Standout Squad of the Week: Mount Olive

Another weekend of racing has come and gone. On a regional and national scale, rankings are beginning to settle and we are seeing only small traces of movement as teams rest and prepare for the postseason push. Nevertheless, it was still a weekend of racing, and there were still many noteworthy performances, many of which are highlighted in John Cusick’s D2 Review.

One such team that deserves a little more love based on their performance this weekend is Mount Olive out of the Southeast region. This is a team I’ve been meaning to talk about for a while. They have quietly and consistently moved up the regional and national ranks throughout the course of the season. Their performance at the Pre-National meet on Saturday just reaffirms the quiet grind the Trojans have been focusing on all season long.

Mount Olive finished 2nd this past weekend in a competitive Pre-Nats race at Schenley Park in Pittsburgh. This will be the site of this year’s National Championships. The Spartans gained some much needed experience and showed out with a solid result. Across the board, times were not fast, so we’ll focus on placement more so this time around (Schenley Park is basically one big hill). Although everybody lost soundly to a Colorado Mines team that finally opened up it’s full squad, there were plenty positives for Mount Olive, mainly that they defeated regional foe and Southeast region number one Queens in a tiebreaker. Granted, it appears at first glance that Queens did not run at full race effort, opting to use this as a tempo course preview. Nonetheless, this should be a confidence booster for the Trojans. They still hung heavy and tough against a slew of other top 25 opponents.

Tai Smith and Jacob Gonzalez led the way for Mount Olive, just sliding into the top 10. Smith carries an 8k XC personal best of 24:03, significantly faster than his time on Saturday. He also boasts a PR of 14:30 in the 5k, and also dipped under 30 minutes this past track season in the 10k, running 29:59. He should be a solid frontrunner in a Southeast region that is getting stronger and stronger with each passing week. Gonzalez, only a sophomore, has run a 24:14 8k so far this season. He also dipped under 15 minutes in the 5k last year and should be a solid number two.

After the duo of Smith and Gonzalez, seniors Alexandre Durand and Jereamy Hall crossed as the third and fourth men, finishing 21st and 25th, respectively. It seems that these two have been closer to the front in previous races. Hall was the third man and Durand the fourth at the Royals Challenge earlier in October. At that meet, they were only two and four seconds behind Gonzalez and only 13 and 17 seconds behind Smith. Both have 8k PR’s in the mid-to-low 24’s. Durand carries quality track speed into the XC season, having run 3:55 over 1500 meters, while Hall carries 5k and 10k marks from the spring that match up closely with Smith’s. If these two can consistently keep the gap closed, they will be a hard team to beat.

The real issue for the Trojans will stem from their fifth man. Junior Jacob Willis crossed the line in 69th place on Saturday, well behind his other scoring teammates. His 8k PR of 25:05 lies just at the cusp of the sub 25 minute barrier. If the Trojans are to maintain their national standing, they will need to close this gap between the pack and their fifth scorer.

At this point, Mount Olive appears to be a shoe-in to win the Conference Carolinas. They have no conference foes within the top 10 of the Southeast regional rankings. However, their 2nd place regional ranking is not assured, even with a solid result this past weekend. A plethora of PBC teams look to be very competitive with the Trojans, including UNC Pembroke and Augusta. Queens will also not run the same way they did at Pre-Nationals. If they are to compete with the Royals, they will have to address their team spread from Pittsburgh. The 1-5 gap was 1:19, up a full minute from when they ran at the Royals Challenge. Matt Van Lierop’s squad will definitely look to work on this before regionals. I expect them to use their conference meet to help reenergize their pack running mentality.

This ties into another major issue for the Trojans: depth. They will need all hands on deck in order to compete well and finish within the top 10 at Nationals. They do not have the same ability to pull guys out that Adams or Chico do. If one guy falters, so will hopes of a top 10 showing.

The Trojans have made a name for themselves this year based on quiet, consistent work. If they can continue to keep this consistency through the conference and into the regional championships, they could very well be a dark horse going into the postseason.

This is probably the most exciting time of the year for Division 2 cross country. With conference champs starting next weekend, the post season will officially begin. Be sure to check in with The Stride Report throughout next week, as we begin dropping conference previews in preparation for what looks to be an exciting build up to the National Championships!