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It’s always bothered me when sportswriters liken a team’s season to a roller coaster ride.
The expression is overused and cliché, and I made a promise to myself when I started writing for The Crimson that I would shy away from those kinds of cheesy phrases that don’t actually mean anything.
But now, just eight months after my first article was published, I am going to break my promise and take a trip down Cliché Lane.
I feel forced to do this because following the Harvard men’s cross country team this season has felt like a trip to Magic Mountain.
Allow me to explain—to add meaning to this usually horrendous figure of speech.
At the beginning of the season, many spectators—myself included—thought that this was going to be a rebuilding year for Harvard.
The squad was returning sophomores James Leakos, Kurt Ruegg, and Maksim Korolev, and had picked up a top recruit in freshman Billy Orman. But in a sport that is entirely different at the high school and collegiate levels, I thought that the Crimson’s lack of experience would doom the squad’s chances of making a splash in the Ivy League.
In 2011, these guys would get a few races under their belts, learn how to cope with the increased mileage, and ultimately finish fifth or sixth in the Ancient Eight. It seemed to me that Harvard simply didn’t have the weapons to challenge Princeton and Columbia. Even Brown and Dartmouth would distance themselves from the Crimson’s talented, yet fledgling group of harriers.
Boy, was I wrong.
I headed to Franklin Park in mid-September to cover Harvard’s only home meet of the season: its dual meet against Yale. On that crisp, autumnal Saturday morning, I witnessed the Crimson’s absolute shellacking of the Bulldogs as it cruised to a 34-23 victory.
Leakos emerged as Harvard’s front runner that day. With nine other Crimson runners crossing the finish line within a minute of the first-place sophomore, the squad made one thing clear: this sure as hell wasn’t a rebuilding year.
For good measure, Harvard turned in an even more impressive performance two weeks later at the Paul Short Invitational. In a 45-team field that included some of the top-ranked teams in the country, the Crimson raced to a ninth place finish. Leakos once again was a standout performer, beating all Ivy runners and earning fifth place overall out of the 400-plus competitors.
Though Columbia showed why it is the favorite to challenge perennial power Princeton for the 2011 Ivy League title by finishing in third place, Harvard finished just behind Brown and Dartmouth in the team standings at the Paul Short Invite.
Third place in the Ancient Eight was a definite possibility. A bronze medal for a team whose top finishers had consistently been underclassmen didn’t seem like such a bad thing. I felt that the Crimson was on the up and up, that nothing could derail this team’s headstrong young runners.
Again, I was wrong.
I had neglected the unfortunate prevalence of injuries that mars the sport of cross country. I’d forgotten how frequently I see Harvard’s cross country athletes sporting boots and using crutches as they make their way around campus.
I’d fallen into the trap that catches many casual fans of the sport—the assumption that its competitors rarely get injured because they don’t go toe-to-toe with 230-pound linebackers who want to rip their heads off.
Cross country poses a different threat to those who are talented and dedicated enough to participate in the sport at the collegiate level. Though not as severe as concussions or broken bones, stress fractures and tendonitis have the potential to be equally devastating to a cross country team’s championship aspirations.
The Crimson and I learned this the hard way in 2011.
With the Heptagonal Championship meet this weekend and NCAA Regionals on the horizon, many of the team’s key contributors are suffering from injuries. Harvard’s once-loaded roster now looks a bit less promising.
The Crimson may have reached its “peak” at the Paul Short Invite. It appears as if injuries and the fickle nature of cross country may now be propelling the team down a “drop” in its roller coaster of a season.
Harvard has a chance to prove its mettle against Ivy League competition on Saturday morning. Only then will we truly know the impact of injuries on the squad. On Saturday afternoon, we’ll know if my bleak prediction became a reality.
Because let’s face it, I’ve been wrong before.
—Staff writer Dominic A. Martinez can be reached at email@example.com.
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