At the NCAA Division I National Championships, the No. 10 men’s cross country team finished in 11th place out of the 31 schools present. They were competing against the best of the 341 Division I cross country schools nationwide.
Harvard’s Graham Blanks, who won two other races in which Princeton competed — the Nuttycombe Invitational and the Ivy League Heptagonal Championships — won the national individual championship title, with a time of 28:37 on the 10-kilometer course.
Earning a score of 49, the Oklahoma State Cowboys won in grand fashion with the lowest aggregate score of a champion since 2005. They avenged last year’s performance, where they lost the National Championship on a tiebreaker to Northern Arizona.
The race took place at the University of Virginia, a site Princeton knew well from earlier this season on the 8K course at the UVA Invitational. Junior Nicholas Bendtsen, who finished second on the team at the UVA Invitational, placed first among the Tigers on Saturday and in 29th overall with a time of 29:38. As the top–40 runners at Nationals earn All-American status, this race led to Bendtsen's first All-American honors.
“I was very happy with that result,” Bendtsen told The Daily Princetonian. “I had a lot of room for improvement from last year and my freshman year.”
After being sidelined for much of last year due to an injury, Bendtsen cited his team’s support and camaraderie in his development into an All-American, stating that “they were able to push me to my best.”
Senior Connor Nisbet, who ran a time of 30:07, finished in 59th overall and second on the team.
“I did basically what I wanted to do,” Nisbet told the ‘Prince.’ “I’m pretty happy with… a lot of progression from last year where I was [around] 120th [place], and the year before, I didn’t even make Nationals.”
Following behind Bendtsen and Nisbet, junior Daniel O’Brien, senior Anthony Monte, and senior Matthew Farrell finished third through fifth on the team, in times of 30:30, 30:34, and 30:50 respectively. The trio finished in 94th, 101st, and 132nd places, contributing to Princeton’s aggregate score of 345.
Men’s cross country head coach Jason Vigilante expressed pride in the team, saying, “I’m very happy with how the guys ran… I’m very pleased with 11th place. You’re competing against the best teams in the country, so it means a lot.”
While just short of the season-long goal of tenth place, the main emotion is still one of joy. Eleventh in the country caps a multiyear progression and represents the highest performance by the Princeton team in recent memory.
“This really feels like the only season that we’ve really completed, or at least came very close to completing, the goals we wanted to,” Nisbet said. “Last year, we were second to last at nationals; the year before, the team was 24th, I believe; and the year before that, we never even made it, so it’s really cool to see the progression we’ve had as a team and actually compete well in the national stage."
Competing at such a high level does not come easily, and even for a team full of “seniors and super seniors,” as Nisbet says, the team had pre-race nerves to overcome.
“The NCAA championships [are] very intimidating.” Bensdten echoed, “You got a lot of the best athletes in the country, some in the world as well, so it’s very easy to get overwhelmed,” but as a team, they managed to “keep ourselves calm and just execute the way we wanted to.”
The “execution” to which Bendtsen alluded was no accident: The team crafted a deliberate race strategy, similar to the rest of the team’s races this year, to steadily climb up the leaderboard as the race progressed.
“We put together a race plan where we wanted to be in the low twenties early on and then progress through the field and then move up, and I think just about every man on our team did that,” Vigilante said. “So, it says a lot about their maturity and preparation.”
Part of that maturity was the ability to remain steady, a trait Bendtsen discussed. He labeled the main lessons from the season as “just having patience and confidence."
"Throughout the season, there’s gonna be a lot of highs and lows, and it’s very easy to overreact to things, whether you have a bad workout or bad race, or a really good workout and a really good race. You kind of just have to stay calm,” Bendtsen added.
Acknowledging the importance of an external support system, Vigilante said, “The results are so much deeper than just the results on the page.” Continuing, he credited the “great support… not just administratively, but from the facilities crew that keeps the places where we trained maintained, and our strength coach, Coach [Zach] Purcilly, and Brooke Harvey, our trainer, and the nutritionist."
Consequently, Vigilante noted, “the results are so much deeper than just the results on the page.”
After the focus and success from this season, the team’s eyes now turn toward the track, where the Tigers have the opportunity to build on their Ivy League title in cross country. Vigilante hopes the energy from the fall can build to the winter and spring and inspire the greater team.
“I sent an email to the entire team after the ‘Heps’ championship that it’s not just five guys on the day who score at the Ivy League championship — it’s 65 guys [on the men’s cross-country and men’s track team] who set the tone in the locker room to encourage one another … This gives us a lot of positive momentum going into the indoor season and then to the outdoor season,” Vigilante said.
Vigilante added that “it shows that maybe there’s guys who have been on the team for three or four years who haven’t had performances that they want yet, but they can still turn it around and contribute at a high level.”
In terms of concrete goals, Bendtsen stated, “We’ll have a lot of opportunities to run well; we’ll definitely go for Ivy League titles in Indoor and Outdoor track.”
After this strong finish, the team is looking back positively upon this season while eagerly anticipating more opportunities to compete.
“We’ve got a lot of fast running left to do,” Nisbet said.
Max Hines is a contributing Sports writer for the ‘Prince.’
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