It’s that time of year again.
After competing in five tune-up invitationals over the past seven weeks, the Harvard cross country team will finally toe the line this weekend at Princeton’s West Windsor Fields for the Heptagonal Championships. Alongside the Crimson will be its seven Ivy League adversaries, each vying to become the conference’s 2012 champions.
“The Heps are a storied tradition with so much history,” Harvard coach Jason Saretsky said. “There’s nothing quite like going against your peer institutions…. There’s a tremendous amount of excitement right now with our student-athletes.”
“It’s a bit more personal running against the other Ivy’s,” junior Maksim Korolev added.
On the men’s side, Korolev and classmate James Leakos are expected to lead the way for the Crimson at Heps. After capturing first and second places, respectively, at the Harvard-Yale dual meet early in the season, the juniors were the first and fourth Ivy runners at the Wisconsin Adidas Invitational, which featured seven of the conference’s eight squads.
“I’m looking for [Korolev and Leakos] to go out there [at Heps] and compete hard and leave it all out there,” Saretsky said. “Obviously, they’re in great shape and they’ve done the work. Now it’s time for the fun part.”
At last year’s Heptagonal Championships, both Korolev and Leakos, along with a number of the squad’s other top runners, were unable to compete due to injuries that they sustained in the middle of the season. The decimated Harvard squad sputtered to a seventh-place finish in last year’s installment of the storied meet. This season, Saretsky has tweaked the team’s training regimen, going as far as holding runners out of competition at various meets.
Korolev and Leakos will need to turn in strong performances for Harvard to have any chance of upsetting Columbia, which is coming into the meet ranked No. 10 in the latest USTFCCCA poll, the highest mark in program history. Lions senior Mike Murphy and Princeton junior Alejandro Arroyo Yamin will likely be battling Korolev and Leakos in the lead pack.
“It’s pretty clear-cut who the favorites are,” Saretsky said. “Everyone has kind of shown their cards at this point, so we’ve got a sense of who the top teams are shaping up to be.”
Though the pair of juniors will likely lead the way for Harvard on Saturday, the squad’s next three scoring runners will be just as crucial in determining where the Crimson lies in the final Ivy League standings.
At the Wisconsin Adidas Invitational, freshmen Tom Purnell and Billy Gaudreau and junior Kurt Ruegg were the Crimson’s other scorers, with Purnell crossing the finish line 43 seconds after Leakos. If Harvard manages to narrow that gap, it will have a chance to defeat the Lions and Tigers, who topped the Crimson by 347 and 206 points at the Wisconsin meet, respectively. Saretsky believes that the drastically smaller size of the field at Heps will benefit Harvard.
“Having your five scorers close together and close to the front is the name of the game,” Saretsky said. “In a smaller field, it’s easier to stay connected and feed off each other.”
On the women’s side, Harvard is looking to improve upon its sixth-place finish from a year ago. Though the squad lacks any true frontrunners like Korolev and Leakos for the men’s team, it has relied on its depth to excel this season.
Seniors Samantha Silva and Briana Jackucewicz, juniors Morgan Kelly and Emily Reese, and sophomore Viviana Hanley have consistently formed an impressive pack for the Crimson. At the Wisconsin Adidas meet, the team’s first four runners all crossed the finish line in a 14-second span, which is especially striking considering the magnitude of the field. Though over 300 runners competed in that race, fewer than 100 will participate in the women’s race this weekend.
“All season, we’ve had interchangeable parts up front,” Saretsky said. “The keys to success are us running as tight of a pack as we can, really feeding off of each other and having a strong performance one through five.”
The Crimson will likely face its stiffest competition in Cornell and Yale, who topped the 23rd-place Harvard squad at the Wisconsin meet by finishing in fifth and 13th place, respectively. Katie Kellner and Rachel Sorna have been the Big Red’s best runners this year and are expected to compete for the individual title, having both finished in a two-second span as the Ancient Eight’s top runners at the invite.
“I’ve got a lot of anticipation built up for this race,” Saretsky said. “I can’t wait for that gun to go off on Saturday.”
—Staff writer Dominic A. Martinez can be reached at email@example.com.