Virginia men’s and women’s cross country ended their season Saturday morning with the honor of hosting the NCAA XC Championship Meet at Panorama Farms in Earlysville, Va. — a first since 1987. Unfortunately, both teams struggled to improve their performance from the 2022 NCAA XC Championship Meet, with the women’s team finishing No. 15 overall — a large difference from their ninth-place finish last year — and the men’s team finishing No. 22 overall — the same as the year before.
The morning of the race had perfect running weather — sunny and in the low-to-mid 60s for temperature. The Championship meet had also sold out, with approximately 5,000 spectators attending. With 31 teams for both the men’s and women’s races, it was going to be a fast but competitive meet.
The women’s five-kilometer race was first, starting at 10:20 a.m. after a couple of stutters from some runners. However, once the gun went off, all the teams seemed to be in the zone and ready to race.
After the start, a pack of eight quickly formed at the front. Florida redshirt junior Parker Valby — the second-place finisher of the 2022 NCAA Championship Meet — took the lead in the early stages.
For No. 15 Virginia, freshman Jenny Schilling took the lead for the team, with senior Anna Workman about four seconds behind at the 1000-meter mark. Junior Margot Appleton, a key leader for Virginia, appeared to be having a slower start, as she started the race as the third runner for the team.
By the 3000-meter mark, the team leaders began to be set. No. 2 NC State — a team that was in fourth at the 2000-meter mark — took the lead with Northern Arizona just behind in second. The Cavaliers had moved up from 15 to 12, thanks to Appleton’s speed-up in pace.
The women’s five-kilometer race was quick. Valby not only kept the lead for the women’s race but made it larger — finishing 10 seconds ahead of the second-place runner with a time of 18:55.2.
The NCAA Champions for women’s teams were much closer in results, though. NC State won the women’s race with 123 points, just one point more than Northern Arizona. Virginia had fallen a little since the halfway point, finishing at 15.
Schilling had an impressive individual performance — earning All-America honors by finishing 39 overall with a time of 20:06.4. Appleton was second for the team, finishing 51 overall with a time of 20:13.2.
After all the women finished, the men’s teams started to prepare for the start of their 10-kilometer race. Their start was efficient and fast, with the men lining up and surging forward right at 11:10 a.m.
The huge pack of runners in the first half of the men’s race initially made it difficult to tell who might place highly individually, as the time difference between individuals was only tenths of a second apart. However, both No. 7 Arkansas and No. 1 Northern Arizona took the lead as teams, each more than 100 points ahead of the third-place team — No. 2 Oklahoma State.
No. 25 Virginia had a fast pace at the beginning, with runners dispersed throughout to put themselves at 14. Sophomore Will Anthony led the Cavaliers, staying near the front half of the pack in 58 at the 1000-meter mark. Junior Nathan Mountain was close behind Anthony, with a less than a second difference between them, but with a 16-place difference.
The runners started to spread out and had more room to pass others and move up around the 5000-meter mark. The Cavaliers were no longer on the leaderboard in 16 and were struggling to maintain the extremely fast pace that the race started with.
Mountain had pulled ahead of Anthony at the halfway point, and senior Yasin Sado was not far behind them. After the race, he explained why they might have seemed thrown off in the pacing of the race.
“I think we kind of missed each other,” Sado said. “The strategy was looking for each other and working with each other. It was super crowded and we kind of missed each other in the race.”
It was unclear who would win the individual title for the men’s race until the final stretch, where Harvard’s junior Graham Blanks pulled ahead of New Mexico’s freshman Habtom Samuel to win with a course record time of 28:37.7. Oklahoma State closed the initial large point difference to win as a team with 49 points — a 22-point difference between them and second-place finisher Northern Arizona.
Virginia finished in 22 overall, the same place they finished in last year. Coach Vin Lananna also attributed their struggles to the size of the meet, but he is also already looking at how they can improve next year.
“I think our guys probably got a little bit overwhelmed,” Coach Lananna said. “But overall, I think the vast majority of those men and women return, so we’ll see if we can do something with it next year.”
The Cavaliers certainly did not expect the season to end with disappointing production on their home course. But given the youth of the team, Virginia has a chance to come back stronger next year. They will need to work on individual tactics and pacing to ensure they will be able to still have a strong performance if they find themselves surrounded only by opponents in races.