Cross Country: Tigers finish 11th nationally, setting men's program record
When it has mattered most this season, the men’s cross country team has always brought its best. Staying calm and under control in the NCAA national championship meet last Saturday, the Tigers fought their way over the fast and flat course in Louisville, Ky., battling head to head with the country’s best teams and individuals. Surging over the last miles, the men placed a program-best 11th in the deep and talented field.
“A lot of [running well at Nationals] has to do with trajectory. If your trajectory throughout the season isn’t true, you’re going to wind up off your target,” head coach Jason Vigilante said. “These guys were just exceptional with their preparation and their willingness to listen and be a cohesive unit. Our trajectory never wavered, and I’m very happy that we were able to run as well as we did yesterday. It was part of the plan to begin with.”
Tucking back in the pack early on in the 10-kilometer race, the Tigers settled in as the lead runners took off at a suicidal pace. Sprinting out into the lead from the gun, Arizona’s strong duo of Lawi Lalang and Stephen Sambu joined Texas Tech’s Kennedy Kithuka in the hunt for the individual title, leading the field out in under 4 minutes, 30 seconds for the first mile. Running their own races, the Princeton men stayed focused and in control back in the field, as the Tigers were not even among the top 20 teams as they passed the 3K split.
“Everybody wants to be a hero, but they don’t really exist. The only thing I stress is to maintain your cool. Just take care of your business, do what your body will allow you to do, and do not attempt to do any more,” Vigilante said. “A lot of people do overextend, and you see a bunch of really good athletes a lot worse off than where they should have been. But if you do what you did earlier in the season to qualify, you’ll run a good race.”
Continuing to grind out a hot pace, Lalang, Sambu and Kithuka separated themselves from the rest of the field as they went through 5K in close to 14:00, with clusters of chase packs strung out behind them. Running more conservatively, juniors Alejandro Arroyo Yamin, Tyler Udland and cocaptain Chris Bendtsen followed through the halfway point in around 15:00, boosting Princeton into the top 20 in the team standings.
Turning on the heat in the last kilometers of the race, the Tigers started to move as they caught struggling runners that had fallen off the early breakneck pace.
“Everybody moved up from 5K on. We got to a point to where we felt we were comfortable, and then we started to say ‘it’s time to go,’ ” Bendtsen said. “Our top three guys got into a great position, and our fourth and fifth guys just moved up so well. In the last 5K we moved up from somewhere around 16th to 11th.”
Cracking open the race with 3K to go, Kithuka broke away from Sambu and Lalang and continued to maintain his lead all the way to the finish line, covering the course in 28:31.3. Sambu came in second in 28:38.6, while Lalang faded in third to finish in 28:51.8.
Leading the Tigers, Bendtsen finished 43rd overall in 30:07.6, just outside the top 40 and All-America honors. Princeton put three in the top 100, as Arroyo Yamin placed 58th in 30:24.4 with Udland less than 10 seconds behind in 30:33.5 for 79th. Senior Michael Franklin and sophomore Matt McDonald rounded out the top five.
“As a coach, I couldn’t be more proud of our effort, as it was exactly what we wanted to do,” Vigilante said. “How you finish is most important. Anyone can run a good 5,000 meters, but to run a good 10,000 meters is almost exponentially more difficult as you go along. You have to be in control of yourself, and we did a good job executing that [on Saturday].”
In the pursuit for the team title, Oklahoma State got out to a strong start and never relented as it reclaimed its title from 2010 from the defending champion, Wisconsin. Dominating the race, Oklahoma State placed first overall with 72 points. Wisconsin followed with 135 while Colorado took third with 158. Columbia, the only other Ivy League team in the race, finished 17th.
“It was really all that we could ask for in a race. At the beginning of the season we said that we wanted to get the best finishing place in school history, and meeting that expectation is a really good feeling,” Bendtsen said. “As a cross country runner you don’t get that all the time. You either run well or you don’t; you get mixed feelings all the time. But since we ran well and met our expectations, it just feels really good.”
Racing earlier in the day, senior cocaptain Greta Feldman represented the Tigers in the women’s 6K. In a fast race led by Iowa State’s Betsy Saina, Dartmouth’s Abbey D’Agostino and Oregon’s Jordan Hasay, Feldman ran her own race to finish in the top 100 overall, taking 88th in 20:42.5.
The Oregon women took first in the team standings. Saina persevered to take the individual title in 19:27.9, narrowly outkicking D’Agostino and Hasay, who finished together in 19:28.6, with D’Agostino a hair ahead.
After successfully capping off a great season, the men, as well as the women, have some time to unwind before they return to race on the indoor track in January.
“This mission started back in June. It’s a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week thing and it takes a huge investment,” Vigilante said. “The only plan right now is to take a deep breath and let our spirits come down and come to grips with all the hard work we had to put in. I know that the best thing these guys can do right now is to put track and field on the shelf for a little bit longer.”