For much of the season, the focus of the women's track and field team has been on hitting seed times and improving personal bests in hopes of a good performance at the NCAA Championships. Nationals was always far in the future, only a speculative consideration rather than something to be logistically discussed.
But now, the meet has arrived, and with it, the chance for eight Jumbos to represent Tufts in a national showcase. The stage belongs to St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn. and may not seem so large, but the implications are profound, since the best of the best in Div. III will be going head-to-head to determine the nation's top athletes.
The Jumbos will spread eight athletes over four events this weekend. Going into the season, the 4x400 relay was poised as the team's most likely breadwinner, returning two members from last year's All-American team (senior tri-captain Rachel Bloom and sophomore Kaleigh Fitzpatrick) and bringing on freshman Jackie Ferry, a high school All-American from her days at Harvard-Westlake in California.
But a combination of factors, including the need to enter people in open events, trying to find the right race situation, and freshman Aubrey Wasser's fall at All-New Englands all prevented the Jumbos from getting a competitive qualifying time for Nationals until last weekend. The team of Bloom, Fitzpatrick, Ferry, and sophomore Joyce Uang turned in a time at the Trinity College Last Chance Meet that edged Wisconsin La Crosse by 0.13 seconds and gave Tufts the 10th and final Nationals qualification spot in the 4x400 relay.
The mishaps that had the Jumbos hunting for qualification in the final weekend have left the team with mixed feelings of unfulfilled potential and palpable relief.
"That's why we're so excited that we snuck in at 10th," Fitzpatrick said. "We're just grateful that we have the opportunity to run again. We're excited to see what we can do. We put the whole package together."
This year is different from past years in that there will only be a final race, instead of a preliminary race followed by a final the next day. The Jumbos will be in the slower heat with Wheaton, Wisconsin Oshkosh, Wisconsin Stevens Point, and Illinois Wesleyan.
Coach Kristen Morwick is not concerned with the assumption that only teams in the fast heat can win the event, saying that Nationals is too unpredictable to dwell on heat assignments.
"There have been years when I've seen the second-ranked seed come in last," Morwick said.
"We're in lane four and there are a couple of teams we'd like to run with," Fitzpatrick said. "We're just hoping to give it all we have. We've got a good place in the race to run as well as we can."
In addition to the 4x400 relay, the Jumbos will also be represented by the Distance Medley Relay (DMR) squad of junior Sarah Crispin, sophomores Katy O'Brien and Catherine Beck, and freshman Aubrey Wasser. O'Brien will handle the 1200 leg with Wasser in the 400, Beck in the 800, and Crispin in the mile as the anchor. The team is seeded seventh in the 10-team field and will look to erase the memory of last season's performance, when they finished in 10th place in an uncharacteristically slow 12:20.47.
Crispin, an All-American in the 800 last season, qualified individually for the mile, but magnanimously chose to only run the DMR in the hopes of boosting the relay team rather than taking home individual accolades.
Crispin and Beck were both unexpectedly thrust into their roles in the relay. When sophomore Laura Walls' season ended due to illness, Crispin was moved to Walls' mile leg and Beck was placed in the 800 leg. The race will be the second-to-last event on Saturday evening and pits the Jumbos against familiar foes Amherst, Williams, and Keene State.
Beck and O'Brien are both entered in open races, so keeping Crispin fresh for the anchor leg of the DMR will be crucial. O'Brien has the 15th and final seed in the 800 meters while Beck is seeded fifth in the 5,000 meters.
O'Brien will be in the second heat of the preliminaries on Friday night. While the final seed may make O'Brien's chances seem limited, the sophomore is one of the tougher competitors for the Jumbos. At the Div. III New England Regional Championships (Div. III's), she took a close second to Colby senior Jess Minty in the event. At the 2005 Nationals, she again stayed close to Minty, who earned All-American honors for her second-place finish. The two will meet once again on Friday night, as Minty will be in O'Brien's preliminary heat.
Beck will take the track in the 5,000 meters. Nationals will cap off an incredible season for the sophomore, who has set two school records this year in the mile and the 5,000, and will look to establish herself as one of the nation's best on Saturday night.
Beck will face senior Caroline Cretti of Williams and junior Ellen Davis of Wesleyan. Both are seeded ahead of her, but Beck has run close races with each this season, out-sprinting Cretti in the final lap of the mile at Div. III's and losing to Davis by 0.02 seconds in the 3,000 meters on the same day.
"The other runners from New England are all watching her and wondering what she can do," Morwick said.
All eight Jumbos have spent the season looking for lower and lower times. But the only thing that matters this weekend is finishing in the top eight and getting that All-American plaque. Tunnel vision is at a high, and the eight competitors will look to peak at exactly the right moment.
"It's just one race now," Morwick said.