ACC title meet looms
White, Amirault’s returns bolster runners’ confidence for conference showdown
The Virginia men’s and women’s cross-country teams begin their postseason with the ACC Championships Saturday at Smithfield Plantation in Blacksburg, Va. Both the men’s and women’s competitions will feature three teams ranked in the top 30, so the meet will prove a difficult test for both squads.
After a season plagued by injuries, both teams will benefit from the addition of two stars: graduate students Catherine White and Mark Amirault. White made her return to the Cavaliers at the Wisconsin adidas Invitational Oct. 12, finishing 21st overall with a time of 20:06 in the six-kilometer race. Recurrent injuries had barred White from competing since 2009, when she earned a spot on the All-America team, but she is now fit and eager to provide a decisive boost for the Cavaliers.
“I’m having fun racing cross-country again,” White said. “There’s certainly a learning curve to it. Every race I’m getting a little better, learning better tactics and getting a little fitter each week.”
Amirault will make his 2012 debut Saturday after suffering a leg injury in September. Though the 2011 All-American has yet to fully recover, men’s coach Pete Watson believes Amirault’s talent and leadership could galvanize the rest of the runners to an inspired performance.
“He’s not at 100 percent fitness right now,” Watson said. “But he’s fit enough now that he can have a major impact where we can finish. Him being out there in the lead pack is going to build a lot of confidence.”
And his teammates agree.
“Not only is he a really talented guy, but he also is a calming presence,” Graduate student Zach Gates said. “It really helps to have a guy who is really steady.”
Both Virginia squads feature a strong and talented supporting cast behind White and Amirault. In his first year as a Cavalier since transferring from William & Mary, Gates has stepped up to fill the role of lead runner in Amirault’s absence, finishing first on the team in each of the last two meets and placing 24th overall with an eight-kilometer time of 23:48 at Wisconsin. Junior Thomas Porter, senior Sean Keveren, sophomore Drew Paisley and junior Taylor Gilland rounded out the top five for the men at the Wisconsin meet.
On the women’s team, junior Barbara Strehler represents a strong number two behind White. Strehler received All-Region honors in 2010 and is a two-time All-ACC runner. She finished with a time of 21:04 at Wisconsin. Behind Strehler at Wisconsin were senior Vicky Fouhy, freshman Audrey Batzel and freshman Ariel Karabinus.
Despite the focus on the return of Amirault and White, both coaches realize a strong finish Saturday will require a team effort.
“Cross-country has the biggest emphasis on team,” women’s coach Todd Morgan said. “One through five is equally important, and one dominant person cannot hide a weak fifth person.”
Both Cavalier teams will find several elite programs at the starting line in Blacksburg. The Virginia men, after dropping out of the most recent top-30 rankings themselves, will battle No. 14 Florida State, No. 18 Duke and No. 21 Virginia Tech.
Virginia defeated Duke at the Virginia/Panorama Farms Invitational Sept. 22 and has yet to face the other two ranked teams at full strength. N.C. State’s Andrew Colley, last year’s individual runner up, headlines a group of eight runners who placed in the top 14 at the previous ACC Championship.
The women face No. 1 Florida State, No. 11 Duke and No. 26 Boston College. The Seminoles have swept the past four ACC Championships and enter the competition ranked first overall in the nation for the second consecutive year. This year’s field includes nine of the top 14 finishers from the last ACC Championship, including 2011 individual runner-up Amanda Winslow of Florida State.
Virginia will benefit from its experience with the course. Earlier in the season, both teams competed at the Virginia Tech Alumni Invitational held at Smithfield Plantation. Though the current top five Virginia men did not run in the race, they had the opportunity to become familiar with the course.
“For the past 10 weeks, [the Cavaliers] have been able to visualize what the course looks like,” Morgan said. “We know what to expect going into it, and I think it is a big advantage.”
Both the men’s and women’s team know the competition Saturday will be intense, but they also realize a team title is not out of reach. “I think the runners will show up ready to run, and ready to compete for an ACC Championship,” Morgan said.
The women’s race starts Saturday at 10 a.m. The men’s race follows at 10:50 a.m.