Occidental men’s cross country team competed at the national championship race Saturday, Nov. 18 at Principia College in Elsah, Illinois, where leading runner Keenan Leary (senior) placed 72nd overall and the team finished 32nd as a group. A national selection committee chose the Occidental Tigers after the team’s finish at the regional championship Nov. 11, where Leary placed sixth overall and the team finished fourth.
Speaking before the national championship, Leary said he knew it would be a challenging race as the course would have more hills than a typical trail. According to Leary, the weather — rain leading up to race day and wind on the day of nationals — could also cause tough and unusual conditions for the runners.
“I think it’ll be the ideal cross-country race where what comes out will be heart and grit as opposed to people winning it from the beginning,” Leary said. “I think it’ll suit us well because we ran really well at regionals last year in adverse conditions and I think we have a group of guys that just are willing to lose themselves in the race.”
Men’s cross country coach Rob Bartlett said that while the team’s results at the national championship were disappointing, the team was thankful for the opportunity to compete.
“The team finish wasn’t what our group had hoped for, but we’re grateful to have made it back to D-III Nationals for a second consecutive year,” Bartlett said via email. “Keenan ran exceptionally well and ended his collegiate cross country career with a PR [personal record] in wet, windy conditions. You couldn’t have asked for a better performance from him in the circumstances.”
After the race, Leary made a point to thank each of his fellow senior teammates for racing by his side and former Occidental coach John Medved ’84 for supporting the team throughout the year.
According to Bartlett in an article on the Occidental Athletics website, their regional tournament performance did not meet the committee’s or the team’s high standards. Leary said the selection committee did not select teams solely based on their performance at the regional tournament.
“Really there’s just an NCAA committee that looks into a couple factors, the most weighted factor is supposed to be your performance at the regional meet,” Leary said. “But they also factor in your full body of work over the course of the season.”
Another factor the selection committee took into account was the team’s second-place finish within the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SCIAC) race Oct. 28. The SCIAC awarded Leary the 2017 Ray Adkinson Award after he finished fourth in the race.
Runner Thomas Robertson (sophomore) reflected on the significance of Occidental’s SCIAC finish for both the men’s and women’s team.
“Getting second as a team at SCIAC championships on both sides was also something that we had never accomplished in my time here, so that was special,” Robertson said via email.
Earlier in the season, Occidental finished 13th at the pre-national meet Oct. 14, solidifying their standing as a national contender as it matched their countrywide ranking at the time.
Leary credited the team’s success to his teammates.
“I think it’s been a great season, not necessarily defined by a single moment, but defined by different people stepping up at different times,” Leary said.
Reflecting on his time as an Occidental cross-country runner, Leary credited the sport for his development of what he called his mental strategy and ability to stay psychologically sound during big moments.
“I’m just so proud and grateful for the opportunity that I’ve had to wear the ‘O’ and race all four years and had the opportunity to travel,” Leary said. “I’ll definitely look back on all these trips — especially the ones to national championships — and be thankful for what Oxy has allowed me to do as an individual and as a team.”
Leary’s mother, Erin Sweezey, said that what makes this team special apart from their national contention is the camaraderie among the runners.
“You are only as good a team as you are as friends, student and leaders,” Sweezey said via email. “This team cares deeply for and about each other and it shows in the agony of defeat and the exuberance of victory.”