Two Top-5's at NCAA's
STILLWATER, Okla. – Stanford was the only program at the NCAA Cross Country Championships to earn top-five men's and women's team finishes on Monday at the hilly and windy Oklahoma State course.
Paced by Ella Donaghu in 10th, the Stanford women placed third for the second consecutive season. Donaghu and Julia Heymach (13th) earned All-America honors by placing among the top 40.
Paced by three freshmen, the Cardinal men placed fifth, earning its seventh consecutive top-six finish. Redshirt freshman Charles Hicks (14th) and true freshman Cole Sprout (15th) earned their first All-America honors, with true freshman Ky Robinson placing 46th as the No. 3 Card runner.
"I'm very proud of both teams," said J.J. Clark, Stanford's Franklin P. Johnson Director of Track and Field and head cross country coach. "This has been an unusual year and we pulled together for two top-five performances."
Charles Hicks, Cole Sprout. Photo by Chuck Aragon.
An unpredictable season that nearly didn't happen had a happy ending for the Cardinal. COVID-19 restrictions in Santa Clara County prevented Stanford from racing or training together in the fall, as some schools did. Upon reporting in late January, each runner had to go through a 10-day quarantine period before having contact with teammates.
The team got together for the first time on Feb. 4, in time for a cross-country flight to the Florida State Winter Classic, which the Stanford men won and the women placed second. Their first training session together was Feb. 8.
Six weeks later – with twin Pac-12 team titles already in hand – the Cardinal came to the starting line for the NCAA Championships.
"I really couldn't be prouder of the team," said Donaghu, a fifth-year senior. "Third place after only training together for six weeks is unbelievable. I truly believe that we are still only getting better."
Ella Donaghu. Photo by Chuck Aragon.
This was the first NCAA championship race on a course that was extremely hilly, and was accompanied by 18 mph winds and temperatures as high as 67 degrees. The combination made this the most difficult NCAA meet in years.
Some runners collapsed during the race, some crawled to the finish, and others were carried to medical tents upon crossing the finish line. One of those, in the latter category, was Donaghu, who put every ounce of effort into the race.
"The course was difficult and you had to expend your energy in the right way," Clark said. "You had to flow through the course and not fight every hill. Both teams distributed energy throughout the course very well."
Donaghu, the Pac-12 runner-up and winner of the FSU Winter Classic and UNLV Battle Born Challenge this season, aimed to stay within striking distance of the leader and then attack over the final kilometer of the 6K (3.73-mile) race.
"As a team, we always want to be charging hard the last 1K," Donaghu said. "The strategy was definitely to stay as relaxed and calm as possible for as long as possible. I can't say that was the case today – that course was brutal. I think people went into the hurt locker pretty early."
Donaghu was in position, but the grueling race took its toll and she wasn't able to respond to the move of Alabama's Mercy Chelangat, who won the race in 20:01.1.
"Ella gave it all she had," Clark said. "She always gives you her best."
Though noticeably struggling down the stretch, Donaghu dropped from fourth, but refused to stop fighting and did well to secure her second top-10 finish in as many seasons, after placing eighth in the fall of 2019. Donaghu clocked 20:26.7 and earned her fifth All-America honor, and second in cross country. She became the first Stanford woman since Arianna Lambie in 2005-07 to have multiple top-10 NCAA cross-country finishes.
"I felt like I stayed calm and composed for the first 4K, but it got really tough after that," Donaghu said. "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed. I wish I had been smarter and not tried to muscle through from 4K to 5K because I really paid the price on the final hill."
"I couldn't be prouder of my effort. I put myself in position to win and I laid it all out there. You can never be disappointed in that."
Julia Heymach. Photo by Chuck Aragon.
Stanford scored 207 points, with its top five finishing in the top 92. Heymach earned her first cross country All-America honor and second overall. She finished in 20:32.9 and moved up four places in the final kilometer. Heymach was 87th after the first kilometer, but moved up throughout the race. She picked up 55 places between the second and fourth kilometers. Her previous best at this meet was 63rd, in 2019.
"Julia had an amazing race," Clark said. "This is a great development and an affirmation of the hard work she's put in."
Jessica Lawson, a two-time All-American, improved 11 places over the final kilometer to finish in 21:06.9, with Christina Aragon in 88th in 21:17.0, and true freshman Lucy Jenks in 92nd in 21:28.0. A soccer player most of her life, this is only the second year Jenks has run year-round.
Zofia Dudek, who was third at the Pac-12 meet and no finishes beyond third in any of her previous three collegiate races, was 156th, running 21:54.3.
"Zofia has something going on with her foot and it got much worse on the course," Clark said. "She had every right to stop, but that's nowhere in her mindset, so she didn't. She displayed toughness today and we hope to have her up and going soon."
Redshirt freshman Grace Connolly was 181st in her first NCAA meet, running 22:11.6.
For the Stanford men, Hicks and Sprout finished within a place of each other, but took different paths to get there. They were the top two placers from the Pac-12 and the second and third freshmen overall.
Hicks was steady in a pack of five that trailed four leaders who took the pace out fast from the beginning. The field strung out quickly as two frontrunners – BYU's Connor Mantz, the eventual winner, and Iowa State's Wesley Kiptoo, three days removed from an NCAA indoor 5,000-meter title.
DJ Principe. Photo by Chuck Aragon.
Hicks was consistent between 16th and eighth throughout the race. He finished in 30:21.0. Sprout was as far back as 49th after 2K, but moved up throughout the final half of the race, including seven spots over the final kilometer and ran 30:21.4.
With the championship men's distance of 10K (6.21 miles) – an increase from the 8K distance (4.97 miles) raced throughout the season – that typically means that true freshmen are at a disadvantage. High school distances in cross country are usually 5K (3.1 miles) and the longest high school track distance is 3,200, just under two miles). This means that a true freshman has to double his race distance and build up the speed and strength necessary to do so. For Stanford, that wasn't a problem for Sprout or Robinson, an Australian who ran 30:56.2.
"Coach Ricardo Santos is doing excellent work with the team," Clark said. "Having three freshmen lead the team at this level is incredible and bodes well for the future."
DJ Principe was 72nd in 31:12.3, two-time cross country All-American Alek Parsons was 82nd in 31:19.5, Callum Bolger was 100th in 31:33.0, and redshirt freshman Devin Hart was 141st in 32:06.5. Four of Stanford's seven runners were freshmen in eligibility.
"Today might not have been my day, but I couldn't be prouder to wear the Stanford 'S,' Donaghu said. "This team is incredible."
Charles Hicks. Photo by David Hicks.
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At Oklahoma State Cross Country Course
Men (10K, 6.21 miles)
Team leaders: 1, Northern Arizona 60; 2, Notre Dame 87; 3, Oklahoma State 142; 4, Arkansas 181; 5, Stanford 194.
Winner and Stanford: 1, Connor Mantz (BYU) 29:26.1; 14, Charles Hicks (Stanford) 30:21.0; 15, Cole Sprout (Stanford) 30:21.4; 46, Ky Robinson (Stanford) 30:56.2; 72, DJ Principe (Stanford) 31:12.3; 82, Alek Parsons (Stanford) 31:19.5; 100, Callum Bolger (Stanford) 31:33.0; 141, Devin Hart (Stanford) 32:06.5.
Women (6K, 3.73 miles)
Team leaders: 1, BYU 96; 2, North Carolina State 161; 3, Stanford 207; 4, Michigan State 212; 5, Minnesota 239.
Winner and Stanford: 1, Mercy Chelangat (Alabama) 20:01.1; 10, Ella Donaghu (Stanford) 20:26.7; 13, Julia Heymach (Stanford) 20:32.9; 56, Jessica Lawson (Stanford) 21:06.9; 88, Christina Aragon (Stanford) 21:27.0; 92, Lucy Jenks (Stanford) 21:28.0; 156, Zofia Dudek (Stanford) 21:54.3; 181, Grace Connolly (Stanford) 22:11.6.
Lucy Jenks. Photo by Chuck Aragon.