For the first time since 2009, Queen’s hosted the U Sports Cross Country Championships on Saturday. While the women’s team stumbled in their pursuit of a championship banner, the men finished fifth overall.
Women’s cross country falls short of expectations
Beaming smiles turned to tears at the finish line for the women’s cross country team on Saturday afternoon at the U Sports National Championships—they’d come in seven points behind the Laval Rouge et Or.
The Quebec team erupted into a chant as the Gaels’ gold-medal hopes fell.
“We faltered on a number of fronts there, so we deserved to lose in the end,” Gaels Head Coach Steve Boyd said of the race.
Things hadn’t gone according to plan. The top-ranked U Sports team’s gold medal expectations were lost in the 70 km/h winds at the Fort Henry Hills.
Dominating the field of 155 female runners, Queen’s rookie Brogan MacDougall won the eight-kilometer race by 12 seconds. In her first four races for Queen’s, she decisively won four gold medals. With her win on Saturday, she was named U Sports cross country Athlete of the Year and Rookie of the Year.
“We’re not surprised at all—she had more in the tank as well,” Boyd said. “We’re excited about it—we came for that but we came for the team title more.”
Coming off an injury that derailed her training since the spring, Branna finished under a minute behind Brogan.
Boyd said he’d expected Branna to finish in the top five.
“We expected her to be top three, top five on the outside.”
Meanwhile, first-years Makenna Fitzgerald and Laura Yantha finished in 13th and 24th place, while fifth-year Taylor Sills came 15th. Cumulatively, the Gaels combined for 62 points, short of eventual champion Laval’s 55—the Rouge D’or landed four athletes in the top 10.
“We were a little concerned early on when Makenna and Taylor were not in the top ten,” Boyd said. “That kind of set the tone for the day.”
The championships marked the official end to the women’s season, which saw breakout performances from a large class of rookies and a group that was ranked first in Canada for the entire year. The majority of the team’s runners will return for the 2019-20 season.
Sills will be the only athlete departing from their core five.
Fort Henry will be the U Sports championship course for the second consecutive year. The Gaels will get another crack at a championship on home soil next year.
Unforgiving weather on home course
On one of Kingston’s highest elevated points, wind played a significant factor in Saturday’s race—gusts reached around 70 km/h at their peak and averaged 40 km/h, coupled by temperatures hovering barely above zero.
It only added to demanding nature of Fort Henry’s hills, which roll around a two-kilometre loop and net around 30 metres of incline within the first 600 metres.
“[The wind] creates a lot of uncertainty in terms of how the pack splits up and how the race unfolds,” Boyd said of the race’s conditions.
Second-year Brett Crowley admitted it was difficult to project how the runners’ legs and breathing would feel. The majority of their races this season were run in temperate or hot conditions that contrasted the types of wind or cold the runners experienced on Saturday—their legs took longer to warm up and lungs would need time to process the cold air.
“I think it was just kind of a crazy day out there with the wind,” Crowley said. “It’s a little harder to predict how you’re going to run, but I think everyone gave as much of a solid effort as you could give.”
Men’s cross country keeps par for the course
Despite a surprise silver-medal finish at the OUA championships over two weeks ago, the men’s team placed fifth on Saturday. It matched their fifth-place finish at the U Sports championships last season.
“Same as last year: good result but with a better team,” Boyd said. Earlier in the week, Boyd said placing fifth was a possibility, but he was optimistic his team could land on the podium.
Second-year Mitch De Lange led Queen’s in 12th, maintaining a strong position in the top pack of runners until the final quarter of the 10-kilometre race. He was followed by fellow second-year Matt Flood in 26th place, while Mitch Kirby, Ruben Sansom, and Crowley finished in 31st, 34th, and 46th, respectively.
Boyd maintained his belief that the Gaels are better than where they placed Saturday.
“I don’t think we’re the fifth-best team, I think we’re the third best team,” he said, acknowledging the unpredictability of race days—especially amidst a 160-man field of runners. “This is why you run the races.”
Numerous Gaels athletes suffered late-season injuries—captain Rob Kanko, who finished in 48th, suffered from an iron deficiency for the majority of the season while Crowley spent the latter stages of the year with an unspecified injury. Boyd lauded Flood’s 26th place finish, but said it wasn’t how he drew up the finishes for any of his runners.
“There should’ve been two or three guys in front of [Flood] that put us where we should’ve been,” Boyd said. “They never really got on track.”
Crowley and Kanko spent the entire race working together, pacing through the hills stride for stride. Crowley said the two had planned the race to their fitness levels, and ended how they predicted.
“We were quite a ways back but the game plan was to start out a bit slower and pick guys off as we went and that’s exactly how it went,” Crowley said.
Regardless of Saturday’s finish, it was a season of progress for the men’s team. Their OUA silver medal was their best finish since 1989. It’ll be something to build on for the team, who will, like the women, have a number of their runners returning next season.
Looking back on the season, Crowley reflected on it fondly—and is excited at the prospect of what the team can achieve in 2019-20.
“It’s been a pleasure to work out and do easy runs and race alongside this guys this year. I couldn’t ask for a better season overall,” he said.
For more articles about Queen’s Cross Country, click here!
Written by: Matt Scace
Edited by: Sebastian Bron
Filmed by: Amelia Rankine
Photos taken by: Chris Yao
Digitally Formatted by: Angus Merry