed, and because the team has had different goals throughout the first part of the season none of the early results really turned anyone’s heads in the conference. Last year’s performance may still linger on the minds of those in the A-10.

The exception would be the latest result at New Englands, where the Minutemen finished fifth. They will look to build on that performance, as the 10 runners making the trip for UMass will be led by senior Ben Groleau who earned a spot on the All-New England team and A-10 performer of the week honors. Fellow senior Daniel Sheldon will also be expected to provide leadership as runs in the pack with some of the younger runners like Sam Conway, Jay McMahon and Paolo Travares.

“The splits between our top runners were closer than expected, and the team still managed to stay near the front of the pack at New Englands,” O’Brien said. “We’ve built on that since then and we are excited to say the improvements in action.”

Minutewomen close to 100 percent after long layoff

Due to an unfortunate number of illnesses in their last couple of meets the Minutewomen have not been able to perform to their full potential. Now, as a whole, the women’s team is overall healthier with the exception of freshman Sydney Clary, who would otherwise be making the trip with the nine other runners but will stay due illness. Renee Capps will be running in place of her.

Like the Minutemen, the recent results for the Minutewomen have not been all that impressive on paper due to recent lagging results from extenuating circumstances. They also had to swallow a bitter pill in last year’s championship race after finishing sixth and only being three points away from third.

“It doesn’t surprise me that the conference doesn’t see much in us, but the problems we’ve been facing this year have been more physical,” coach Julie LaFreniere said. “Mentally this team is ready to put it all on the line.”

All 14 teams involved on the women’s side seem to have strong lead runners that should go out to lead the race. LaFreniere expects Heather MacLean to run with them through the most of the race, and use her speed to move up the pack towards the end. She should have the kicking advantage over the rest of the field in the final 800 meters of the race considering she holds the fastest 800-meter time in conference history.

“MacLean is the type of runner who will do anything for her team, if she has to dig deep for a big performance than she will,” LaFreniere said. “There shouldn’t be anyone else who can keep up with her kick either.”

LaFreniere also stressed the importance of the rest of the pack stepping up behind MacLean. Senior Carly Zinner will be expected to lead the way for them along with freshman Alexa Livingstone, Natalie Mako and Colleen Sands.

The course does play to the Minutewomen’s strengths as well with is being a grassy terrain with rolling hills. This will especially help runners like Mako and MacLean, who have had calf struggles in the past.

Both teams will compete in two weeks following A-10s at the NCAA regionals in Boston.

Nick Souza can be reached at [email protected]