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No. 20 men’s cross country heads to NCAA Championships

The Cavaliers automatically qualified with a first place finish at Southeast Regionals

<p>Senior AJ Ernst finished first among all Virginia runners at the NCAA Southeast Regionals.</p>

Senior AJ Ernst finished first among all Virginia runners at the NCAA Southeast Regionals.

A week after the Virginia men’s country team pulled off its best race of the season in the NCAA Southeast Regionals, the Cavaliers have a chance to compete on the biggest stage in college cross country — the NCAA Championships.

The NCAA Division I National Men’s and Women’s Cross Country Championships are set for Saturday, Nov. 23, at the Lavern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course with the men’s race set to begin at 12:15 p.m.. The course in Terre Haute, Ind., has hosted the past 12 NCAA Championships — earning the nickname “Cross Country Town, USA.” An icon in the distance running community, the course was designed to be a championship-style cross country course. 

The Cavaliers automatically qualified along with 17 other teams — the top-two team finishers from each of the nine regions. Along with 13 other teams selected at-large, Virginia heads to race for the national title. 

Southeast Regionals

No. 20 Virginia took the Southeast by storm, racing with the lead from the start. Virginia’s five scoring runners all placed in the top 20, which led to a 30-point gap between the first place Cavaliers and second place Virginia Tech. The Cavaliers’ top five earned All-Southeast Region Honors.

Keys to the meet

Low stick

While Virginia’s strength is its consistency of runners in the top five, the team lacks a lead guy who has proven to be the fastest week in and week out. In championship races, a runner like this — known as a “low stick” — is important for the team to rely on and look to in times of distress.

With this in mind, a number of athletes can step up this weekend. Senior AJ Ernst, senior Ari Klau and senior Alex Corbett all have the capability to be strong low sticks. All three of them have placed first this year and are experienced enough to race well on such a big stage. If one of these athletes can have an elite performance, Virginia can surprise a lot of people.

Embrace the pain

The championship course is notably treeless, full of inner loops, rolling hills and open space. This makes the course spectator-friendly but void of technicality, providing a difficult task for the runners. The openness makes runners ahead always visible, forcing the runner to constantly battle the runner directly in front. 

In such an open environment in late November, the conditions are mostly always cold and consistently windy. Despite the lack of technicality, the course makes up for it in terms of the strength and mental and physical endurance required to perform well while running it. Labeled one of the most honest cross country courses in the U.S., the course can break runners’ wills. Cross Country Director Vin Lananna, who has raced here dozens of times, will have prepared the team on the tough conditions and the importance of embracing the pain. Once runners are accustomed to the mental pain, they can focus on consistently applying pressure, moving up the field over the entire distance.