With prime weather conditions and a cheering Nashville crowd, nothing could stop the women’s and men’s cross-country teams from taking home a double-dub at Friday’s Belmont Opener.
“We went in just talking to the guys and girls, just saying, ‘Compete with yourselves, not against yourselves,'” said Jeff Langdon, Belmont’s director of cross-country and track and field. “‘Let’s just do our thing and let the results speak for themselves.'”
Dominant team efforts placed the Bruins on top of the podium in the women’s and men’s 5Ks, and both races saw Belmont runners finish in the No. 1 rank with winning individual performances from senior Ben Naeger and junior Katie Flaherty.
On the men’s side, Finn Birnie and Aidan Thompson finished No. 2 and No. 3 behind Naeger. All seven of Belmont’s runners placed in the top 15 and banked a team score of 17 points, triumphing over Lipscomb University’s second-place total of 56 in a scoring system where the least amount of points wins.
After a conservative first part of the race and pacing shade under 5 minutes in the last mile, the top trio all crossed the finish line within 5 seconds of each other, with Naeger — a previous NCAA national qualifier — clocking in at 15:17.93.
And despite challenging summer training following a tough track season and recent COVID-19 issues, Naeger said both his own and the team’s performance exceeded his expectations.
“We packed up really well. I think we ran pretty well as a team, so that was great. We all kind of stuck to the plan,” he said.
The plan, said assistant coach Kate Bucknam, was to “get the competitive juices flowing.”
With this in mind, the Bruins made sure the blue skies, 80-degree day and ocean of supporters at the home course in Percy Warner Park did not go to waste.
On the women’s side, the six first runners to reach the finish wore navy-and-red jerseys with “Belmont” emblazoned across the chest.
With all Bruins logging top 20 ranks, the Belmont pack picked up a team score of 15 points, coming in under second-place Bellarmine University by a margin of 40 points.
Though they don’t have a senior class, the young troop of Belmont runners still possesses experienced returners, with Flaherty, Grace Litzinger, Maddy Malczewski and Lily Hallum all earning Ohio Valley Conference honors in the last post-season.
However, the freshmen showed great optimism and potential in their collegiate premiere. Betsy Gordon finished seventh, Kaitlyn Vanderkolk took fourth and Brooke Stromsland came in second with 18:24.20, right behind veteran Flaherty’s winning time of 18:21.54.
“To see all the freshmen up there working together was really encouraging,” Bucknam said.
Women’s No. 2 finisher and first-year Bruin Stromsland found success in the team’s packing strategy.
“I’m not used to running in a pack of girls like that,” she said. “So just being able to go through the race having my teammates right beside me made it so much easier.”
The course at Percy Warner Park, which in a few months will host the OVC Championships, is also deceivingly hard, Stromsland said.
“It’s definitely physically and mentally tough, but I kind of like it.”
Knowing what to expect next time, the Bruins will prepare for another go-around at Percy Warner Park for the more competitive Commodore Classic on Sept. 17. The men’s team will add 2 miles to run the usual cross-country 8K while the women maintain the same 5K course.
“Now that we kind of have a baseline of where everybody’s at, that’s going to help with training,” Bucknam said. “We’re just going to gear up, get a couple more workouts under our belts and hopefully be a little bit better at Commodore Classic.”
— PHOTO: (from left to right) Bruins Kaitlyn Vanderkolk, Brooke Stromsland, Grace Litzinger and No. 1 finisher Katie Flaherty lead the pack at Friday’s race / Photo by Jessica Mattsson
This article was written by Jessica Mattsson. Mattsson is a student-athlete on Belmont’s track and field team.