Cross-Country: Mostly cloudy performance for Commodores at gloomy SEC Championships

Both Vanderbilt teams were disappointed in their results, as the men finished 11th and the women placed eighth.

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Vanderbilt Athletics

The Vanderbilt cross-country team competes in a meet during its 2021 fall season. (Vanderbilt Athletics)

Kavi Jakes, Sports Copy Editor

The Vanderbilt cross-country teams competed Friday in the SEC Championships at the Gans Creek Cross-Country Course in Columbia, Missouri. On a nasty day where winds touched 30 miles per hour and rains drenched the otherwise picturesque course, the Commodores posted underwhelming results, with the men finishing 11th and the women placing eighth out of 12 teams.

“I think as a whole we didn’t quite do what we wanted,” senior men’s runner Matthew Estopinal said. “There were some teams out there that I think we could’ve beat that we didn’t beat.”

Those teams included Florida, Georgia, Texas A&M and Auburn. Vanderbilt had a team score of 253, finishing just behind Auburn (250), and was well within range to climb as far as seventh. But the Commodores’ lack of depth plagued them, as they received less contribution from their third through fifth scoring runners than their SEC rivals did.

The Vanderbilt women had a team score of 214, slotting in behind Missouri (192) and ahead of Auburn (253). Like Estopinal, senior Grace Jensen expressed a sentiment of disappointment in her squad’s showing.

“I’d be lying if I said we were happy with our performance,” Jensen said. “Because, I think, deep down we all know that’s just not what we were capable of. And there’s more potential that we haven’t really hit yet.”

Arkansas swept the team titles to continue its run of cross-country dominance. The Razorback men have now won 26 of the last 30 SEC Championships, and Friday’s victory marked the ninth straight title for the women.

Meanwhile, two Alabama runners delivered convincing performances to win the individual titles. Freshman Eliud Kipsang ran a time of 23:33.5 to take the men’s 8-kilometer race, while junior and SEC Women’s Cross-Country Scholar Athlete of the Year Mercy Chelangat topped the women’s 6-kilometer race with a time of 19:55.2. Kipsang and Chelangat both pulled away late, using their strong closing speed to win comfortably.

For the Commodores, Estopinal and Jensen led the way for their respective teams. Estopinal placed 15th with a time of 23:58.7, while Jensen finished 17th with a time of 20:48.1. Both runners stuck with the front pack for the majority of their race, but were unable to keep up down the stretch.

“I wanted to stay engaged in the race a little bit better than I did and be up there with that front pack for longer,” Jensen said.

The result was especially painful for Estopinal, as he came in last amongst a group of five runners separated by only three-tenths of a second. Had he surpassed any of the other four, Estopinal would have earned a result of at least 14th and secured a spot on the All-SEC Second Team.

“It’s hard to be happy when you look at the results and you see that if I had only run a second faster, I would’ve been almost four or five places up,” Estopinal said. “I ran fast, so you have to be happy with that. But man, that’ll keep me up at night.”

Behind Estopinal, senior and SEC Men’s Cross-Country Scholar Athlete of the Year Nick Laning placed second for the Commodores and 23rd overall with a time of 24:14.9. He was followed by promising freshman Philip Metcalf, who ran 25:28.3 to finish 69th. Fifth-year senior Caleb Van Geffen placed 80th with a time of 25:47.0, and freshman Zach Hodges placed 99th with a time of 26:48.9 to round out Vanderbilt’s scoring five.

Sophomore Mathew Ragsdale, junior Max Beck and seniors Lucas Mowery and Jonah Bird also competed for the Commodores. Ragsdale ran 29:00.3 to earn 109th, Mowery ran 29:40.4 to finish 110th and Beck ran 30:10.4 to place 111th. Meanwhile, Bird did not complete the race and registered a DNF.

Graduate McKenzie Yanek was the second Commodore women’s runner to cross the finish line. After an uncharacteristically slow start, she recovered to finish 29th with a time of 21:18.5. 

Following Yanek, senior Haley Walker finished 43rd in 21:41.9, and Cameron Fawcett finished 60th in 21:56.1, earning a spot on the Freshman All-SEC team. Junior Niki Narayani closed out Vanderbilt’s scoring five with a 74th-place result and a time of 22:11.3, running as part of a Commodore pack that included sophomore Jenna Holland (75th, 22:11.6), sophomore Lainey Phelps (76th, 22:12.0) and fifth-year senior Gillian Mortimer (82nd, 22:17.3). 

Sophomore Joslin Blair, senior Jacqueline Pinon, freshman Julia Rosenberg and junior Caroline Eck completed Vanderbilt’s SEC Championship roster. Blair finished 100th in 22:50.8, Pinon 114th in 23:29.3, Rosenberg 119th in 23:40.3 and Eck 125th in 24:04.6.

A recurring theme for both squads has been the inability to deliver a full team performance, and it continued Friday. Both Estopinal and Jensen were upset that their teams haven’t showcased their full potential yet.

“We still haven’t quite gotten the results we wanted of just everyone putting it together on the same day,” Estopinal said. “There’s a lot of people that sort of have that feeling of ‘I’m in good shape, but I haven’t shown it in the race.’ If we can just get everyone to do that, I think I’ll be happy.”

While this season has been frustrating at times, head coach Althea Thomas emphasized the importance of patience. As she institutes a new culture in her first year at the helm, there may be some growing pains. But she expressed optimism, taking into account that each individual runner has had good races.

“There’s growth involved, and I think we are growing through our season,” Thomas said. “It’s just a matter of everybody having their best race on the same day, which means everyone already has…They all have it, and it’s just executing it when it matters.”

Luckily, the Commodores have one last chance to come together for a strong performance. The men’s and women’s teams will compete on Friday, Nov. 12, at the NCAA South Regional in Huntsville, Alabama. The men will run a 10-kilometer course, while the women will run a 6-kilometer course.

The top two teams from each of the nine regional meets automatically qualify for the NCAA Championships, and then 13 additional teams are selected at-large. While it’s unlikely that either Vanderbilt team makes it to the NCAA Championships, a few Commodores have a chance to qualify as individuals. Estopinal, Laning, Jensen and Yanek will qualify if they are one of the top four runners amongst those whose teams don’t qualify, with the additional requirement that they finish in the top 25 overall.

“I want to qualify for nationals and not let this SEC finish get the best of me,” Jensen said. “Because, like the team, I think I also know I’m better than my finish this past meet.”

The Commodores will look to end on a high note in what will likely be their last team meet of the season. Thomas thinks Vanderbilt will have success if they can run tough and embrace the moment.

“That is the expectation: going out there and doing with grit and with purpose.”