By Mike McMahon
---- — NORTH ANDOVER — Merrimack College’s cross country team is a focused group. So focused, in fact, that when the team qualified for the NCAA championships two weeks ago by placing third in the regionals, the team didn’t have a clue.
“We finished the race and our group was just getting ready to change our shoes and go get into our cool-down,” said Londonderry’s Brianna Devereaux, a senior. “Then all of a sudden we heard screaming and a bunch of blue jackets were running towards us and it was our girls; the girls who didn’t race still came down to support us. They were screaming and going crazy and at first we were sort of like, ‘Really? We’re in?’ It was definitely a surreal moment and we were all ecstatic.”
It’s been a long road for the Warriors, who will race at the Division 2 NCAA championships for the first time in program history this weekend in Spokane, Wash.
The program’s rise through the ranks has all been supervised by head coach and Methuen native Chris Cameron, who is the only coach the program has ever had. He’s returning to the NCAA championships for the first time since 1989, when he competed as a runner at Clemson University.
Merrimack’s biggest strength has been in its numbers, often finishing with a pack of girls near the same time in order to rack up points against the opposition.
“People look at cross country and they think it’s an individual sport and it’s all about how you finish,” Devereaux said. “But with us all year it’s always been about the team and racing in a pack. It keeps everyone together, on the same page and you know that you’re pacing yourself. We might have a few girls out in front who finish ahead sometimes, but we’re always scoring a big number of points as a pack. Racing like that has brought us here.”
Two Merrimack runners finished in the top-20 at regionals, with Kristin Schmidt leading the team placing 17th, finishing the 6K course in 23:04. Fiona Coleman was next at 23:18 as the Warriors placed five runners in the top 44.
The Warriors have never raced the course in Spokane, but they will get a chance to jog the route before the race on Saturday.
“We’ve looked at maps and things like that,” Devereaux said, “but really until you get out there and run the race, there’s only so much studying you can do or you’ll drive yourself a little crazy. Jogging it before we race will definitely be a help, it will help us visualize it better and we’ll be able to set some marks.”
Starting the season in August in 90-degree heat, the Warriors year will finish in what is likely to be cool, and possibly rainy conditions; Washington is known for its wet weather.
“The severe weather is what can really get to you,” Devereaux said. “There’s some good things and some bad things about the cold. You breathe a lot better in the cold, but the cramps you might feel on a cool day maybe you wouldn’t feel on a warm day and it’s obviously more difficult to get warmed up in the cool weather. The gear is different (now) than when we started the year but it’s still running. We ran in some cooler weather at the end of the year so we’re used to it.”