XC Team, individuals qualify for NCAAs

Doug Cobb/The Miscellany News.

It’s been a long time coming, but Vassar men’s cross country is finally sending a team to the NCAA Division III Championships. After finishing a program-best fourth in the Mideast Regional meet this past Saturday, the squad finally received the golden ticket: an at-large bid for the national championships. Sasha Allison ’22 and Augusta Stockman ’23 of the women’s cross country team will join them as individual qualifiers when the athletes travel to Louisville, Kentucky this coming weekend to compete for national glory and gold. 

The Vassar men will finish this season, and for three seniors, their careers, right where they always wanted to end up: Louisville in November. Their success all season is a testament to their dedication, grind and ambition to prove that their program is not only one of the best in the region, but the country.

The Brewers kicked off their season with two first-place finishes at their home course, setting an expectation of success from the get-go. Vassar beat out New Paltz, Union and Bard to notch their first victory of the season, and claimed eight of the top 10 places including the top five spots, finishing with a perfect 15 points. Next, the squad claimed the top spot at the Ron Stonitsch Invitational, with five runners again finishing in the top 10. After their dominance at these first two races, Vassar received their first national ranking of the year at 28th, which they carried for two weeks. Through these early performances, the team made it clear that they were not only going to be highly competitive with their opponents, but also with each other. The quartet of Miles Takiguchi ’23, Reed Dolan ’21, Johnathan Dean ’22 and Jack Casalino ’22, followed closely by Benny Clark ’25, Aidan Mayer ’24 and John Hurly ’25, all consistently finished within seconds of one another and swapped places all season. 

The momentum of their dream start carried into their next three races as the Brewers collected a second-place finish at the New Paltz Invitational, and added two more first-place wins at the Saratoga and James Earley Invitationals. Again, Vassar ended with five runners in the top 10 at both New Paltz and Saratoga, and four at James Earley. Takiguchi finished second at Saratoga and James Earley, including setting a personal record of 25:30.0 at the latter. Dean also ran a personal best at James Earley, crossing the line a second behind his teammate for fourth. At the Earley meet, Vassar claimed the men’s 8K races, with Simon LaClair ’24 winning the blue race with a personal best and Takiguchi claiming a second-place finish in the white race. Vassar saw tougher competition in the Connecticut College Invitational but walked away with a seventh-place finish out of 26 teams. While third-ranked Williams earned the title, Takiguchi ran another personal best of 25:23.60, taking 19th place, and Dolan and Casalino followed at 25th and 33rd overall.

All of these victories, personal bests, and rankings culminated in a second-overall finish at the Liberty League Championships on Oct. 30, where Takiguchi, Casalino, and Dolan received first-team all-league honors, while Dean and Mayer received second-team honors. RPI barely edged out the Brewers 36-38 to grab the victory, but the race highlighted exactly what the team had been doing right all season: being a pack of highly-competitive and talented runners who could compete with the best on any given day, as evidenced by their near-win against no. 19 ranked RPI. Following the LL championship and in the run-up before the NCAA Regionals, Vassar competed in the ECAC Championship, capturing the victory with 36 points. Gibran-Marc Mourani ’22 led the way for the Brewers at sixth overall, but all seven runners finished in the top 20 of the race on the way to the win. 

Finally came NCAA Regionals. The path to Nationals lay through Harkness Memorial State Park in Connecticut, and the squad prepared all season for that moment. And if their performances all season were any indicator, Vassar proved ready for it. Takiguchi, Dolan, Dean and Casalino received all-region honors, crossing the line, as they did all season, together, finishing 10th, 23rd, 24th, and 26th to help capture fourth overall. Mayer, Clark and Hurly closed out the last of the runners for the pack, with 38th, 46th and 56th finishes. The program-best finish led the team to eagerly await 3:00 p.m. the following day to hear the news they had long been hoping to hear. You’re going to the DIII Championships.

 

Booking the plane tickets for Louisville has long been on the bucket list for the program. The team had to focus on the long-run, which included not only achieving results on paper, but creating an environment of personal development, community and simply, fun. The team’s success hasn’t come out of nowhere, and for the upperclassmen on the team, it’s been four years of commitment to the program’s methods that has gotten them to this apex. “The philosophy of VCXC has always been about developing athletes over four years, and the fact that this team has four of the same top five who took only 15th at the last regional championships is such a clear endorsement of that coaching emphasis on growth and improvement,” explained Casalino. When asked if he always thought the team would make it to the highest stage, he added, “I think after the home meet we thought it was possible. When we beat RPI the first time that was like, ‘Alright, I can do it, cool.’”

No matter the outcome of this coming Saturday, the squad will look back on their season with a sense of accomplishment and gratitude, for they have made it to Kentucky as a team and owe their success to their collective performance. Reflecting on how the team felt after receiving their bid, Casalino mentioned some advice Head Coach James McCowan had given to the team: “He said, ‘Take the pressure off yourself.’ You know, five years from now 10 years from now you remember getting to go there and having a trip with your teammates. So don’t feel like you have to have some crazy race or anything; it’s just the reward, the work has already been put in.’” Vassar men’s cross country has indeed put in the work this season, and in Louisville, they will enjoy it. 

Allison and Stockman, have already been to the DIII Championships but are just as excited to return––especially together. In 2019, the women’s cross country team competed at the DIII championship as a team, finishing 25th overall. Allison placed 171st overall while Stockman placed 267th. Fast forward two years later and the team, unfortunately, won’t be returning as a whole, but Allison and Stockman are still more than ready to represent. 

For Allison, this last race will cap off an exceptional season and career. Yet when she first arrived at Vassar, she had no idea she would one day be one of only two representing her team at the national level: “My mom was talking to me on the phone today and said, ‘Remember when you were coming in as a freshman, and you just wanted to not be the last one on the team?’ It feels like the progression is something I couldn’t have even imagined. I wasn’t even sure I was going to stay on the team when I first started because I wasn’t sure if I would be good enough or if it would be the right fit and now I am more successful than I could have imagined in an athletic sense.” 

To look back at the season Allison has had, it’s hard to believe she once thought this. As the top runner for the Vassar women’s side all year, she placed in the top five for her first four races, including first overall in the Vassar Season Starter. She finished an impressive 23rd at the large and competitive Connecticut College Invitational. At the Liberty League Championship, she once again proved herself as one of the top runners in the conference as she finished second overall to earn all-league first-team honors. Finally, at the Mideast Regional she topped the second to last race of her career with a personal best 22:36.2 and a 12th-overall finish, which earned her all-region honors and eventually qualified her for Nationals.

As a junior, Stockman still has another season ahead of her, but after competing at Nationals as a freshman, she has been eager to return: “All my energy up until this point has been channeled into getting here, so I need to sit down and figure out what I actually want out of this final race. I have my freshman result to compare to, but in many ways I don’t even consider myself the same athlete who stepped up to the start line in 2019. I was the alternate, the 8th runner called into action when a teammate injured her ankle, and very much still figuring out how I fit into everything. Now here I am on my own terms. My freshman self would not believe it.”

Well, her performance this season has definitely set her up to achieve that. She established herself as a top-20 runner early on, as she finished seventh, 15th and fifth in her first three meets. After finishing 55th at the Connecticut College Invitational, Stockman came back to finish fourth at the Liberty League Championships and right behind Allison at 13th at the Mideast Regional, earning all-league first-team and all-region honors. 

Allison credits the team’s commitment to their methods and work ethics in preparing her for the season, and emphasized the importance of the minor details that can be overlooked in the busyness of competition: “It’s not like there was one specific workout or moment that prepared us for Nationals…  It’s really a daily process of putting in the work and making sure that regardless of what is required that day, whether it’s a really tough workout or a recovery run, that you are doing what is prescribed and what’s best for your body. Doing all the little things to take care of yourself as well is highly underrated, making sure you are sleeping, eating, lifting, all of those auxiliary things that make someone successful.” 

Stockman highlighted the leadership that the team has received throughout her career, especially during their cancelled season last year: “Ever since the women’s team qualified in 2019, the goal was to get back to Louisville and show that we are consistently capable of competing at the highest level. The fact that Sasha and I were able to qualify as individuals is a huge testament to the leadership we had in that historic 2019 season and then in 2020 at the height of the pandemic; our captains set the tone and kept us grounded when we couldn’t even leave campus to train. This is as much their achievement [Meghan Cook ’20, Elsa Erling ’21, Hannah Martin ’21] as it is ours.”

In the past, 12th- and 13th-place finishes would have surely sent a runner to Nationals, but with the newly-arranged regions, it was no longer an assured qualification. So, Allison and Stockman had to wait until the next day to hear whether they qualified. Although the wait no doubt felt cruelly long, once they both heard they advanced, they felt immediate relief and happiness. “I actually found out when I was in a [For the Many] recruiting call,” explained Allison. “I immediately muted my Zoom and [got] a barrage of messages and I proceeded to text my mom that Augusta and I were going, and immediately she called me. I was trying to be quiet because I was on Zoom but I let it out as soon as she called me. When Augusta came over afterwards we gave each other the biggest hug ever and we were just elated.” Stockman had been walking in Noyes Circle: “I got the text and I just stood there grinning like an idiot. I had spent that morning bracing myself for a different outcome, and it was such a huge relief to be able to relax and celebrate. The almost immediate outpouring of support and congratulations was really, really special. I just feel so lucky.”

When Allison and Stockman compete this Saturday in Louisville, there is no doubt that their teammates will be among their biggest fans, even though they will be cheering from afar. Allison and Stockman were both incredibly appreciative of the support they receive from their teammates, as well as a chance to represent their program. “The most special part about the Vassar XCTF program is its really strong sense of history and legacy. We are constantly reminded that we’re building on the work of past generations of runners who have dreamed big and helped establish a very close-knit community,” maintained Stockman. “I know it sounds like I’m reading off some cheesy promotional brochure, but it’s true… I am incredibly honored to be a tiny part of that legacy, and I give full credit to all the badass women who’ve come before us.” 

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