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Though the Harvard women’s cross country team lost its two top runners from the year before to graduation, the team showed little signs of needing to rebuild in 2012.
Despite the graduation of Kailyn Kuzmuk and Nicole Cochran, top-10 finishers from the HYP meet the year before, Harvard placed fourth overall at the NCAA Northeast Regionals meet on the backs of five seemingly even runners. With the performance, the Crimson earned a bid to the national event. The next week the Crimson women toed the line against the nation’s best teams at this season’s NCAA Championships for the first time in 30 years.
Though the team finished in last place out of the 31 qualifying teams, advancing to the meet represents a significant improvement for the Crimson women, who were sixth in the Ivy League last season and had not qualified for the Championships since 1983.
“To get to that level is quite a feat and is just a testament to their dedication and their work ethic,” Harvard coach Jason Saretsky said. “They set their sights right from the beginning of the year on making it to nationals.”
Senior Sammy Silva, juniors Morgan Kelly and Emily Reese, team co-captain, and sophomores Alaina Alvarez and Viviana Hanley turned in impressive performances all year for Harvard. They were consistently the team’s top-five runners, but the order in which they crossed the finish line was almost never the same from one meet to the next.
At the Heptagonal Championships, Silva led the way for the Crimson. At regionals just over a week later, Reese was the team’s first runner, and the next weekend Hanley took over, finishing in 118th place at nationals.
“It makes a tremendous difference when you have interchangeable parts,” Saretsky said. “If someone had an off day, someone was right there ready to step up.... We might not have the frontrunners of some of the other teams, but we have some really, really strong runners that, on any given day, can be right up there.”
In a sharp contrast to the women’s squad, the same pair of runners led the Harvard men all season long. Juniors Maksim Korolev and James Leakos bounced back from the injuries that kept them from competing in the 2011 Heptagonal Championships and returned to form in 2012.
After a disappointing showing at Heps, the duo had their best outing of the season at regionals on Nov. 9, where Korolev and Leakos placed second and fifth, respectively, out of 239 runners. Though the men’s team would only finish sixth in the team standings at the meet, the stellar finishes of Korolev and Leakos allowed them to both advance to nationals.
The junior standouts joined Kelly, Reese, Silva, Alvarez, and Hanley at the national championship meet in Louisville, Ky. In spite of their impressive displays at regionals, however, Korolev and Leakos did not have the same success at nationals. While Korolev finished the 10k in an uncharacteristically slow 31:43.8, Leakos did not complete the race.
“Conditions were not exactly ideal for us going into that race, but I think we let the big stage get into our heads a little more than we had ought to,” Leakos said. “Next time we’ll have that experience with us and can be prepared.”
“For the men, the pieces are all there and it’s just about putting it all together,” Saretsky added. “It didn’t quite click for the men, but...it was a season of learning.”
The men’s and women’s teams kicked off their seasons in different fashions. In this year’s Harvard-Yale dual meet, which took place on the second weekend of the season, the Crimson men earned a resounding win over the Bulldogs, amassing 21 points to the 38 of the Bulldogs. Korolev and Leakos led the charge, taking home the top two finishing spots in the eight-kilometer race, crossing the finish line with respective times of 24:20.39 and 24:22.00.
“We’d put together some consistent training and were simply in great shape,” Leakos said. “We put ourselves at the front and ran strong as others fell off.”
On the women’s side, Yale trounced Harvard, 40-19, by placing its six top runners in the race’s top seven places. Silva was the only Crimson runner to break the top seven, earning second place by covering the five-kilometer course in 17:25.58. Rounding out the top 10, however, were Reese, senior Brianna Jackucewicz, and Kelly.
In spite of the early-season loss, Harvard toppled the Bulldogs at Heps, scoring 93 points to Yale’s 108 to earn third place. Silva was the only Crimson runner that finished in the top 15, taking home sixth place.
“It was really all about performing the best when it came to championship time, and that’s absolutely what happened,” Saretsky said. “Now that they have a taste of being in the big dance and running at that level, I think they have a sense that they belong there. Now it’s not just about getting there, it’s about doing some damage once they’re there.”
—Staff writer Dominic Martinez can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @dominicmTHC.
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