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The women’s cross country team has dominated the Ancient Eight with three straight titles, while individual men competed well for the Lions.

Individual runners shine on the national stage, the Lions claim team titles in successful last decade

To kick off the decade, Willy Wood, director of cross country and track and field, was able to take two of his runners to the national stage, with then-sophomore Caroline McDonough and senior Thomas Poland competing at the NCAA National Championships in Terre Haute, Indiana in 2010.

But it was a younger harrier that stole the show earlier in the season, with sophomore Mark Feigen capturing the gold at the Metropolitan Cross Country Championships. Both the men’s and the women’s teams earned first place despite the fact that many of the Lions’ top runners did not compete at the Van Cortlandt Park meet. It was the Light Blue’s 13th-straight title for the women, and the third for the men.

Liza Evseeva

The Lions returned to Van Cortlandt Park for the Ivy League Championships that year, where three Columbia runners were awarded All-Ivy honors for their efforts. McDonough narrowly missed top honors, finishing as runner-up, while senior Jacqueline Drouin placed third, helping lift the women to a second-place team finish. On the men’s side, Poland shined, earning fourth and leading the men to third place.

At the NCAA Northeast Regionals, held in Madison, Connecticut, McDonough continued to run well for the Light Blue, claiming fifth place and an automatic bid to the NCAA National Championships. After Ivies, which saw then-senior Erin Hays cross the finish line fifth on her team, McDonough came alive and slid into the second spot for the Lions, finishing in 32nd place. The only finisher on the men’s side to qualify for Nationals was Poland.

Just four-tenths of a second and three places away from All-American honors, McDonough concluded her sophomore season with 43rd place at Nationals. Meanwhile, Poland came in 162nd in a field of 246.

The Lions hit the ground running for their first meet of the 2011 season, capturing first place finishes in both the men’s and the women’s races against University of Vermont and St. Michael’s College in Williston, Vermont. Despite a strong first half of the season, the women’s team narrowly missed out on another Ivy League Heptagonal Championship, held in Princeton, New Jersey. Instead, the Light Blue fell to Cornell by a slim margin of just two points in the Ivy League Championships. The Lions still claimed multiple All-Ivy honorees, however, with then-first-year Waverly Neer claiming second, junior returner Caroline McDonough taking sixth and junior Clare Buck earning ninth. Led by senior Kyle Merber’s runner-up finish, the men took second as well.

Current director Daniel Ireland took over the program in 2014. Within a year, the men’s team had an Ivy title under its belt, with the women not far behind with a third-place finish. However, true and enduring success would have to wait another year: It wasn’t until 2017 that the women captured their first Ivy League title since 2005, ushering in a new era for Ivy League cross country. To date, the women have won three consecutive Ancient Eight crowns, securing several individual All-Ivy titles while also producing accolades for Ireland, who has picked up five Ivy League Coach of the Year titles to date. While the men have sometimes struggled to break into the top of the pack, they too have seen improvement under Ireland’s tutelage, earning second place at Ivies in 2017, fifth place in 2018 and climbing to fourth in 2019.

“[Ireland and I are] on the same page. We’re making sure we find what works for every athlete, no matter what, no matter if you’re in our top seven or if you’re not. We’re just trying to get you to be the best that you possibly can be.” -Maraya Slatter, assistant cross country coach

Ireland’s focus on depth creates Ancient Eight title opportunities for the Light Blue

It is a common misconception that only the top five finishers from each team matter in a cross country meet. Even though the sixth runner breaks a potential tie, and the rest of the finishers add points onto rivals’ scores, some coaches tend to focus primarily on their top racers, believing they will have a bigger impact on meet results.

Columbia cross country and track and field director Daniel Ireland is not one of those coaches.

"Whether you’re [runner number] 12 or 25 or 30, you’re going to help us win the title just as much as someone else, even though you might not be lining up that day. It’s your attitude, your commitment to the program, your commitment to doing things right on a daily basis,” Ireland explained.

Ireland, who has helmed the Columbia cross country and track and field programs for the past six seasons, has spent each of those years cultivating a powerhouse program with an unmatched depth of talent and work ethic.

Prior to his arrival at the University, Ireland had no shortage of experience both as a runner and a coach. He ran for Georgetown University from 1988 to 1991, qualifying for the NCAA Nationals three times in cross country. A two-time All-Big East selection, Ireland took home the gold in the Big East outdoor 10,000-meter race during his senior year. He spent six years at his alma mater as an assistant coach before arriving at Yale in 1999, where he coached six Ivy League Champions and two All-Americans. His athletes were responsible for 17 school records and 41 All-Ivy honors.

Ireland has also earned personal accolades, achieving a three-peat of his own on Nov. 5, when he was recognized as the Ivy League Women’s Cross Country Coach of the Year for the third consecutive year. Ireland was also named the USTFCCCA Cross Country Northeast Regional Coach of the Year in 2018 and Ivy League Men’s Coach of the Year in 2015.

Ireland emphasized that while he cannot guarantee results, he can guarantee “how hard you’re going to work and how much emphasis you’re going to put on it.” As such, Ireland attributes the team’s success to its members taking responsibility for their own growth.

"He wants us to be the most competitive, grind-it-out team in the Ivy League, so that’s what I try to do for him,” senior Kenny Vasbinder, who secured the men’s individual title at the 2019 Ivy League Heps, said.

“I’m very happy to be able to win the race, on the home course, with a lot of friends and a lot of people I’ve been on the team with … no other better place to run a cross country meet.” -Senior Kenny Vasbinder after winning his final Ivy League Cross Country Heptagonal Championships, in 2019

Rivalries between the Tigers on the men’s side, an open field on the women’s, mark the decade for the Light Blue

For the first half of the decade, the Ivy League Heptagonal Championships were marked by a tug-of-war between Princeton and Columbia’s men’s teams. The 2011 Ivy Heps saw the Princeton men claim gold with 37 points, well ahead of runner-up Columbia’s 51. The Lions again came up short in 2012 against the defending champs, who at the time earned the second-lowest Ivies team score since 1997. But in 2013, the Lions took their revenge, cutting short Princeton’s three-time winning streak by claiming the team title. However, the victory was short-lived, with the Light Blue taking a hit in team standings the following year. The women placed fifth at the 2013 Ivies, while the Tigers regained their dominant streak and earned the team title once more.

Never satisfied, the Lions returned with a vengeance in 2015 and claimed top honors at Ivies. It would be the last time that Columbia claimed the men’s team title at Ivies, though the Lions came close in 2016 and 2017, finishing third and second, respectively. The men slipped out of medal honors in 2018 with a fifth-place finish, though they rebounded slightly in 2019 and earned fourth.

Though it took a bit longer for the women’s program to get off the ground, the Ivy League Championship podium has been filled with light blue for the past three years. The Lions completed a coveted three-peat in 2019, having captured the team title at Ivies each year since 2017. The 2018 race was a particularly strong one for the Lions, who claimed four All-Ivy runners.

Yet the success the women’s team has enjoyed the past few years is fairly newfound. They struggled in 2016, finishing at the bottom of the lineup at Heps. It’s been a variable ride for the women, who found themselves in the top three in both the 2014 and 2015 races but fell to fifth place in 2013 and sixth in 2012. But the Lions’ performance is reflective of the entire conference as well: There have been no clear dynasties on the women’s side over the past decade. Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, and Princeton all took a turn on the top spot on the podium over the last decade. Columbia’s women’s team has emerged as a force to be reckoned with and will head into 2020 with a target on its back, but also with three consecutive Ivy championships sitting at home.

“It’s just my fear, my worry, is that people get out of here and they miss an opportunity. Whether it’s life or the classroom or especially athletically, what we coach is there’s going to be windows that open all the time, practicing and racing. I just want the girls and guys to step through the window, to see the opportunity and seize the moment.” -Director Daniel Ireland

A decade in athletics cross country Daniel Ireland Kenny Vasbinder Katie Wasserman Van Cortlandt Park
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