Div. 2 cross country: Amherst, Northampton perform well at MIAA qualifier

Northampton’s Mairead O’Neil helped the Blue Devils qualify for the MIAA Division 2 Championship on Saturday.

Northampton’s Mairead O’Neil helped the Blue Devils qualify for the MIAA Division 2 Championship on Saturday. STAFF PHOTO/JEFF LAJOIE


Staff Writer

Published: 11-12-2023 8:46 PM

WRENTHAM – After falling just short of the Western Mass. title by a mere two points, the Northampton girls cross country team made quite a splash at the MIAA Division 2 state qualifying meet.

The Blue Devils qualified easily for the MIAA Division 2 state meet next weekend with a third place finish, combining for 111 points, just behind second place Newburyport (108 points). 

Northampton’s Maeve O’Neil, rocking her trademark sunglasses, went out hard with the lead pack and held on for fifth place overall in a time of 19:05.1 on the 5K course. Her younger sister, Mairead, also earned a medal with a strong 11th place finish in 20:00.2.

“I just tried to stick with the people in front and just push as hard as I could,” Maeve O’Neil said. “It was definitely hard because I knew that was the front pack and there was not really any group behind me, so it was either that (front pack) or being alone.”

Northampton’s third place finish was all the more impressive considering that a couple of their runners were sick leading up to the race. Everyone managed to be healthy enough to compete in time, and runners like Charlotte Shimpach helped give the Blue Devils some breathing room; Shimpach stepped up with a 20:27.3 finish for 18th place, a personal best. The Blue Devils also raced the divisional course the week before at the Frank Mooney Coaches Invitational.

“Charlotte stepping up and filling in where Tess (Geis-Benton) normally would was nice,” Northampton head coach Linda Rowbotham said. “I think (running the course) helped the team a lot. They were familiar with it. They didn't see all the same teams, but at that meet, Holliston beat us. They were looking to beat Holliston (today), and they did.” 

Geis-Benton finished 29th overall in 21:01.3 for Northampton while Ursula von Goeler placed 52nd in 21:59.9. 

Northampton’s boys’ team fell just short of qualifying, finishing 11th as a team in the 2B race. Two runners ran fast enough to qualify individually for the state meet – Teddy King-Pollet, who crossed the line in ninth place with a 16:17.8, and Davis Wheat, who placed 34th in 17:16.5.

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Wheat had to wait a couple of anxious hours to figure out if qualified; he was right on the bubble, and his advancement to the meet depended on which other teams earned wildcard spots. Luckily for Wheat, both wildcard teams also came from the 2B race, which officially gave the senior the ninth individual qualifying slot. 

The Amherst boys’ team surprised itself with a fourth place finish with 151 points, punching their ticket to the state meet. They anticipated that they’d qualify, but they didn’t think they’d finish as well as they did. 

Around this time of year, teams are training to peak, running fewer miles and tapering so they can run as fast as possible on race day. That was exactly what the ‘Canes were able to do on Saturday, with a couple runners putting together breakout races to secure the fourth place finish. 

“Calvin Miller, he had about a 50-second PR today. I think he ran 17:40 at Western Mass. and (16:52) today, so we're very proud of him, he had an amazing race,” Amherst’s top finisher Will Larson said. “Also Kyle Yanko, he was our number three – he just defied all expectations, he had an incredible race.”

Larson finished first for the ‘Canes in 19th place with a time of 16:43.3, just shy of a medal. Miller took 23rd in 16:52.2 with Yanko crossing the line in 17:08.5 for 28th place. Nico Lisle (40th) and Sam Woodruff (41st) both ran identical times, 17:23.5, to round out the scoring.

While the boys’ team celebrated moving on to the state meet, the Amherst girls’ team had to sit on their hands and anxiously wait for the final race to conclude to find out if they’d be advancing. The Hurricanes finished eighth overall with 196 points, and needed to wait to find out if they’d earn one of the two coveted wildcard spots – only the top seven teams from each wave automatically qualified.

Amherst knew it might be a close call – the team was missing their No. 2 runner and were mainly focused on running well and just getting through to states, where they’d have their full roster back. Luckily for the ‘Canes, their overall team time was enough to give them the first wildcard spot, safely getting them through to next week. 

Elizabeth Sawicki placed 16th in 20:17.3, just one place away from medaling. Lillian Pope stepped up for the ‘Canes as the team’s second runner, crossing the line in 21:15.6 for 35th place followed by Maya Tkachenko Coggeshall-Burr in 46th in 21:53.9.

Next week, the girls’ team wants to focus on finding their footing in a big race. Much of this year’s team hasn’t ever competed at big meets like divisionals and states, and head coaches Ron Jacobs and Elena Betke-Brunswick hope the team will gain valuable experience at next week’s meet. 

“I think to be honest, this team is still pretty inexperienced. We're bringing back most of our athletes next year, and we've got some pretty promising people coming in next year from the middle school as well,” Jacobs said. “If we have any goals, it's probably more about having the experience of leading the team at a championship meet because I think next year, we could really be in the mix.”

Elijah Quinn of Holyoke placed 38th overall with a time of 17:27.4 in the 2A race in the Purple Knights’ best performance of the day. Quinn had an incredible second half of the race, moving up 17 places from 55th place at the three kilometer mark to 38th by the finish line. He fell just short of earning an individual qualifying spot, finishing third out, but was still happy with his performance. 

“I didn't want to run alone, basically. I wanted to get out really strong and then keep moving with people. I didn't want to settle, pretty much. I got kind of boxed (in) at the start but I moved forward from there,” Quinn said. “I like having fast first miles and then I tried to basically survive the second mile and then take on the third.”

Hannah Bevis can be reached at hbevis@gazettenet.com. Follow her on Twitter @Hannah_Bevis1.