Women’s cross country placed fourth in its last meet before the Ivy League championships. The team’s top runners traveled to the Penn State National Open in University Park, Pa., last Friday. There, the No. 29 Tigers faced some of the toughest competition they have seen this season, including four other top-30 teams, and got a chance to scope out the course for November’s NCAA regionals.
Early-season success earned the Tigers a national ranking going into the Penn State meet. Last month in Cambridge, Mass., Princeton edged No. 24 Yale by a single point to claim the Harvard-Yale-Princeton trophy for the second year in a row. Racing in a Princeton bib for the first time, first-year Gillian Wagner led the Tigers with a second-place finish. Close behind her came sophomore Melia Chittenden and seniors Brighie Leach, Maddie Offstein, and Allie Klimkiewicz.
At the Loyola Lakefront Invitational two weeks later, with senior Alie Fordyce cracking into the scoring five, Princeton ran its way to a commanding victory — 14 points ahead of second-place Grand Valley State. More importantly, the win bumped Princeton to a national ranking of No. 29 and regional ranking of No. 3.
Despite its success, women’s cross country remained relatively untested before Friday. HYP and the Loyola Lakefront Invitational featured soft fields; with the Penn State Open, Princeton entered the fray against some tough competition. The race marked the first time that the team’s runners raced against chief regional and rankings-level competitors. Four nationally ranked teams lined up against Princeton on Friday: No. 14 Michigan State, No. 19 Penn State, No. 26 Georgia Tech, and No. 27 Utah. Daunting as that was, the team had a plan: to stray from the typical Tiger strategy.
“We tend to be a team that races from the back,” Leach said. “But we needed to make sure that we gave ourselves a chance to be up with the best of the competition. We needed to be assertive and brave, to look at everyone else on the line and to know we’re just as good as they are.”
It paid off. Princeton knocked off 27 Utah and beat Dartmouth, Brown, Penn, and Cornell to finish fourth overall.
With Penn State over, the team now faces an intense and critical series of meets. Princeton will host Ivy League Championships (commonly called Heps or Heptagonals) on campus on Oct. 27. Then come mid-Atlantic regionals — run on the same course as this weekend’s race — followed by NCAA Nationals, pending qualification. Friday’s performance inspired the team; they are optimistic about the postseason competition fast approaching. “This is a really exciting time,” said Leach. “We’re the fittest and strongest we’ve ever been. Qualifying for nationals is totally within our grasp.”