Men’s cross country races in Nationals
Matt Gad – Contributor
For the first time since 1999, the men’s cross country team qualified for NCAA Division II Nationals, held this year in Pittsburgh, Pa. at the Bob O’Connor Golf Course at Schenley Park.
Seven Owls raced in the meet, including senior captain Steven Cugini, true freshman Jake Mattei, redshirt freshman Chris Lebeau, sophomores Gavin Woodward, Terrell Patterson and Dan Perusina and junior Connor Shannahan.
“The big thing for us was to learn how to compete at that level,” assistant coach Brian Nill said. “We just wanted to get them comfortable in that environment. It was a big learning experience.”
This was the team’s eighth appearance overall after previously making it in 1970, 1977,
1985-87 and 1994 before the 1999 run. They finished 33rd overall and third in the East Region as American International finished in 20th place, Stonehill was 21st and Southern New Hampshire was 34th.
Shannahan placed 158th with a time of 35:20.5, followed by Lebeau in 180th, at a time of 35:28.9, Woodward in 209th, finishing at 36:19.1, Patterson in 211th, with a mark of 36:21.0, Cugini in 228th, with a time of 36:43.6, Mattei in 229th, finishing at 36:44.5 and Perusina in 257th, finishing at 37:54.2.
The Owls’ top finisher moved up 70 places over the course of the race and also took the first spot for the team for the second time all season after also doing so at NCAA Regionals Nov. 17. There, the squad finished in third place and reached an automatic qualifying bid into nationals.
“Knowing that I had my teammates not far behind really helps me push throughout the race,” Shannahan said. “We really work well together. It was a very tough course in tough conditions but I do better with the longer distance of 10K.”
Lebeau, who has been in front for the team most of the time this season, said his goal coming into this fall was to “be able to help my team reach new heights.” He and Mattei, two of the team’s youngest runners in terms of experience, along with Jon Warren, were able to bond well with the older Owls all season long.
“It’s definitely been great for Jake and I to learn from the guys with more experience and it helped us for races. We have so many quality runners that it’s going to benefit us for the future,” he said. “With most of us being so young we’re hoping for more great things in the future.”
Cugini will be the only one graduating from the so-called top seven as the team is stacked with majority sophomore talent.
“Qualifying for nationals as a team was never really a consideration nor a reality until last year,” Cugini said. “Having a solid group of guys all working to the goal of getting to nationals creates a culture of keeping each other accountable and motivated. We learned how to handle a national caliber field.”
The team’s focus now is to do what they did for stretches in the ‘70s, ‘80s and the late ‘90s: be a consistent contender at the national meet.
“We need to get more kids in the door and to just keep building that foundation,” Nill said. “We just have to keep building.”
Next fall, the Owls will have two seniors in Shannahan and Perusina, six juniors, four of which all attended the national meet as Odei-Nitri traveled and was the team’s alternate, and three sophomores: Warren, Mattei, Stephen Fengler and returning redshirt, Lebeau in additional the incoming class.
“We’re looking to bring in eight to 10 guys and just keep developing to make each class a little bit stronger than the year prior,” Nill said. “Our results will definitely help bring in guys who are looking to compete at the highest level.”
Photo Credit: Brian Nill