After surpassing everyone’s expectations on both the men’s and women’s sides, the Columbia cross country team will look to continue its unexpectedly strong fall season this weekend when it heads to Princeton for the Ivy League championship.
For the men, the team to chase will be that of the host, since Princeton is a cross country powerhouse that has won six of the last seven league championships. The only team to top Princeton during that span was Columbia, edging the Tigers by a single point in 2009.
It’s that rivalry—more than the rankings game—that drives the squad at this point, according to head coach Willy Wood. “We couldn’t be motivated more to win this meet,” he said, noting the historically close finishes at the race.
The men’s cross country squad enters the race with a No. 10 national ranking, the highest in the Ivies (Princeton is 15th), and a No. 1 Northeast Regional ranking.
Earlier in the season, a phenomenal win at the high-profile Notre Dame Invitational vaulted the team to eighth nationally—a program record—and senior Nico Composto’s 12th-place finish at the meet earned him a spot in the Sports Illustrated “Faces in the Crowd” feature.
Composto finished ninth as a sophomore but suffered from a dismal race at last year’s Heps. The upcoming meet offers him a chance at redemption as he closes out his final cross country season.
“He’s so fast and running so well right now that he’ll definitely be in the mix of things upfront,” Wood said.
The Lions’ other top competitors are seniors Jake Sienko and John Gregorek, and junior Daniel Everett. One young upstart rounds out Columbia’s top five, but first-year Jack Boyle’s age shouldn’t be mistaken for inexperience. A recruit from New Jersey’s Christian Brothers Academy—a traditional running powerhouse—Boyle has competed in multiple high school national championships and led his team to a win at the 2011 Nike Cross Nationals.
Wood described Boyle as one of the “top 10 freshmen in the country,” noting how well his prior experience has helped him transition to college and has quelled the usual nerves that accompany a championship meet.
“He’s been through the fire so many times before that he handles things pretty coolly,” Wood said, “I think he’s excited that he’s contributing and he’ll get to do something big this weekend.”
Junior Waverly Neer, once in a position similar to Boyle’s, will head the women’s effort this weekend. Though her career has been marred by injury, as a first-year Neer was the runner-up in her second meet of the season.
She finished just four seconds behind Dartmouth sophomore Abbey D’Agostino, who was just beginning to gain steam. D’Agostino has since ascended to the highest level of collegiate distance running, claiming multiple NCAA championships along the way.
If all goes as expected, a bit of déjà vu will be visible in this year’s results as the pair go head to head again. D’Agostino will be backed by a powerful Dartmouth squad that will be tough to beat.
Harvard, Cornell, Princeton, and Columbia are all in the mix for second in a race that’s anyone’s game—it all depends on who shows up.
“We have amazingly talented women, we have people who have been running very well,” Wood said. “I don’t think we’ve clicked yet on all cylinders, where all five women had phenomenal races on the same day, but I think everyone’s fully ready to do so.”
Columbia’s number two, Leila Mantilla, has been cruising through a great sophomore campaign this season after breaking out during track last year. If she’s capable of grabbing a top-10 finish, the women make a good case for a medal position.
One of the driving forces behind the squad’s desire to win motivates all of the Ancient Eight: history.
“We have a really rich tradition of success here,” Wood said. “For many, many years the women were the dominant program in the Ivy League and I think we’re going into the meet with a very strong hope and desire to start re-establishing ourselves suchly.”