As the rest of the student body was gearing up to go home and finally get some well-deserved sleep during Thanksgiving break, the Hopkins women’s cross country team was diligently preparing for the NCAA Championship race. The Blue Jays made their way to Principia College in Elsah, Ill. with hopes to defend their second straight NCAA title.
Last year, the Jays took their fourth team title with 128 points, over 70 points ahead of second-place Washington University. The Jays were led by then-senior Tess Meehan and had an incredible 32-second spread between their top five scoring runners of the day.
Two other Blue Jays came home as All-Americans, as well. Then-sophomores Felicia Koerner and Natalia LaSpada, took 29th and 31st, respectively — both of whom would be back to defend their title in the 2017 season.
The good news for the Jays this year was that they would only graduate Meehan of their top-five runners from the 2016 season. The two other Blue Jays that returned to defend the team’s title in Illinois are senior Caroline Smith and junior Ellie Clawson.
This year, it was Clawson that led the pack of Blue Jays to their second straight NCAA Championship. After taking 57th at NCAAs last year as the Jays’ fourth runner, Clawson came back this season nearly a minute faster, despite the 30-mph winds and nearly freezing temperatures.
Running with the front pack from the gun, Clawson completed the 6K course in 20:47.00, less than eight seconds off of the winning time. Clawson crossed the line taking an impressive third place finish — the highest placement by any Hopkins athlete at NCAAs to date.
Clawson’s time is also the best by a Jay at the NCAA National Championships, bettering that of Meehan from last year by over 20 seconds. Head Coach Bobby Van Allen spoke of Clawson’s improvement over the last year, testifying to her hard work and positivity.
“From not being in the top-50 last year to being third this year in a deep field [is] incredible,” Van Allen told Hopkins Sports. “She puts in the work and is always positive and always smiling.”
Clawson attributed her own success to her coach and her teammates.
“It feels pretty unreal and still hard to grasp honestly. Bobby is an incredible coach, and I put complete faith in his training,” Clawson said. “Another thing is the group of women we have this year. This is such a special team. It really helps to have a such a close, supportive, loving, fun group with such positive attitudes.”
This time around, the Blue Jays completely blew out the competition. Finishing with a total of 96 team points, nearly 100 points better than second-place University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire (191). Washington University in St. Louis followed in third with 202 team points.
“Even with these not ideal conditions, on the line, everyone had such positive attitudes,” Clawson said. “I think winning is something everyone had in the back of their heads, but the most important thing for everyone was to try to have their best race and focus on what they can control.”
Two other Blue Jays followed in Clawson’s footsteps, finishing in the top 30 and earning All-American status. Junior Natalia LaSpada improved upon her 31st-place finish last year, clocking a time of 21:19.30, which put her at 23rd. Next to cross the line for the Jays was the rookie on the team, freshman Therese Olshanski, who took 29th overall.
Rounding out the Jays’ top five were junior Felicia Koerner and sophomore Rebecca Grusby, who finished 42nd and 48th, respectively. The Jays’ five scoring runners remained in an impressively tight pack, considering the number of runners in the race, finishing with a 61 second spread.
“This team is also ridiculously talented, which I think helped with everyone’s confidence going into the race,” Clawson explained. “We pack up in all our workouts and feed off of one another’s energy.”
In their 11th straight NCAA appearance, not only did Hopkins defend the Championship title, but the Jays have now claimed five of the last six NCAA championships. The Blue Jays trail only the SUNY Cortland and Middlebury College teams that have seven and six NCAA titles, respectively.
Once again, the Jays will only be losing one of their top-five scoring runners — senior Caroline Smith — to graduation this year, meaning they are likely to return as dominant as even in 2018.