What a difference two weeks can make.
In a 14-day span in September, the Harvard men’s cross country team seemingly changed its identity in the Ivy League. Once an inexperienced squad that was simply too young to be anything but a non-factor, the Crimson appeared to be a legitimate contender in the Ancient Eight.
“We had a ton of talent and we were in great shape,” sophomore James Leakos says. “The first couple of races, we crushed it.”
On Sept. 17, the squad cruised to a 23-34 victory over Yale at the annual Harvard-Yale dual meet. Two weeks later, the Crimson toed the line against some of the nation’s best teams at the Paul Short Invitational in Bethlehem, Pa., and put together its best performance of the year, finishing in ninth place out of 45 teams. In those last two weeks of September, seemingly everything went right for Harvard’s young harriers.
But unfortunately for the Crimson, the cross country season does not end in September.
“Right after [the Paul Short Invitational], everything just started going wrong,” Leakos says. “Unfortunately, literally, like, our entire team got hurt. And that was pretty much that.”
All five of Harvard’s scoring runners from the Paul Short Invitational sustained injuries following the meet. Both Leakos and freshman Billy Orman, who had been the squad’s No. 1 and No. 2 runners, respectively, at Harvard-Yale and Paul Short, were unable to compete at the team’s next scheduled race.
Just two weeks after its resounding performance in Bethlehem, the decimated Crimson squad competed in the ‘B’ division at the Wisconsin Adidas Invitational. Going into the Heptagonal Championships, the once competitive team was back at square one.
Led by junior Jakob Lindaas (28th) and sophomore Aaron Watanabe (32nd), the team finished in seventh place at Heps. Placing four runners in the top 10, Princeton took home the men’s team title. Columbia and Dartmouth, which narrowly edged the Crimson at Paul Short, finished in second and third place, respectively.
“Injuries certainly curtailed the potential that we had, in terms of where we finished in the final [Ivy] League standings,” Harvard coach Jason Saretsky says.
Leakos indicated that the squad’s training after the Paul Short Invite might have played a role in causing the ensuing slew of injuries.
“We had a great opportunity to do some really cool stuff, and we knew that,” he says. “I think we just got too excited…. The next couple of runs [after the Paul Short meet], I straight up crushed. I took very little recovery days, and I just really hammered the next week or so.”
Going into the year, a lack of experience and leadership was a major concern for the Crimson, which fielded a roster of mainly sophomores and freshmen. Having graduated Dan Chenoweth in the spring of 2011, Harvard entered the season without a clear No. 1 runner.
“I think a number of guys saw that opportunity and were maybe a little over-eager to fill those big shoes that [Chenoweth] left,” Saretsky says. “I think it was a real learning process for the team, and we’ll be in a much better situation come next year.”
While the Crimson men suffered from inexperience, the women’s team boasted a veteran squad led by seniors Jeanne Mack and Kailyn Kuzmuk.
After a disappointing third-place finish at the Harvard-Yale-Princeton meet, the Harvard women followed the lead of the men’s squad and had their strongest outing at the Paul Short Invitational.
Kuzmuk led the seven competing runners at the invite, covering the six-kilometer course at Lehigh University in 21:51. All seven of the Crimson’s competitors finished within a 40-second span, allowing the squad to finish in 14th in the deep 45-school field. Some of the best programs in the country took the top spots in the women’s standings—Providence College and Villanova University earned first and second place, respectively, and eventual national-champion Georgetown finished in fourth place.
At the Heptagonal Championships, Mack (13th) and Kuzmuk (21st) once again paced the Crimson. Following the veterans was a trio of fresh faces: freshmen Viviana Hanley and Alaina Alvarez and sophomore Morgan Kelly. The squad earned sixth place in the Ancient Eight, with Cornell topping Columbia to take home the Ivy title.
“I think the cross country season had some really outstanding highlights,” Saretsky says. “I was really proud with the way that some of our younger athletes stepped up when they were called upon to run in the major championship races as we got to the end of the season.”
—Staff writer Dominic A. Martinez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.