Cross-country shocked at regionals; eyes redemption at NCAA Championships

By Colleen Pegher

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The No. 2 Gator cross-country team struggled last weekend at regionals, placing fifth after what  Zachary Ross, ’11,  called a “series of unfortunate events.” Despite their issues away from the course, which Ross described as “a lost hotel contract, a cruel and unusual waitress from Chovy’s, a horrible race plan, and some unexpected stomach issues,” it was the primarily the team’s outlook on the race that led to their disappointing finish.

“Our strategy was on the conservative side, which also didn’t help our chances,” said Jeramie Parker, ’11. “In the end, it just came down to us going into the meet a little too lightly and we were not fully prepared to be going against such strong competition.”

The team purposely started the first mile slow, with the intent of picking up the pace midway through the race. That change never happened though, resulting in the unusually slow race for the team.

“While we have beaten each of the teams earlier in the year, it just goes to show that the only important race is the race that day,” Ross said. “Resting on your previous laurels will get you nowhere.”

While the players felt a nagging sense of disappointment in their performance, head coach Brent Wilkerson had faith that they would get the bid because of their domination in previous races.

“We weren’t really that worried,” said Wilkerson. “We had the stats to back it up and we had already defeated a lot of the teams that received automatic bids.”

Ross and other seasoned veterans on the team were well off their usual championship caliber pace. Ross closed in at 26:43,finishing 58th overall while the reigning Mideast Regional Champion, Chris Marker, ’11, finished 33rd overall at 26:08.

Regardless of the race plan, Wilkerson insists that it was the performance of his runners rather than their method of attack that was the problem.

“While they do better with the normal race plan, they didn’t make the moves they needed to or stick the people they needed to,” he said.

The poor finish left the Gators on the bubble for a bid to the NCAA Championship, as only the top two teams receive automatic bids to next week’s race. Luckily, Allegheny received one of the 16 at-large bids, and will be competing at Saturday’s meet at Wartburg College in Iowa.

“It is the worst feeling going from winning last year to waiting around until 3:15 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon to find out if we were allowed to race again, Ross said. “Bad races come and go. Usually ours in the pre-championship season, unlike this year.”

Despite their disappointing showing at regionals, the team hopes to use their lack of success as motivation to perform to their full potential at nationals on Nov. 20.

“On Saturday we learned a valuable lesson of humility and it was a wakeup call to get focused on the tasks ahead,” said Parker. “What we can do for next week is to go out stronger and use what happened at regionals to inspire and motivate us to come back refocused.”

The bid marks the sixth consecutive NCAA appearance for men’s team. The news came as a great relief for the squad, which has several seniors aiming for a high finish at nationals this year.

Parker maintained his top-level performance, finishing second place overall and earning All-Region honors for the second consecutive year. He and his teammates are looking to the next meet and not dwelling on earlier races.

After such an uncharacteristic performance and with such high expectations, the team has developed a sense of eagerness and a commitment to push themselves to their limits during the NCAA race.

 “We are going into nationals with a chip on our shoulder,” Parker said. “We have trained too hard to fall apart at the end of the season.” 

The Gators are seeing Saturday’s race as a new opportunity to display their talent on the biggest stage. Last year’s third place finish set the bar high for what will be the final race for standouts Marker and Parker.

“We need to focus on putting last weekend’s race behind us,” Wilkerson said. “It’s time to put up or shut up and prove that we belong in the top four.”