A shocking upset in the women’s race and a dominant performance by the winningest men’s program in NCAA cross country history told the story on Saturday at the 2018 DIII NCAA XC Championships in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, as the Washington U. women beat two-time defending champs Johns Hopkins by one point, while the North Central men won their 19th DIII title with their lowest point total since 1993.
In each contest, the individual winners-- Dhruvil Patel from North Central and Paige Lawler of Washington U.-- led their teams to national titles, with both athletes winning their first individual cross country crown.
In the women’s race, it was a perfect day for the WashU Bears out of St. Louis, as coach Jeff Stiles’ squad rode an individual win by the junior Lawler to just the school’s second-ever national title, and their first since 2011.
For both Lawler and her team, victory in Oshkosh required two near-Herculean comebacks as the Bears trailed pre-race favorite Johns Hopkins by 103 points at the 3k mark, while Lawler had to make up a 12-second deficit at halfway to come away with the individual win in 20:55.
Coast Guard’s Kaitlyn Mooney set the pace for a majority of the race with an aggressive, from-the-gun race plan, but it ended up costing her as she faded to fourth in 21:04. Mooney had a six-second lead shortly after 2k, which increased to 10 seconds by 3k, but by the final mile the sophomore was beginning to crack. That’s when Lawler pounced. She caught Mooney at the 5k and hammered home alone from there, winning by a comfortable three second margin over Otterbein senior Claire Lamb in 20:58.7.
Centre senior Annie Rodenfels finished a close third in 20:58.9.
Mooney, who very nearly won the first individual NCAA XC title by a woman from a service academy, finished fourth for the second straight year. The likely rematch between her and Lawler next year at nationals will be fascinating.
Behind Lawler, her WashU. teammates were also having spectacular races. Senior Aly Wayne finished seventh overall-- her second career top ten finish-- while junior Sophie Watterson and senior Lisa Gorham were 13th and 29th, respectively, the first All-American honors for both. Senior Molly Shepherd was 79th to round out the scoring for the champs with 98 points.
If Lawler was the star of the day for the Bears, Shepherd was the under-the-radar hero as she finished as the team’s fifth for the first time all season. WashU. coach Jeff Stiles said afterwards that Shepherd had been no better than eighth for the Bears all season, and yet she had the race of her life right when her squad needed it the most. Clutch.
Although it certainly has to be disappointing to lose the women’s title, by one point no less, for the first time since 2015-- ironically, the last time nationals was in Oshkosh-- Hopkins still had a Hopkins-esque performance as the five-time national champions had four All-Americans to score 99 points, led by junior Caelynn Reilly in sixth. But for the Blue Jays the difference in 2018 was senior Ellie Clawson who faded to 43rd on Saturday after placing third a year ago.
MIT (247 points) and UW-Eau Claire (265 points) rounded out the women’s podium in third and fourth, respectively.
Led By Patel’s Win, North Central Dominates Their Way To 19th Title
No upsets were to be had in the men’s 8k on Saturday, and the two-time defending champions North Central made that abundantly clear early and often as they pounded the field with just 43 points, their lowest score since 1993 (32 points) and the second-lowest men’s winning score in DIII history. Washington U. was second with 110 points.
Wisconsin-La Crosse was third with 127 points, while Haverford closed out the podium in 213 points.
Saturday’s North Central team history was set in motion by a 1-2 finish by Cardinal teammates Dhruvil Patel (24:24) and Al Baldonado (24:29), two seniors who were freshman the last time North Central didn’t win the NCAA title, back in 2015 on the same course in which they dominated on Saturday. For those two, sweeping the top two places and winning the title in Oshkosh-- their third straight NCAA XC championship win-- was particularly sweet.
Incredibly, Patel’s win is the first by a North Central athlete at NCAA XC since Tim McCoskey in 2000, almost unbelievable considering that the Cardinals have won seven team championships in that span.
The senior capped off a spectacular cross country career in style, pumping his fist and screaming in celebration as he crossed the line before turning around to embrace Baldonado. The pair couldn’t know then exactly where their other teammates would finish behind them, but their hug said it all: they knew that the NCAA DIII crown was theirs for the third straight year.
Chris Buechner finished eighth to give NCC three in the top ten, while Matt Osmulski wasn’t far behind in 11th. Zach Hird, who like Patel and Baldonado, was another member of the 2015 North Central squad that last lost a NCAA crown, closed out this year’s revenge tour with his 33rd place finish on Saturday.
There have been many special North Central teams throughout the years, and the last two versions won by bigger margins than they did on Saturday, but the 2018 group should go down as one of the greatest in head coach Al Carius’ legendary 53 years (and counting) atop the program. 1-2-8-11-33 is next level dominance even for a team as storied as North Central, and considering that each of NCC’s top seven are seniors, their performance in 2018 will go down as the best of this era.
Patel ultimately won by a comfortable five-second margin, but the results don’t tell the full story in an individual battle that was truly thrilling from gun to tape.
Just eight minutes into the race, UW-La Crosse’s Thomas Schultz tripped and tumbled to the turf, a fall that highlighted the tight and competitive battle that was being waged at the front of the pack. Schultz got up quickly and finished a respectable 14th, but he was the first casualty in a championship that also featured a restart due to a collision 100 meters into the race, a few elbows, and an aggressive breakaway by WashU. senior Brad Hodkinson with a little more than a mile to go that finally separated the pack up front.
Hodkinson’s move wasn’t preordained-- both he and his coach were surprised by it afterwards-- but the jailbreak, while gutsy and admirable, didn’t end up going in his favor. Hodkinson faded to seventh in 24:39, his second-straight such finish at nationals.
It did, however, play right into the hands of Patel.
The North Central star didn’t touch the lead until the final kilometer, and it showed as he easily dropped a struggling Hodkinson with just 800 meters to go. Patel was never challenged from there, and he gave one last look behind him coming down the straightaway before ripping his gloves off-- an apt metaphor for the battle he had just won-- and then playfully shushing the North Central crowd that roared his name.
Patel had won the hardest DIII race to win in his final cross country appearance, and he wasn’t about to let the moment go to waste.