Cross country squads face top national contenders at Wisconsin
Depth becomes biggest factor for men's, women's teams as postseason draws closer
It takes more than one or two superstars to make a cross country team. The Virginia men’s and women’s programs undeniably possess the requisite frontrunners for a special season, but their depth has come into question and will define the direction each squad takes in the coming weeks.
Friday’s showdown against many of the nation’s top programs at the Wisconsin adidas Invitational will serve as a pivotal benchmark two weeks away from the ACC Championships. With 19 members of the 46-team men’s field ranked in the national top 30 and 20 ranked squads among the 48 women’s participants, the competition is “basically like the national meet,” men’s coach Pete Watson said.
For the No. 29 Cavalier men, the season’s biggest question mark hangs over the back end of their scoring five. All-American graduate student Mark Amirault is a bona fide leader. He is followed by proven performers in graduate student Zack Gates, junior Chris Foley and senior Sean Keveren. But the lineup needs a strong fifth runner to be truly formidable.
Junior Thomas Porter could take the fifth spot.
“For guys up front, they gain or lose one or two spots if they have a good day or a bad one,” Porter said. “As the fifth guy, it’s 20 or 30 spots. It boosts the confidence of the whole team knowing they have strong support from the fifth runner.”
At the Panorama Farms Invitational last month, Gates announced his potential for a big year with a fourth-place debut in a Virginia uniform. Gates no longer appears hindered by the injuries he fought while running for William & Mary last year. Though Foley struggled at Panorama, it was the junior’s first bad race. Watson said he expects a bounce-back performance from Foley Friday.
Whether Amirault will lineup at Wisconsin has been up in the air as he recovers from an Achilles injury. Watson is unconcerned about his leader, though, expressing confidence Amirault will be ready by ACCs at the end of October. Instead, his biggest concern is who will take charge of the back end of the scoring five. Porter was fifth for Virginia at Panorama and will be counted on to distinguish himself in this position.
“Thomas should be the clear No. 5, so we are challenging him to do that,” Watson said. “In cross country, you’re only as good as your fourth or fifth guy.”
Porter seems ready to accept the task. After being slowed by an aneurysm two years ago that kept him from running for four months, Porter is eager to continue his ascent within the team’s ranks.
“My goal is to contribute as much as possible,” Porter said. “I finished fifth last time, but I want to be fifth with the pack. I’m hoping to close the gap in fitness.”
Depth takes on a different meaning for the Cavalier women. They have successfully maintained a tight spread among their top five, but they have found difficulty fielding a squad of seven healthy athletes on any given day. With just nine runners on the roster and seven needed for each race, the inevitable slew of injuries — no matter how minor — could threaten the team’s postseason hopes.
“Our team size is uncommonly small, but that’s something that we can’t control,” women’s coach Todd Morgan said. “Fortunately we have seven great athletes on the team … but that definitely doesn’t leave us with a lot of wiggle room making sure people are healthy and ready to run.”
Despite the disadvantages of the small team, the Cavaliers have also found a silver lining. With fewer runners to coach, Morgan said he has been able to work more closely with each athlete. The group has also become tight-knit and benefits from its experienced core.
“[Junior] Barbara [Strehler] and [graduate student] Catherine White are good leaders,” said Ariel Karabinus, a junior Morgan sees as a key veteran contributor herself. “Catherine is great at leading by example. Barbara has dealt with numerous injuries, so she brings some toughness.”
Although the numbers game may be a coach’s nightmare, once the team laces up Friday the seven who toe the line will narrow their focus to what they can control. Posting a strong performance on a big stage could go a long way toward making a statement to other teams before meeting again in the postseason.
“I think we’ll benefit from getting practice facing a big race setting, which is good for us,” Karabinus said. “But you have to look at it as just another meet.”