Sam Catanzaro, Sports Editor
There is not a member of the Grinnell men’s cross country team who has experienced losing in the Midwest Conference Championships during their collegiate career. With their win last Saturday, the Pioneers have now captured 18 out of the past 19 and 28 of the past 32 titles.
“It’s not about the coaches, it is about the athletes,” said head coach Will Freeman of his runners who beat the runner up Lawrence University by 13 points. “These guys are really invested in this for each other and that brings out the best in people.”
Despite the fact that winning has become routine for the Pioneers, claiming the Conference title is always something to celebrate. Most seasons, the team goes into the tournament confident of victory due to the gap between them and the rest of the field. This year, however, as the competition got better and the Pioneers suffered from injuries, winning was never a certainty.
“It went from what could have been an easy win to maybe the most challenging win we’ve had yet. Sometimes those are the most meaningful ones when you can just as easily lose it as win it and the fact that they came around and won is a testament to how much they wanted it,” Will Freeman said.
Grinnell lost two of their top runners Adam Dalton and Nate Kolacia, both ’16, early in the fall to injuries. This meant runners like Matthew McCarthy and Anthony McLean, both ’17, had to step into a new role as leaders and did not disappoint.
“McLean is just a star,” Will Freeman said. “And [McCarthy] had the most consistent season of anybody. It’s remarkable how he improved meet to meet.”
McLean finished in second with a time of 26:33.1 and McCarthy finished 10th at 26:56.1
Despite this, however, when Dalton and Kolacia stood at the starting line Sunday, they had not raced in almost two months and did not know what to expect. What they did know was that it would be hard to win Conference without strong performances.
“I had no idea what to expect,” Dalton said. “There was a more cautiously optimistic mental state for the whole team going to Conference.”
The optimism was warranted, however, as Dalton and Kolacia showed why they have been an integral part of this team for the past four seasons. Dalton came in sixth at 26:49.2 and Kolacia was 23rd at 27:33.6. Other standouts included John Lennon ’19 who finished 21st and Lex Mundell ’16 who came in 30th.
The spotlight was not just for the athletes, as Will Freeman was named the MWC Men’s Coach of the Year. Despite this honor, he said all the credit goes to the runners.
“They are the ones running and doing the work and making me look good,” he said.
Dalton sprinted out to the lead to begin the race but could not keep up the pace and midway through found himself falling behind. After a looking down at a pin on his shirt that he and the rest of the team were wearing to support Frank Canady ’14, a former runner who is undergoing chemotherapy after having a brain tumor removed last month, Dalton upped his level.
“If he’s battling a brain tumor and cancer, literally his life, anything we are facing is fairly insignificant by comparison,” Dalton said.
The men will now look ahead to the Regional Championships, which will take place next weekend in Pella, Iowa at Central College. For this event, the team becomes smaller with only 10 runners competing. The team has realistic expectations, as they will be up against the best Division III runners in the country. Their strategy, therefore, is to go into the meet knowing they have nothing to lose and just race.
“Our goal this year, given everything we have gone through, was to win the Conference and we put everything into that. This is icing on the cake. We will see what unfolds and our guys will run hard,” Will Freeman said.
On the women’s side, the weekend was not as fruitful. They finished in third at Conference, a result that they felt ambivalent about.
“We finished where we were expected to finish,” said head coach Evelyn Freeman of the team, who finished in third place 43 points behind winner, Cornell College. “It was a pretty competitive field so we went out thinking we had an outside shot of retaining our Conference Championship title.”
The Pioneers had three runners earn all-Conference honors. Emma Zimmerman ’18 who finished seventh, Paulina Campbell ’16 who finished 13th and Emma Luhmann ’18 who came in 20th.
“I think everybody gave it their all,” Zimmerman said. “I am really proud. I think all my hard work paid off.”
Evelyn Freeman and the team were nonetheless disappointed that they were unable to defend their Conference title, but Zimmerman was proud of the way the team handled their defeat. Furthermore, losing has only made the team more focused on performing well at Regionals next weekend at Central College and are optimistic for the race.
“We really like the Central course, even though it’s a bit challenging, but we tend to run really well there,” Evelyn Freeman said.
There are far more runners in the Regional race, which is something else the Pioneers are excited for as they have tended to run better in large meets this season. In preparation, Zimmerman and the team will engage in slightly easier workouts to avoid injury, focusing on working together as a cohesive unit.
“Our top five scoring runners are all very close in time and we really just push each other. Going into races, it’s cool to think that because we do all of our workouts together all of our races are the effect of all of our training together,” Zimmerman said.