NEW HAVEN, Conn. – The Yale women's cross country team heads to Terre Haute, Ind., this weekend for its final meet of the season: the NCAA National Championships. The meet brings together the 31 best cross country teams from across the United States for one championship to crown the country's best college team. Eighteen teams automatically qualified by placing in the top two in their respective region, while the remaining 13 received at-large bids to qualify. After a successful 2016 season, the Bulldogs will run in this championship meet for the first time since 2001.
"I'm incredibly proud of our women's team's consistent effort this season. We are prepared to have another great race this weekend," said women's Cross Country Coach Amy Gosztyla of this weekend's competition. "Our team has had an amazing season and we're going into this weekend working together just as we have all season long. I'm excited for them to see what we can do."
No. 26 Yale has had a memorable season, to say the least: four meet victories, as well as two other top-three finishes have made this by far one of the team's most successful seasons in recent memory. The team has rebounded very well from having placed last at the Heptagonal Championships as recently as 2013. In fact in the past two seasons, the team has only placed outside of the top five twice: both were against very highly ranked teams at national-level meets.
This just goes to show that the team is in great shape. The Bulldogs have consistently received votes in the USTFCCCA Coach's Poll this season, being ranked as highly as No. 17.
The team's biggest strength going into this weekend is their ability to run as a cohesive unit, using each other to navigate through especially tough packs. Throughout the majority of their competitions this season, the top five runners have consistently run within half a minute of each other, an incredible feat for any squad. At the Paul Short Run, for example, the gap between frontrunner Emily Waligurski and fifth-scorer Andrea Masterson was a mere 28 seconds. This was the least time amongst any of top five squads. At Harvard-Yale-Princeton, that spread was 12s. At the Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invite it was 22s, which was coincidentally the narrowest at that meet. It was 36s at the Heptagonal Championships and 26s at the NCAA Northeast Regional.
The Bulldogs will compete Saturday morning against a tough list of the nation's best teams. Most notably, three Ivy League schools will be represented at this meet: No. 26 Yale, No. 18 Harvard and No. 29 Penn. If the team stays consistent with its game plan of running tight, the team will surely perform well on the national stage.
Senior captain Frances Schmiede will lead the team, closing out her collegiate cross country career by competing on the national level. She currently boasts both first-team All-Ivy honors and All-Region honors for her remarkable performances this championship season. This is on top of her All-Ivy and All-Region honors from the 2015 cross country season, as well as her two All-Ivy honors and her All-American honors from this past track & field season. This season, Schmiede and Waligurski have both taken turns in leading the team. Arguably Schmiede's best performance was at the Paul Short Run, where she ran a personal best of 20:21.4 for eighth place.
"I'm very excited to see what the team can do on a national level. We've worked really hard to get here," said Schmiede of the upcoming meet. "There's no other time of the year when it's all the best teams in the same race. I'm proud that my last cross country race for Yale is at the NCAA Championships and I want to enjoy it as much as I can."
Waligurski has had a breakout season this fall, having some of her best runs of her collegiate career besides captain Schmiede. Waligurski has improved by more than a minute in the 6k, running as fast as 20:14.9 at the Paul Short Run for fifth place. She is easily one of the pivotal figures to the team's successful 2016 campaign. She boasts first team All-Ivy honors for her third-place performance at the Heptagonal Championships, where she ran a stunning time of 20:36.4.
As a new member on the team last season, sophomore Andrea Masterson offered the team a good amount of raw talent that proved crucial in the team's second-place finish at Heps in 2015. Yet this season, Masterson has improved even more, dropping as much as a minute off her time compared to last season. She has been one of the five scorers for the Bulldogs in three of four major meets this season. Most recently, at the Northeast Regionals, Masterson earned All-Region honors for her 21:11.4 performance.
Senior Meredith Rizzo will complete her cross country career this weekend at Nationals, after having improved immensely over the course of this season. Rizzo has also contributed in three of the four major meets, most notably placing second on the Bulldogs at the Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invite, 62nd overall. She runs very closely to juniors Dana Klein and Kelli Reagan. This trio is the main core of the Bulldogs that helps the team manufacture such impressive performances. At the Northeast Regional, for example, Reagan, Klein and Rizzo finished 27th, 29th and 30th, respectively, to help secure the Bulldogs' spot at Nationals. The three propel each other, which will be crucial in the tight pack that will surely greet them on Saturday morning.
Sophomore Ellie Atkinson has performed well this season, running as the fifth-scorer twice. She played a pivotal role in securing the team's second-place finish at the Heptagonal meet with a 25th place finish. She has improved by more than a minute in the past season compared to her times last season. She will be the Bulldogs' final competitor to toe the line on Saturday.
Junior Katherine Raphael will also join the team as they travel to Terre Haute, Ind. In her own right, Raphael has had a phenomenal season for the Bulldogs, having competed for the team in three of four major meets this season. A member of the JV squad last year, Raphael has improved a lot this season to get on the varsity squad. Her best performance was probably her fourth-place finish at the CCSU Mini Meet.
The meet will begin Saturday morning at 11:00 a.m. To catch the live stream of this meet, log onto this link: https://www.flotrack.org/live/1922-di-ncaa-xc-championships/signup?next=http://live.flotrack.org/#/event/1922-di-ncaa-xc-championships. Though this will be streamed on the subscription-based FloTrack, the website is offering a free 7-day trial to allow access to the meet. Coverage begins at 10:30 a.m. Live results can also be found at the link above. Watch the Bulldogs as they perform in their first National Championship in 15 years.
Preview by Ariel A. Sánchez '19, Yale Sports Publicity