Cross-Country: Vanderbilt delivers signature performance at NCAA South Regional

The Commodore women placed sixth, while the men placed 12th in the final meet of the season.

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Vanderbilt Athletics

Vanderbilt cross-country team practices in advance of NCAA Regionals. (Vanderbilt Athletics)

Kavi Jakes, Sports Copy Editor

The Vanderbilt cross-country teams competed Friday at the NCAA South Regional in Huntsville, Alabama. The women’s team finished sixth in their 6-kilometer race, while the men’s team finished 12th in their 10K. 

Friday’s showing was the Commodores’ best of the year, as the teams displayed the cohesiveness from top to bottom that they have been searching for all season.

“As a group—both the men and the women—they’ve rallied behind each other and implemented some maturity about racing that goes beyond just being well trained,” head coach Althea Thomas told The Hustler. “They had a great day.”

Graduate McKenzie Yanek led the Vanderbilt women, finishing 17th overall with a time of 20:20.26. Yanek got off to a hot start reminiscent of her performance at the Commodore Classic, leading the race after the first mile by a substantial margin. Though she was eventually overcome by the region’s top runners, Yanek did well to stick with them for the majority of the 6K and cap off her cross-country season with an outstanding race.

Yanek was followed by a pair of long-time Vanderbilt runners in senior Grace Jensen and graduate Gillian Mortimer. The always steady Jensen placed 28th with a time of 20:45.95, while Mortimer ran 20:51.87 to finish 31st in her best race of the season.

Mortimer returned to run for Vanderbilt this year because she wanted to be a leader and contribute to the team culture in Thomas’s first season. So, it was only fitting that on the Commodores’ best day of the fall, Mortimer was helping lead the charge.

“Gillian really showed up,” Thomas said. “She ran outstanding from start to finish.”

Freshman Cameron Fawcett was next for the Commodores, finishing 46th with a time of 21:06.82. The meet wrapped up an impressive freshman fall for Fawcett, who will step into a starring role in the 2022 cross-country season.

Junior Niki Narayani, sophomore Lainey Phelps and senior Haley Walker rounded out the women’s squad at the South Regional. Narayani ran 21:09.63 to place 53rd, Phelps ran 21:25.87 to place 60th and Walker ran 21:33.47 to place 64th.

Senior Nick Laning finished first among the Commodore men, placing 20th overall with a time of 30:27.81. Laning ran a steady race, lingering around 20th throughout the event and holding his position in the final stretch. Not far behind Laning was fellow senior Matthew Estopinal, who battled through pre-race discomfort to earn a 24th-place finish with a time of 30:36.01.

Graduate Caleb Van Geffen and freshman Philip Metcalf represented another Commodore duo that finished close together, with Van Geffen running 31:53.96 to place 76th and Metcalf running 31:55.05 to place 80th. Freshman Zach Hodges closed out Vanderbilt’s scoring five with a time of 33:13.65 and a 118th-place result.

After coming into the regional meet unranked—outside of the top 15 in the pre-race rankings—the men did well to finish 12th and prove doubters wrong. Van Geffen and Metcalf running together was crucial to the team’s success, as they secured critical points behind Laning and Estopinal. 

Though the chances of either Vanderbilt team qualifying for the NCAA cross-country championships were slim, Yanek, Jensen, Laning and Estopinal all had aspirations of qualifying for the national meet as individuals. Despite having excellent performances, none were able to qualify, meaning the South Regional marked the end of Vanderbilt’s cross-country season.

The 2021 cross-country season was a successful start to the Althea Thomas era. While both teams struggled with inconsistency, they shined when it counted most, with a big day in front of a home crowd at the Commodore Classic and a brilliant outing Friday. Thomas expressed pride in the early results and spoke to the improvement mindset of her runners.

“What I learned is that this team, these athletes, they’re very committed to growing and being better than they’ve ever been,” Thomas cited as the season’s lesson. “I’m very excited about what we’ve been able to do in a short amount of time.”

With Thomas at the helm, Vanderbilt should continue its upward trajectory. The Commodores will look to carry over Friday’s success into the indoor and outdoor track seasons.

“It’s going to be remembering what they’ve done today and being able to do that on a daily basis so that it is a normal thing,” Thomas said on how the team can continue to grow. “If you make it normal to compete at this level—mentally, physically, emotionally—then you’ll be able to go to the next step.”