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(Photo: WikiCommons / Courtesy)

The Hillsdale College women’s cross country team dashed to the front of the pack during the G-MAC Conference Championships, finishing in first place, jumping to eighth in national Division II rankings, and claiming two conference distinctions.

“They won very handily,” said coach Andrew Towne, who won G-MAC Coach of the Year. “I know for us we felt like this was a much more accurate picture of who we are, so we’re excited for regionals,” which takes places on Saturday in Cedarville, Ohio.

Of the nine members of the 14-runner team who ran at the Oct. 21 meet in Nashville, five came in the top 11 and seven came in the top 20. The top five were senior Hannah McIntyre, second; G-MAC freshman of the year Maryssa Depies, fourth; sophomore Arena Lewis, fifth; freshman Christina Sawyer, eighth; and junior Allysen Eads, 10th.

“The week leading up to it, we were all joking: ‘Oh, we’re going to destroy the G-MAC, but we all kind of knew we had a chance of winning,’” said Lewis, who beat her personal record by 25 seconds. “Our goal was to have our top five in the top 12, and we achieved it. We weren’t doubtful, but it was a scary goal and a great booster for the team overall.”

By 18 points, the women outpaced the second-place team Walsh, one of their fiercest opponents, which was ranked ninth before the meet and dropped to 10th. In the Midwest Region, the Charger women are now just behind Grand Valley State University, a former rival in the GLIAC.

Although Lewis said she shot for a higher place than fifth, she said: “Anybody to lose to, two teammates is the best way to go.”

Lewis predicted, according to Depies, that she would win G-MAC freshman of the year — the distinction for the top-placing freshman at the meet.  

“It was a big confidence booster overall,” said Depies, who shaved off one minute from her PR despite tripping on a rut in the course on her last lap.

Towne cited two related reasons for the victory: Lewis’ return and the most assertiveness the team has had all year.

“I think the group feels complete: We had all of our people, and it just felt right,” Towne said. “The girls were more comfortable; they could be more assertive.”  

According to Towne, seven women rushed to the front of the pack right away and ran like they belonged there — exuding the ease and confidence that is disconcerting to other competitors.

Moral soared for other reasons, too. According to Lewis, Molly Oren ’17 surprised the older members by attending the meet, bringing her jokes and releasing the pre-race tension.

Overall, the team’s performance harked back to the successes the team had two to three years ago, Towne said.

“They did a really good job of being very assertive and executing what we talked about,” Towne said.   

It also sends the team well positioned to the regional NCAA qualifying meet this weekend.

“When you chart things out from the beginning of the year, we’re exactly where we want to be,” Towne said.

Three teams from each region and eight at-large teams qualify for nationals. The Chargers’ goal is to place five women in the top 25 and earn one of the three allotted qualifying places.

That goal is the easiest way of thinking about performance, since Division II still is transitioning to more national head-to-head competition and it is still difficult to track the number of points schools have, Towne said. He added that even officials don’t know exactly how many points each team has.

The points Hillsdale accrues from each meet through regionals, plus an overview of the season, determines who goes to nationals. Although the G-MAC Conference Championships is the final G-MAC meet, points from it can still help Hillsdale get a spot on the podium this weekend.

Lewis said the team is focused on decreasing time gaps between runners and shooting for second place.

“We’re not a shoe-in for nationals, but the workouts show that we’re ready,” Lewis said.

Projecting forward, Towne said there won’t be any new strategies.

“We can’t reinvent the wheel right now; it’s just a refinement of the process of keeping them healthy,” Towne said. “For us, we’re a little bit different than most staffs. I don’t think that’s just a physical thing. Mental and emotional well-being are really important at this point in the year.”

Lewis said it’s great to race again and be a part of a team whose members share in each other’s successes. That mentality relieves the pressure of focusing on her individual performance.

“I’m pretty sure none of us run for ourselves,” Lewis said. “We all run for each other and for God, ultimately.”