A slew of personal bests up and down the roster, including a new school record from sophomore Dena O’Brien, lifted the College of Charleston’s women to a fifth-place finish at the Southern Conference Cross Country Championships on Johns Island on Saturday, to tie for the school’s best-even finish at the conference meet.
The men’s team placed eighth in the 11-team field.
O’Brien ran the five-kilometer course in 17 minutes, 5.4 seconds, 32 seconds behind women’s winner Ashley Schnell of UNC Greensboro. Freshman Hayley McMahon finished 24th in 18:04.2. O’Brien earned a spot on the All-SoCon first team, while McMahon was named to the all-freshmen team.
In the men’s 8K race, Cougars Andrew Nelson and Eric Robertson finished within a tenth of a second of each other in 34th and 35th place, respectively. Nelson crossed the line in 25:35.09, followed by Robertson in 25:35.17.
UNC Greensboro dominated both the men’s and women’s races, taking three of the top four spots in the men’s race and four of the top seven for the women. UNCG’s Paul Cheliso crossed the line in 23:11.56, covering the five-mile course at a 4:40-per-mile pace. Both Cheliso and Schnell shattered the records for the Trophy Lakes course.
“It was an exciting race, and it was quick,” O’Brien said after the race. “We had a lot of PR (personal records). Pretty much our whole team PR’ed. I am so, so proud of our two seniors. They really went out with a bang. Kristen Wolfe and Callen Powers both had huge PRs. Haley McMahon, a freshman, ran a huge PR today. Her roommate Danielle Sams – it’s her birthday – did really well. And Elle (Dannielle Hobbs), my roommate. Everyone PR’ed.
“I’m already ready for Regionals,” O’Brien said. “This is just fuel for the fire. I don’t think I had a bad race today, but I’m ready for Regionals. I really want to run well there, better than last year for sure. I really want to qualify out for Nationals. That’s the goal. I’m excited.”
O’Brien was just a step or two behind the two leaders at the first mile marker, but could not sustain the rapid pace that Schnell, the defending SoCon champion, set.
“The girls went out hard,” O’Brien said. “I was kind of expecting that because Coach (Amy Seago) had warned me about it. But I didn’t think it was going to be that fast. We were hoping for about 5:24 (for the first mile), and I’m pretty sure the first girl came through in about 5:10, and I was about 5:15. So we definitely went out hard. And I didn’t think they were going to hold it, either.
“They started making some surges in the back, around the two-mile (mark), so I thought that maybe they’d kind of slow down a little bit. But they kept grinding away. I think when we came through the two-mile, they were closer to 10:20, or 10:10, and I was around 10:30. The last mile was a little tricky, coming down the home stretch, because this is a long ending. I know some girls made some ground on me. I almost didn’t think I was even going to be in the top three.”
For both teams, the focus now shifts to the NCAA Southeast Regional, in Louisville, Ky., on Nov. 11. The Cougars will take seven runners each for the men’s and women’s teams to the regionals, which are run over longer distances than regular-season meets. The men will race over 10K at Regionals, while the women will race over 6K.
O’Brien set the school record for 6K at the Louisville regional last year, but was disappointed with her 61st-place finish. She will need a dramatic improvement on that race to earn one of the at-large invitations to the national championship, but she has proven so far this season that she is capable of taking big strides forward.
G Magazine ran a feature on O’Brien and her quest for Nationals in its Oct. 27 issue. The story can be read online here.