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Caroline Dailey / Columbia Daily Spectator

Women's cross country, ranked 20th in the nation, will compete this weekend at the NCAA Northeast Regional Championships in Buffalo.

Cross country will send its elite runners to Buffalo, New York on Friday to compete in the NCAA Northeast Regional Championships. The men and women will both look to secure top two finishes in order to automatically qualify for the NCAA National Championships.

The Columbia women enter the weekend currently ranked first in the Northeast Region and 20th nationally, according to the USTFCCCA Coaches’ Poll. Their stiffest competition will come from Syracuse, No. 25, and Ivy League rival Dartmouth, ranked No. 27.

Although the Lions are headed to Buffalo with high expectations, head coach Dan Ireland emphasizes that the team is taking nothing for granted.

“We have to keep proving ourselves each week. That’s the mantra we’ve taken,” Ireland said.

The Light Blue most recently competed at the Ivy League Heptagonal Championships, where the women secured their second consecutive conference title. Seniors Erin Gregoire and Libby Kokes led the way with second and fourth place finishes, respectively. Gregoire clocked a 20:49.3 time on the six-kilometer course, while Kokes followed close behind at 20:53.4.

The men’s side, however, did not find the same degree of success at the Ivy Championships and fell to fifth place overall. Junior Kenny Vasbinder was the Lions’ top performer, finishing in ninth place overall with a time of 24:52.4. Seniors Tyler Italiano and Brian Zabilski also logged important finishes for the men in 15th and 19th place, respectively.

Ireland recognizes that senior leadership will be a key determinant of the Light Blue’s success this weekend.

“When you’re a senior, you want to go out and have your best races at the end of the year,” Ireland said. “We’re looking for them to do really good things this weekend. Our seniors are going to play a really major role for both the men and women.”

Last year’s Northeast Regionals Championship was also held in Buffalo, where the women grabbed fourth and the men took fifth. Then-junior Gregoire was the top finisher for the women, in eighth place with her time of 22:00.6.

On the men’s side, then-junior Dan Schumacher led the way in 29th place. The race last year was heavily influenced by severe weather conditions: Sub-freezing temperatures, strong winds, and rainwater on the course all posed serious challenges to the runners.

Despite concerns about a possible repeat of inclement weather conditions during the race this year, Ireland remains optimistic that his team will rise to the occasion and secure a position at Nationals.

“We just want to be able to take advantage of the opportunity and we want to run as well as we can this weekend,” Ireland said. “Everybody understands what’s at stake.”

The NCAA Northeast Regional Championships are set to begin at 11 a.m. in Buffalo on Friday. | @CUSpecSports

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