John Quackenbos/The Hoya Colleen Kelly and the women’s cross country team race for the National title this weekend.

After enduring months of grueling training, the culmination of the No. 7 Georgetown women’s cross country team’s season will take place this Monday, as they travel to Terre Haute, Ind. to battle the top teams in the nation on the grandest of all stages – the NCAA Championships.

Despite starting the season with a No. 2 ranking in the pre-season coaches poll, opinions of the team among pundits in the running community have consistently fallen, and the Hoyas are no longer considered among the favorites for a national title. Expectations at the beginning of the season were fueled largely by the fact that all seven members of Georgetown’s third-place finishing team at the 2001 Championships were returning. Those expectations, however, quickly evaporated as Georgetown fell prey to sloppy conditions at the Great American Cross Country Festival on Sept. 27, and made an immediate exit from the nation’s top 10.

The team managed to claw its way back, registering wins in its next two races at the George Washington Invitational and Oklahoma State Cowboy Jamboree, and later claiming second and third place finishes, respectively, at the Big East Championship and Pre-NCAA meet.

Recent successes, such as the team’s victories at the Cavalier Open and Mid-Atlantic Regionals, suggest the team is as strong as ever, and plenty of explanations – such as injuries to star runners senior Marni Kruppa, junior Amanda Pape and senior Jill Laurendeau – provide ample justifications for the team’s earlier disappointments.

“What experience has told me is that returning seven people from the third place team in the country doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll be any better the next year,” Director of Track and Field and Cross Country Ron Helmer said. “And even if we are better, it doesn’t mean that we’ll be as high as third again, because we have no control over how good other people are, and how well they’ll be able to run at nationals – that’s up to them.”

Despite the uncertainty, and the variables that are outside the team’s control, Helmer said he is extremely optimistic about his team’s chances this weekend.

“I expect that for the 15th year in a row, we’ll at least be in the top 10,” Helmer said. “We’ve bit-by-bit started to put the pieces of the puzzle together. It’s not come together as quickly as I’d hoped, but I think that the seven people that are lining up at the national meet probably represent the seven that had the best summers of training. [Juniors] Treniere [Clement] and Sarah [Scholl] had great summers, and they’re the two newcomers to the seven that are important, positive pieces of the puzzle. We know that Jill and arni haven’t yet run at the level that they did last year, but they’re good enough, and they’re prepared enough that I think they’ll both go out and run very well.”

Of all members on the team, Kruppa has the potential to make the biggest impact. A three-time All-American and two-time NCAA qualifier in the 10,000m, Kruppa has both top-level experience and has demonstrated consistent success at high-intensity meets. Her racing so far this season has been limited, and Helmer said she is currently in phenomenal physical condition.

“I think Marni, because we started racing her so late, is now poised to have her best national meet ever,” Helmer said. “She was in the 30s last year, and No. 28 the year before, and if she can pull that off, that gives us a penetrator that we need so we can take advantage of the depth that we have.”

“I’m feeling really fresh,” Kruppa said. “Not racing until later in the season was more a matter of circumstance than strategy, since I was hurt, but training has been going well, and I feel ready to race.”

Sophomores Nicole Lee and Jodee Adams-Moore have been consistent performers all year, and will likely join Kruppa in the Hoyas’ lead pack. Senior Erin Sicher and juniors Sarah Scholl and Treniere Clement are expected to add support in the middle, while senior Jill Laurendeau appears to be the biggest wild card.

Last year, in only her first season running collegiate cross country, Laurendeau shocked the nation with a 14th place finish at the national championships. Her stunning success extended into the indoor and outdoor track seasons, where she earned NCAA qualifications in every event ranging from the 800m to the 3,000m, and garnered All-American honors in the mile. This season, however, she has been beset by illness and injuries, and has only scored in one of the team’s meets – the Oklahoma State Cowboy Jamboree.

“Jill’s been fighting through a series of setbacks, and there’s a frustration that goes with that,” Helmer said. “If she can just put together a solid race and find her way into our top five, then that would be great. We have to do the best with what we have, but I think Jill will rise to that challenge.”

Georgetown’s main strength all year has been its depth, and the ability of its team to run together as a group. Whereas other teams, like No. 2 Stanford that have three individual title contenders that can greatly outpace the rest of their team, Georgetown has a large group of athletes that are capable of running at speeds very consistent with one another.

“The strongest aspect of our team is that we run close together as a pack,” Kruppa said. “It’s not like last year when we would have one person 30 seconds away from another. We’re not as spread out-the pack is a lot closer and works together. The key for us this year at nationals is just to move the pack up.”

“To run 20 seconds from one to five at the regional meet was great,” Helmer said. “We’re running extremely well, and we can run very tight. What we’ll need to have happen is two to three people run races that will give them shots at being All-Americans-typically that’s top 30 or 35 – and if we can get two or three people there, then I think that our four and five aren’t going to be very far behind. Last year, our No. 1 was Jill at 14th, our No. 5 was Nicole at 83rd, and that got us a third place trophy. I think this year we can definitely move our No. 5 up – I’d like to see our No. 5 being in the 50s or 60s-and if we can pull that off, it’s going to be very difficult to stop us from getting a trophy.”

A more intangible difference this year will be the psychology of entering the meet as underdogs rather than favorites. Last year, Georgetown was undefeated and ranked No. 3 heading into the national championships. This year, the team has three losses and is seeded No. 7.

But rather than losing confidence, the team is attempting to use its lower ranking as a motivation to succeed.

“We take it as a challenge,” Kruppa said. “We’re going in with a different mindset, and since there really aren’t high expectations, we feel we have something to prove.”

“Our goal all along is the national championship meet,” Helmer said. “If you’re going to run a program where that is your No. 1 goal, what you have to realize is that you can’t have everything. We probably just didn’t get quite enough of the other things to make us feel as good as we perhaps have in the past. To win the regional meet, to come within a point of winning the Big East meet and to run third in our division at the pre-national meet are all significant accomplishments, but when the expectation level goes up, while they’re still significant accomplishments, they also represent disappointment at some level, because we’re not quite doing what we know we could do if we could just get it all put together. So now we have one last chance to try to pull it together, and I feel very comfortable that it’s going to happen. It’s not an accident that we’ve been in the top 10 for 14 straight years.”

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