VILLANOVA, Pa. - A meet that in some ways will be a preview of next month’s NCAA Mid-Atlantic Regional takes place on Friday morning when several of the top teams in the region converge on the Blue/White Golf Courses for the Penn State National Open. Villanova will be racing for the first time in two weeks and will get underway with the women’s race at 10:45 a.m., followed by the men’s race at 11:30 a.m.
The field for Friday’s meet includes four of the top five Mid-Atlantic teams in the most recent regional rankings revealed by the United States Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA). After a runner-up finish at the Paul Short Run prior to the release of the current regional polls, the Wildcats ascended to the top spot in the region and displaced the Nittany Lions for the first time since the fourth week of the 2015 season.
This week’s meet will be the first showdown of the season between Villanova and Penn State, with the list of competing teams also including No. 4 West Virginia, No. 5 Princeton, No. 9 Lehigh and No. 10 Bucknell. It is the last meet of what can be thought of as the cross country regular season, with conference meets on the docket for the end of the month followed by the regional and national meets in mid-November. The top two teams at the NCAA regional meets earn automatic qualifying spots for the NCAA Championships.
Junior Nicole Hutchinson (West Vancouver, B.C.) has been the women’s top performer so far this season and was named the BIG EAST Female Athlete of the Week after a second place finish at the Paul Short Run. She also won the Main Line Invitational in September and has been at the front of a Wildcats lineup that features a promising mix of veteran experience and young up-and-coming runners. Junior Bella Burda (Pleasant Valley, N.Y.) and senior Katie Fisher (Uxbridge, Ont.) have been among the team’s most consistent runners during their careers, while junior Kaley Ciluffo (LeClaire, Iowa) and freshman Rachel McArthur (Bristow, Va.) have taken big steps forward since the beginning of the season.
The five runners mentioned above have been the five scorers for Villanova at each of the season’s first two meets, and that isn’t even the Wildcats complete lineup. Freshman Lauren Ryan (South Yarra, Australia) will debut for Villanova this weekend, while the Wildcats top returner in senior Siofra Cleirigh Buttner (Dublin, Ireland) is expected to make her season debut later in the month.
On the men’s side, the Penn State meet will include a group of teams who are looking to make noise in the Mid-Atlantic region before the end of the season. The highest ranked team in the region in the field on Friday will be No. 4 Princeton, which can expect plenty of competition from No. 5 Penn State, No. 6 Bucknell and seventh-ranked Villanova in the 5.2-mile men’s race. The Wildcats are up one spot in the region after placing 14th at the Paul Short Run in their last race.
Sophomore Casey Comber (Maple Glen, Pa.) led Villanova with an eighth place finish at the Paul Short Run after opening the season with an individual victory at the Main Line Invitational for the second straight year. He and classmate Andrew Marston (Wayne, Pa.) combined for a 1-2 finish at the Main Line meet, and Marston is expected back this weekend after not racing two weeks ago. Both runners were All-BIG EAST and Mid-Atlantic All-Region performers a year ago.
One of the steps in the right direction for the Wildcats at the Paul Short Run was the continued development of sophomore Paul Power (Phoenixville, Pa.) and the redshirt freshman trio of Martin Barr (Skokie, Ill.), Rob Morro (Media, Pa.) and Nick Steele (Harvard, Mass). They each tallied personal bests at the meet to finish among the Villanova scoring runners. Veterans Zach Swenson (Boulder, Colo.) and Ben Malone (River Vale, N.J.), along with sophomores Logan Wetzel (Saline, Mich.) and Louis Vazquez (Brooklyn, N.Y.), also registered personal best times for an 8,000 meter race at the Paul Short Run.
Following Friday’s Penn State meet, next up on the Wildcats schedule will be the BIG EAST Championships on October 28 in Kenosha, Wis.