It's been a tale of two seasons for the Harper College men's and women's cross country teams as they depart for Saturday's NJCAA Division III cross country national championships hosted by Holyoke Community College, in Northfield, Mass.
The men's team, the two-time defending national champ, has been ranked No. 1 all season and it's been mostly smooth sailing for Harper.
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The women's team is currently ranked No. 5, but their journey has been much more trying. Early in the season, injuries were an issue, but in the latter stages the Hawks were able to field a full team and performed well in end-of-season meets.
Harper coach Jim Macnider expects his team to be tested early as the course's first significant climb is in the first mile. The men's race at the national meet is 8k, while the women's race is a 5k distance.
"We know the course," he said. "They're not going to run PR's at the national meet."
The men's team has been led by Juan Barajas, Brennan Albuck and Zach Stella. That trio finished third, fourth, and fifth, respectively, at last weekend's NJCAA regional meet as the Hawks took top team honors against their Division III foes.
Two top-five teams, Gloucester County and Howard Community College, have the best chance to derail Harper's national three-peat attempt. The Hawks have not competed against either team this season.
"We're going in a little blind," said Macnider, who said he expects Howard to have a particularly deep team.
The coach say his own team's mental approach on race day is the most important factor to him. A key for the Hawks runners, Macnider says, is to "respect their opponents and not take them lightly. If we put three, four guys ahead of somebody's top three, we're going to be OK. I think we're going to win."
In the women's race, Ocean County, Gloucester and Howard are the favorites for the top three spots. Harper is hoping to finish somewhere close behind that top group.
"I think we have a good chance at (places) 5 to 9," Macnider said. "But if we run a great race, we can finish in the top five."
Getting a runner in the top five individually is also a goal for the program, according to Macnider. Stephanie Chaires, Mary Piltaver and Marisa Andreuccetti had the top finishes for the Hawks in last weekend's regional meet.
Whatever happens, the Hawks are looking forward to their run against the top NJCAA athletes in the nation.
"It will be fun," Macnider said.