The Massachusetts men’s and women’s cross country teams will kick off their postseason this Saturday at the Atlantic 10 Championships in Leesburg, Virginia.
Coaches of both teams have cited this meet as a major goal for the season, and built their training around performing on this course.
Men’s coach David Jackson said earlier this season that the race represented the final goal for his program. The meet has special significance for the Minutemen, as it will likely be the final race under coach emeritus Ken O’Brien, who will retire this year after 51 years at the helm.
“We all love and admire coach O’Brien,” said junior Michael Famiglietti. “We want to make this a special last Atlantic 10 Championship.”
According to Famiglietti, there’s some air of uncertainty surrounding the meet.
“This year in particular, it seems to be that there’s no one team that’s the favorite,” Famiglietti said. “We want to be in a position where we can be in the conversation.”
Apart from UMass, Famiglietti mentioned fellow A-10 universities Dayton, George Mason, Duquesne and St. Joseph’s as being in the hunt for first place.
Famiglietti also said that while UMass doesn’t necessarily have the top-end star power of other programs, the team has consistently been able to keep their five runners close together.
In large meets, where lots of runners cross the line in a short amount of time, a small spread can be the difference that pushes a team to victory.
This ‘pack running’ mentality has been a consistent theme for the Minutemen this year, and has been stressed throughout the season by Jackson as being crucial to UMass’ success.
Adding to the uncertainty the Minutemen feel with the upcoming meet is the fact that no one on the team has competed at the course before. Famiglietti has scouted the site, and the team plans to take the day before the race to run the course and get a feel for it.
For the women, the A-10 Championship also represents a pivotal moment in the season.
While they are looking for a successful finish at this meet, coach Julie LaFreniere wants the team to be able to stay in a condition where they can be competitive at the NCAA Northeast Regional Championships Meet on Nov. 10.
“I don’t want the Atlantic 10s to be the ultimate goal. It’s big for us, but our goal is to be in contention for [A-10s] for every single season,” she said earlier this year. “But I want them two weeks later to be able to bounce back and duke it out at regionals.”
Still, redshirt senior Heather MacLean, who has led the team in every race this season, has hopes for a top finish for both herself and the team on Saturday. Last year, she cruised to a win at the 2016 A-10 Championship, taking first in the 5K with a time of 17:06, 13 seconds ahead of her nearest competitor.
LaFreniere stated earlier in the season that she hopes MacLean can continue on to nationals after the regional meet.
MacLean also said that her hope for the team is a top three finish. UMass took fifth last year, but will return several members of that lineup and will have the addition of a group of freshmen who have hit their stride in the past weeks.
Like Famiglietti, MacLean has not run the course before, but has done her research and mentioned the hills that fall in the middle of the race.
“Luckily, we have been crushing hill workouts all season so it should feel like nothing,” MacLean added.
Both teams competed at the Central Connecticut State University Mini Meet last Saturday, where they took different approaches. The Minutemen chose to race their top runners and according to Famiglietti, treated the race as a harder workout building into next weekend. UMass won that race, led by sophomore Erik Engstrom, who ran the 5K course in 15:15.
The Minutewomen on the other hand, rested many of their top group, which allowed other runners the chance to gain more race experience.
Following the A-10 meet will be the NCAA Northeast Regional Meet in Buffalo, New York on Nov. 10, but for now both teams are looking forward to competing on Saturday. The men will go off at 10 a.m., and the women will follow at 10:45.
Will Katcher can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter at @will_katcher.