Men’s and Women’s Cross-Country Teams Start Off Season at Commodore Classic

In a smaller-scale Commodore Classic, the Vanderbilt men’s and women’s cross-country teams finished third and fourth respectively at Percy Warner Park.

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Vanderbilt cross country competes in the 2020 Commodore Classic. (Hustler Multimedia/Hunter Long)

Jack Hollier, Staff Writer

In the first Vanderbilt athletic event since March, the men’s and women’s cross-country teams began their season with a solid showing in the 2020 Commodore Classic on Saturday. The Commodore Classic, an eight-kilometer course at Percy Warner Park, featured teams from Alabama, Auburn, Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee. 

The women’s team placed fourth, led by junior Grace Jensen at 21:44, with freshman Lainey Phelps and senior Gillian Mortimer close behind at 22:23 and 22:25, respectively. The men’s team, led by junior Nick Laning with a time of 24:55.5, placed third, only four points behind the second-place Kentucky. Laning was followed by junior Matthew Estopinal (25:21) and senior Caleb van Geffen (25:25). 

After several months away from the campus and their teammates, the Commodores came into the Classic healthy and prepared. In quite the unusual offseason, the uniquely individual nature of cross-country training allowed for the Commodores to be relatively unphased by COVID-19 restrictions.

“Over quarantine, basically what we did was we pretended that the track season was still going on,” Laning said. “We did some time trials in place of races to keep in the rhythm of the season ending around June or so, and then started up training again for cross country.”

When it came to the Commodore Classic, however, COVID-19 restrictions pushed the number of participants down considerably. In years past, the race has hosted around 200 runners, but on Saturday only around 40 participants competed. In a season-opening race with much fewer runners than usual, the Commodores had to push themselves and take a different mental approach.

Jensen, who finished 11th overall, noted that the mental game can be much more challenging in smaller races. 

“You have to be a lot more self-reliant during those races,”  Jensen said. “You can’t really get in a pack, so now it’s pretty much just you out there.” 

 Even though their season opener looked much different than in past years, the team and coaching staff were excited for the opportunity to compete again. 

“We’ve had great support by sports medicine and the doctors,” head coach Steve Keith said regarding the season opening. “Putting on this first meet was a real challenge, but we took it very seriously.” 

Despite not finishing at the top, Commodores were motivated by their showing in the season opener.

“Because we didn’t have the outdoor track season, it’s been so long since any of us have put on spikes and actually raced,” Jensen said. “I think we just had to get used to that again, and moving forward, we can try and fix some mistakes and work together.” 

“I think no one was super thrilled with their race from this Saturday,” Laning said, who finished sixth overall. 

But Laning, who was named in 2019 the Commodores’ first all-SEC runner in 53 years, is optimistic about the rest of the season. 

“We all know we can perform better, and we can keep making leaps and bounds,” Laning said. “It definitely motivates us to stay on the training and really reap those rewards at the end of the season.” 

Keith, with two decades of collegiate coaching experience, also recognized the effect of a season-opening race. 

“The great thing about that first meet is that it creates a tremendous level of motivation,” Keith said. “If you had a great race, you’re motivated to do better. If you didn’t quite have the race you wanted, you’re motivated. So that puts us in that competitive frame of mind. Now, it’s just a matter of getting into that routine.” 

Next, the Commodores of the men’s and women’s cross-country teams will travel to Columbia, MO to continue their season at the Gans Creek Classic on Sept. 26.