The Montclair State University cross country team is coming up on postseason play after one of their best regular seasons in recent memory.
With strong performances throughout the season both individually and as a team, the Red Hawks have finally built some momentum heading into the New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) Championships this Saturday and NCAA Regionals on Nov. 13.
At the beginning of the season, it was announced Paul Chegwidden would lead the team as the newest head coach, their fourth head coach in three years. Being a new head coach for a program with so much turnover at the position for years comes with challenges alone, but the Red Hawks only had one meet in the shortened spring 2021 season due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Despite the tough situation Chegwidden was walking into, he was pleasantly surprised with the team chemistry the girls had built, even with the lack of a consistent head coach in years past.
“Something that surprised me was knowing the program has gone through some coaching changes and the girls [still] just have a really great bond. They are just very tightknit,” Chegwidden said. “They have each other’s back and it’s cool to see that. It doesn’t take someone there to lead them; they can do it on their own.”
Prior to the 2021 season, the cross country team hadn’t seen too much success. However, the Red Hawks have quickly changed that narrative. Junior Christiana Caprio won her first NJAC Runner of the Week award on Oct. 11, snapping a two-year drought for the program.
Caprio helped Montclair State place third as a team in the Golden Eagle Invitational on Oct. 10, in which multiple Division I schools were competing against them. Individually, she placed 12th out of 150 competitors in that meet, with a time of 20:48.52 — the third-highest amongst Division III competitors.
The Red Hawks’ success started well before the invitational. In the first meet of the season, juniors Kelly Weckstein and Caprio placed 15th and 30th respectively. This, and a full team effort earned the team a ninth-place finish in the New Jersey Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (NJAIAW) Championships on Sept. 25.
As the season went on, the team continued to improve their times and hit personal bests at every meet. A huge part of their breakout season is due to the leadership of the upperclassmen. Senior Emily Albright was happy to just be able to run with her team this year, especially after coming off the absent season last year.
“For me, I just like to be back and in a scheduled routine with the entire team,” Albright said. “Getting to run with everyone at set times as opposed to doing it on my own is really nice. Instead of trying to get out there by myself, I can now do it for my team.”
Albright has continued her success this year, helping Montclair State notch a third-place finish at the Golden Eagle Invitational. She placed 33rd out of 150 runners.
Even with a lack of championship success in previous seasons, Chegwidden realized the group of women he was coaching had the ability to do it not just because of their running ability, but because of the overall team camaraderie.
“They’ve dealt with a little instability. They’ve gone through all the changes,” Chegwidden said. “Yet, they have continued to improve and stay with it. There are a lot of people who wouldn’t in those circumstances.”
With the Red Hawks set to race in two of the most important meets of the season (NJAC and NCAA Regionals), Chegwidden is confident in his star runners to be at their best.
“I am really looking forward to these next few races because I think [Weckstein] and [Caprio] are both going to run personal records,” Chegwidden said. “The fitness is there from their training and it will be nice to see what they can do.”
Albright, Weckstein, Caprio and the rest of the team head into the championships excited and ready to go, especially considering they are familiar with the course. The one they are running in for the NJAC Championship is the same one they raced at in the NJAIAW Championships at the beginning of the season. Albright says the team will be able to use this to their advantage, of course.
“I just try to go into every race and do my best. I think that is [what most of the girls think], and that’s usually what we tell each other because every race is different,” Albright said. “We have run on the NJAC course before, so we know the course, which is nice. Everyone knows their own pacing, and so you know you are looking for your time for yourself, but then also achieving for the team is more about placement. So, you just go one-by-one and keep in your head to keep moving up the order.”
The Red Hawks look to finish the year out strong, but no matter what happens, it’s important to recognize they’ve already made massive leaps from the previous seasons. Chegwidden and his squad have created a winning culture within the program, and with championship season upon us, they can finally feed off the fruits of their labor.