Women’s cross country notches first NCAA qualifier

This season, the women’s cross country team competed at their first NCAA National Championships. The team prioritizes race-day success and everlasting community. Courtesy of Jermaine Bibb

At first, women’s cross country coach James McCowan wasn’t sure if the team’s fifth-place finish at the NCAA Atlantic Regionals was going to be enough: “I had some trepidation seeing the point gap from us to fourth, and from us to sixth … I worried the NCAA Committee might make the cut ahead of us,” he explained via email. But after results from the other regions came in, McCowan discovered that Vassar had beaten the sixth place Northeast Region team and the third place Mid-Atlantic team, making it nearly impossible for them not to make the cut for nationals. He even began booking the team’s flights to Louisville on the bus ride home. Still, until the official announcement came the following Sunday, the team couldn’t celebrate fully. As McCowan said, “When we finally got it, it was a definite feeling of relief and joy. The team got a group text from me the second the selections came out.”

After a long and successful season, including finishing second in the Liberty Leagues and fifth at Atlantic Regionals, the team qualified for their first-ever NCAA Nationals Championships, which took place on Nov. 23. The team’s success continued as they finished 25th at the event after coming in with a No. 29 ranking, with sophomore Keara Ginell as their top runner at 50th. This past season will undoubtedly be marked by their statistical success, but the breakthrough of finally making Nationals is what will be forever ingrained in the memories of these runners and their coach. “You never have a crystal ball, but the objective was pretty clear. We have been looking to get a team to Nationals for years,” explained McCowan. “While the program has frequently qualified individuals for NCAAs, getting a team there in cross country has long been a goal that has just escaped us. We have been just one or two spots outside of qualifying multiple times, and last season was a heartbreaker as we were in a qualifying position up until the last 1K or less at the Regional meet.”

Clearly for this team Nationals was not just a pipe dream but a realistic goal, yet the athletes still emphasized the team’s community even more. Ginell spoke on the importance of their team dynamic, explaining via email: “We wanted to build a positive team culture that each of us was proud, grateful and glad to be part of.” When asked for their favorite moments from this past season, both senior Meghan Cook and Ginell spoke, of course, of qualifying, but the first memories that came to mind were their long Sunday runs together throughout the year. “The thought of waking up before the rest of campus with teammates to get in a quality run at [Mohonk Mountain] brings about such fond memories. The runs didn’t always feel great physically, but spending quality time with friends always lifted my spirits,” reminisced Cook in an email. This cohesion isn’t new for this particular team, but rather a common trait for the program. “The day before we left for Nationals I had the privilege of giving the women a care package from the classes of ‘12, ‘13 and ‘14 – the teams who first got us very close to qualifying for NCAA’s as a team,” recalled McCowan. “It was quite touching to see the connection between all these women who never even got to run together, to see the continuity in what we value from year to year.”

Next year, the team will look to build on this season’s foundations, and it helps that eight of their top nine runners are returning. Still, the team will definitely miss Cook, their team captain and only senior. McCowan raved, “We are graduating a real powerful figure in Meghan Cook – who was both our captain and one of our top performers all season. She was instrumental in striking the balance between being an empathetic peer and a demanding competitor that really set the tone for the team.” For Cook, the feeling is mutual: “I’ll miss everything about my team! They are so wonderful, caring, weird, and fun. I have found such a truly special group of people to call my teammates and friends. Each one of them inspires me in their own way, and I am incredibly proud of the way we have been able to genuinely come together to work towards our common goal.”

For the team, the Nationals experience went beyond racing. It extended into a more personal realm, providing them with a well-rounded experience. Ginell again stressed the team’s closeness: “Being able to share this memorable experience with my teammates and coaches made it all the better.”

The final leap of qualifying for Nationals made the team realize that it was never as unattainable as they once believed. “Along the way we realized qualifying and competing at Nationals was not some earth-shattering challenge looming before us, but rather an outcome that would emerge from commitment, passion and learning,” emphasized Ginell. Now that they have broken their Nationals curse…next stop, Top 15?

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