Cross-country teams impress early in season
Head coach Sean Graham said his teams are “completely different” than they looked last year.
Men’s and women’s cross-country have competed at two invitationals so far this fall, and from the get-go, they appear to be an improved team from last season.
The Eagles opened their season at the University of Richmond’s Spider Alumni Open on Sept. 2. The men’s team finished fifth out of 14 teams in the 6,000 meter race, as senior Row Sullivan led the team with a time of 18:32, good for 18th place overall. Sophomores Kaden Kluth and Carver Morgan were close behind in 22nd and 28th place, respectively. The team had a 40-second time spread between its first and fifth runners, the third-best mark of all men’s teams.
“I think we have a lot more potential this year to have a close pack and work more together as a team,” Sullivan said. “Everyone’s getting on the same page, and having everyone on that same page … is a really encouraging step.”
The women’s team took eighth place out of 16 teams in the 4,000 meter event. The Eagles’ top finisher was junior June Mwaniki, who finished 31st in 14:44. Their second through fifth runners — junior Callia Cordasco, sophomore Brooke Evans, freshman Amy O’Connell and senior Rachael Potter — all finished between 47th and 53rd, separated by only 11 seconds. The women’s top five also had a tight spread at 39 seconds.
“My goal was to be more aggressive in the front end, and I was successful to an extent,” Mwaniki said. “Overall, I was happy with the outcome. It looks like I’m on track to keep growing.”
A week later, the Eagles traveled to Annapolis to compete in the Navy Cross Country Invitational.
The men finished third out of eight teams. Kluth recorded the first team-leading performance of his career, finishing in 12th place with a time of 25:23 on the 4.9-mile course. Sullivan was two seconds behind in 13th place. The top five saw two newcomers: freshman Mathias Deldicque and junior Sean Stuck, the latter of whom hadn’t raced in several months due to injury.
“I knew Sean was going to sneak up there,” Kluth said. “He’s always going to work hard. Our back end, our 5-6-7, it’s really up for grabs. I was happy to see [Mathias] have a solid race.”
The men started out aggressively, taking an early lead at two miles, but the humidity and the hills of Navy’s course proved challenging. Head coach Sean Graham noted that there was a strong pack up front, but some runners didn’t “settle in” during the later miles of the course.
“We have to be more calloused when things get hard,” Graham said. “That’s just cross-country. Now that you have the wake-up call today of, ‘I’m at mile three and a half and this hurts’ — you swim in the hurt.”
The women finished fifth out of 11 teams. Again, Mwaniki led the way, but the rest of the top five saw a splash of youth; freshmen Estella Miller and O’Connell were second and third, respectively, while sophomores Kate Riley and Skyler Tatum were fourth and fifth, respectively. Similar to the men, they started fast, something which Graham wants to see more of in future races.
“They were more aggressive,” Graham said. “I didn’t see fear in racing today. They put themselves in spots that were uncomfortable.”
This boldness is a sign of what Graham calls a “completely new team” on the women’s side. Two years ago, they finished 10th at the Patriot League Championships; in 2022, they improved to sixth. He says that they were “petrified of the start line” at the beginning of last season, and they struggled as a result. In their two early season meets, the Bison Opener and the Spiked Shoe Invitational, they finished third out of four teams and 8th out of eight teams, respectively.
As the season went on, though, they started growing their confidence and performing better, shifting Graham’s tone towards excitement.
“Throughout the year, they did remarkably well from meet to meet and executed very well at the end,” Graham said. “Now, the starting point has to be the ending point of last year.”
The men’s team has also been a project, and Graham has positive thoughts about where they stand. From 2021 to 2022, they improved from 8th to 5th place at the Patriot League Championships, and every member of last year’s top seven is back in action this year. Two of them, Kluth and Morgan, were freshmen last year. This season, Graham says that their experience — the fact that “they know what to do and how to execute” — will be vital.
Graham also cites Sullivan’s presence, a talented veteran, as a major reason for the team’s development.
“Having [athletes] like Row … they know what the top’s like,” Graham said. “They know how to execute the fast races, they know how to execute the slow races [and] they can teach the young guys how to do it.”
In leading a rapidly growing team with a mix of youth and experience, Sullivan’s responsibilities are somewhat two-fold: they must learn what it’s like to be the anchor of a contending team while simultaneously instructing their younger teammates that the team’s newfound excellence is, in fact, the standard.
“The older guys are teaching the younger guys how to be elite while learning how to be elite,” Graham said, “but the younger guys are now thinking, ‘it’s just what we do.’”
The Eagles will be back in action Sept. 30 at the Paul Short Run at Lehigh. The men will run in either the open men’s 8,000 meter race at 9:30 a.m. or the men’s college brown 8,000 meter race at 12:15 p.m. The women will run in either the open women’s 6,000 meter race at 10:15 p.m. or the women’s college brown 6,000 meter race at 1:00 p.m.
This article was edited by Penelope Jennings, Delaney Hoke and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Isabelle Kravis.