Date: Wednesday, November 15, 2000

Leslie Crofton qualifies individually for women's championship race

MEDFORD – In terms of NCAA Championship appearances, the men's cross country team is Tufts University's most successful sport over the past 10 years. Head coach Connie Putnam's program has competed as a team or sent individual runners to the NCAA Championship Race for seven straight years (1994-2000).

With a third-place finish at the NCAA New England Region Race hosted by UMass-Dartmouth last weekend, the team earned its third straight berth into the national race and its fourth in five years. This year's Jumbos race at 11 a.m. on Saturday (Nov. 18) at Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington. Senior Leslie Crofton finished second at the NCAA New Englands to earn an individual berth into women's National Championship Race, which starts at noon.

The men's team has become a familiar face at Nationals. They were ninth last year, 13th in 1998, and seventh in 1996. Going to Nationals is the team's goal every year, and this fall it was met by running a smart, determined race at Regionals last Saturday.

"We went in to the meet to do one thing: advance to Spokane," said junior Jason Mann, 24th at the regional race with a 25:45.33 time over eight kilometers. "We wanted to finish third or better. We would have been unhappy with anything less, but the important thing about regionals is to qualify. It was a mess out there, and the footing was bad, but we are confident in our ability to run with the top teams. Dave Patterson's performance (eighth overall in 25:04.69) was huge for us. He had a fantastic race and is leading by example as always. An important point though, is that even if he had not run, we would have qualified. That is a testament to the strength of our pack and our 5, 6, and 7 runners."

The lineup Tufts will take to Nationals includes Patterson, Mann, junior J.R. Cruz (21st at regionals in 25:36.87), junior Ben Smith (26th in 25:50.61), freshman James Lamoureaux (50th in 26:28.60), junior Justin Lewis (59th in 26:37.09) and senior Adrian Wilairat (122nd in 27:56.5). Patterson, Mann, Cruz and Smith raced last year in Illinois. Patterson and Smith were part of the top seven that competed in Pennsylvania in 1998. This year the group travels all the way to the Pacific Northwest. The setting may be unfamiliar, but the level of competition is not.

"Nationals are going to be tough," co-captain Adrian Wilairat said. "This is the ultimate race, the only one we care about. This is what we've been training for since May. How we do at this race is how we will be remembered. Connie has warned us about the weather; we could be running in any conditions: snow, a frozen course, rain, or just freezing cold. We will have to be prepared for anything. Connie wants us to run focused and not run too crazy. Other teams, the ones who haven't been there before, will go out way too hard and will crash and burn. How we do will depend on how we run in the second half of the race."

Patterson, who also has lots of experience at the track Nationals, also analyzed the team's chances.

"We have never finished as well as we did the first time the team went in 1996," he said. "I think we would all really like to go out there and do something special. It will take very good races from everyone to accomplish this. We have a big spread from our 1-5 men and that can mean a lot of points in a big race. Just a little concentration goes a long way in a race like this. Lamoureaux will be big factor in a race like this, as will a good race from Lewis."

"We're definitely more confident having been there before," Wilairat said. "This has become routine for us. We expected to qualify. This is not a vacation for us. We are going to Spokane to try to be the best cross country team in Tufts history."

Crofton was second behind Springfield College's Barb Swallow at the regional race, finishing five seconds off the pace with a 17:31.75 time.

"I knew that Swallow would be the one to go out hard from the gun so I set my sights on trying to stay as close to her as possible," Crofton said. "She had a couple-second lead on me for the first two miles, then around the two-mile mark I got right up on her shoulder. At that point I felt really good and thought about going for the win, thinking I would just sit and try to out-kick her in the final stretch. I started cramping up with about 1000 meters to go unfortunately, so at that point she pulled a little ahead and solidified her win."

The race proved to Crofton that she is capable of a high finish this weekend.

"Coach Morwick wants me to set my sights on the top 15," she said. "Swallow was eighth at Nationals last year and she was the 10k NCAA champion last spring. A Middlebury girl, Jessica Johnston, that I beat on Saturday was 15th at nationals last year, so we'll see.

"I am disappointed I won't be at the NCAAs with my team like last year (Tufts finished 11th), but the men's team will be with me and they're very supportive. So I won't really be alone in that sense."