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Columbia opens its season this weekend looking to defend its Ivy League championship.

Cross country will travel to Stony Brook, New York, to open its fall campaign on Saturday, taking on Stony Brook and Hofstra in the Wolfie Invitational.

The men's team is the reigning Ivy League champion and will bring back standout veteran runners like seniors Jack Boyle and Rob Napolitano, as well as rising underclassmen like sophomore Brian Zabilski. Though the Light Blue graduated three of its top five finishers from last season's Heptagonal Championships, head coach Dan Ireland is confident that this year's team is on par with—if not better than—last year's men's squad.

"No one was picking us to win last year at this point," the head coach said. "I like where we are right now. I think we can be better than we were last year, but that doesn't mean we're going to win Heps, that doesn't mean we're going to make Nationals."

Boyle, a two-time qualifier to the NCAA Championships, took fifth in the 10-kilometer run at last season's Outdoor Ivy League Championships. Though Zabilski was not a particular stand out during his rookie cross country season, the sophomore found his groove on the track, finishing second in the 5-kilometer run at the Outdoor Ivy Championships.

Napolitano, a four-time Ivy League Champion on the track, has been broken the 4-minute mark in the mile. Since the Ivy League Championship will be held at Princeton on a particularly fast, flat course, Ireland noted that Napolitano could be a key scorer for the reigning champions. His road to Princeton, and potentially another Ivy championship, begins at Stony Brook.

The women's side will look to start improving its third-place finish at last season's Ivy League Championships by shining at the Wolfie Invitational, though doing so might prove more difficult, given its recent roster losses. The Light Blue's top two runners from last season, Olivia Sadler and Leila Mantilla, both graduated in the spring and the team returns no All-Ivy League finishers.

"We won't have the experience we had last year," Ireland said. "I think we could be better, but it's going to be kind of a growing thing as the course of the year goes on … I like the potential that the team has."

The Light Blue does have a pair of runners who excelled on the track in the spring in seniors Natalie Tanner and Henna Rustami. Tanner saw success late in the season, taking 15th at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in the 5-kilometer run. Rustami was second in the same event at the Outdoor Ivy League Championships.

Juniors Sarah Hardie and Erin Melly are also poised to excel at Stony Brook and in the weeks to come, as both earned bids to the NCAA East Prelims in the spring. Sophomore Libby Kokes also had a strong rookie season, as well as being a key member of several Light Blue relay teams on the track.

The Light Blue will take the course at 10 a.m. on Saturday.

ellorine.carle@columbiaspectator.com | @CUSpecSports

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