At the Indiana State Pre-National Invitational in Terre Haute, Ind., this weekend, the Georgetown women’s cross country team lined up against some of the nation’s top teams with a squad consisting of three freshmen and two sophomores – one of the youngest teams in the field.

Nonetheless, the young Hoyas proved their ability on the big stage as they placed fourth overall in the White team race. On the way, Georgetown knocked off several quality teams and improved their chances of receiving an at-large bid to Nationals later this season.

Injuries to more experienced runners early in the year have put increased pressure on the freshmen and sophomore classes. In their first real test, with nearly all of the nation’s best teams lining up in the premier meet of the regular season this weekend, that pressure peaked.

“You could definitely feel the nerves from the younger people on the team,” redshirt senior Natasha LaBeaud said. “[There’s a big difference between] high school where a lot of these girls have been the best in their high school for so long and then [they come] to a race where they know that there’s going to be a lot more competition and people running at their level.”

Added freshman Emily Jones, “This race definitely was very different than the last two that we ran and different than anything that the three freshman who raced had been a part of before. … [Women’s Head Coach Chris Miltenberg] really got us mentally prepared to stay calm and composed throughout the race.”

Sophomore Emily Infeld, an All-American in both indoor and outdoor track and the most experienced of the young Hoyas, led the way for the Blue and Gray. She proved that she is among the nation’s best cross country runners as well, finishing ninth overall with an impressive time of 20:45.1 on a sloppy and muddy course.

Infeld started and stayed with the lead pack, positioning herself well for the stretch run. She ran strongly through the final 2000m, passing a few competitors to finish among the top 10.

“Most importantly, the biggest thing Emily got out of this was a confidence boost,” Miltenberg said. “She knows that . she’s a great miler and a great 800m runner, but now she can definitely run big time nationally on the cross country level. She needed to see that for herself and she did that this weekend.”

Following for the Hoyas was freshman Emily Jones, who, like LaBeaud, went out more conservatively than Infeld. Despite a slower start, both runners still hung tough throughout the middle portion of the race.

Jones moved up slightly over the last 2000m to finish 22nd overall in 21:10.8, one of the more impressive freshman performances in the field.

LaBeaud, who was struggling with respiratory problems and trying out new inhalers, ran a solid race to finish 41st overall in 21:30.4.

While it doesn’t show in the results, LaBeaud, along with some of the other fourth- and fifth-year seniors, played a big role in preparing the young team for this race. While Miltenberg – who became head coach in 2007 – has brought in stellar talent in his first two recruiting classes, he pointed to his experienced runners as a main reason for the young Hoyas’ success.

“A lot of people get good athletes, but once they come here and become part of the Georgetown culture … they are taught very well, from the day they get on campus, what it takes to be competitive on the national level and be part of one of the best teams in the country,” Miltenberg said. “I give that credit to our upperclassmen.”

Added Jones, “I definitely agree that the upperclassmen have been the reason that we’ve been able to transition so quickly to college running, because they’ve been so supportive and great role models in terms of what we need to do to train well at this level.”

Following LaBeaud in the results was a flurry of young Hoyas, led by sophomore Katie McCafferty, who in her first race of the season finished 48th overall in 21:33.6. In what might have been the most encouraging performance of the day, McCafferty showed she is close to regaining her 2008 form, moving up steadily from around 100th place at the 1K mark.

The freshman duo of Kirsten Kasper and Rachel Schneider were next for the Hoyas, finishing 80th and 95th overall. The competition was an important learning experience for both runners, who might have been too conservative in the middle of the race but still did well in their first experience among a strong field.

Perhaps the only disappointment for the Hoyas was senior Lauren Gregory, who was expected to score in the Hoyas’ top five. Gregory put herself in position to do so early on, but unfortunately for the Hoyas, Gregory dropped off the pace significantly and finished a disappointing 110th.

While Miltenberg is confident that Gregory will bounce back, the Hoyas might have topped 2008 NCAA runner-up and fourth-ranked Oregon with a stronger performance from her. The Ducks finished ahead of the Hoyas in third overall.

“I’d be lying to say that we hadn’t all thought about it and talked about it on the way home,” Miltenberg said. “And Lauren was probably the first person to realize and say that if she had just done what she knows she’s capable of doing, we very well may have beat Oregon.”

In the end, the No. 13 Hoyas’ 200 total points and fourth place performance should secure them valuable at-large points.

In a loaded region, the Hoyas will be hard-pressed to secure an automatic bid to Nationals. They will almost undoubtedly have to rely on at-large points, which are awarded to teams that beat squads that ultimately end up qualifying for Nationals.

Placing fourth, Georgetown bested No. 6 Stanford, No. 7 Iowa State, No. 29 Iowa and No. 24 Michigan State, all of which are expected to qualify for Nationals. In addition, the Hoyas’ finishes over UTEP, Arizona, Harvard and NC State could turn into at-large points as well.

“I’m feeling pretty confident [about Nationals] but we have to take it one meet at a time to make sure we get to the show,” Miltenberg said.

Up next for the Hoyas is the Big East Conference Championships at Marquette in two weeks. While No. 2 Villanova and No. 3 West Virginia will be tough to beat, Georgetown will have a chance to pick up a few more at-large points against No. 15 Syracuse and No. 25 Providence.

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