The combination of a high school race in Boston on Friday and a fierce rainstorm that night into Saturday morning turned Franklin Park’s cross country course into a quagmire.
But when University of Maine sophomore Corey Conner lined up Saturday for the NCAA Northeast Regional race, she had her game face on, and wasn’t worried by the muck and mire that is a traditional part of this sport.
“The course was pretty much destroyed,” Conner said. “There was mud everywhere, giant puddles, but I was pretty excited. That’s what you want as a cross country runner. That’s what it’s all about.”
Even though Conner was plucking pieces of the 6-kilometer course off herself after the race, she was happy after placing ninth in 22 minutes, 29 seconds. She found out later she had earned a trip to Monday’s NCAA Championships in Terre Haute, Ind.
“I’m super excited, I just can’t wait,” said Conner, who earned an at-large berth into the meet.
The top two teams in the regional race — Syracuse and Providence — automatically qualify then the top four individual runners after that who weren’t part of those top two squads, and the at-large runners, of which Conner was one.
“I was pretty lucky,” admitted Conner, who was fifth among runners not dressed in Syracuse or Providence colors.
But a little luck goes a long way, and Conner, the America East and New England champion, is the first UMaine runner to qualify for nationals since Patty McCormick in 1994.
“I was really surprised after the race. I knew there was a chance, I was kind of hopeful,” Conner said. “On Sunday, [coach] Mark [Lech] gave me a call and gave me the good news.”
Even though the field was quite large — 243 runners finished — there were some faces familiar to Conner in sisters Holly and Lucy Van Dalen of Stony Brook and Jillian King of Boston College.
“It was good to run with them. It’s helpful to run with people you’ve run with before,” Conner said.
The course conditions were sloppy, but the rain tapered off to a drizzle when the race started.
“It was pretty challenging. The mud definitely had a big role in it,” Conner said. “I think overall it kind of helped. I kind of forgot about racing for a while. I was so focused on trying to get through the mud and deal with the conditions, I kind of forgot about the pain of running for a while.”
Conner is going into the nationals with nothing to lose, and is hoping to enjoy the experience of competing against the nation’s best.
“That’s pretty much what I’m looking to do,” she said. “I didn’t expect to be in this race in the first place. I’m just going to go out there and run as hard as I can.”
The native of North Townsend, Mass., didn’t have a national championship race on her radar screen when she set foot on the Orono campus.
“I could’ve never, ever expected this would happen, so it’s really exciting,” Conner said.
The Black Bears finished an impressive 10th as a team in the regional against a talented field that included regional powers Boston College, Providence and Stony Brook.
The national race will be televised on Versus, with the women’s race going off at the conclusion of the men’s race. The men run at noon.
Conner will once again be running the 6K distance Monday, which is roughly 3.65 miles.
She was also named to the America East All-Academic team, along with Corey Bean and Miles Bartlett.
Conner, a nursing major, has compiled a 3.95 grade point average.
Bartlett, a senior Kinesiology and Physical Education major, as accumulated a 3.55 GPA while Bean a senior English major, has held a 3.84 GPA.
To be nominated, a student-athletes must be a starter or important reserve, participate in at least 50 percent of the team’s games, and have at least a 3.30 GPA.
Gravel, Knight qualify
Conner wasn’t the only Maine collegiate runner to earn a berth to a national championship race, as Colby College will send two women to the Division III meet in Highland Hills, Ohio.
Katrina Gravel and Cassi Knight, who were both named to the USTFCCCA New England All-Region team recently, will compete in a 6K event at 11 a.m. Saturday.
Gravel, a native of Peabody, Mass., has been the top runner for the Mules this fall and was ninth at the NCAA New England Regional qualifier last weekend, traversing a 6K course in 22:05.
She was 10th in the NESCAC championships, earning all-conference laurels.
Knight barely missed All-America honors last fall after placing 36th at nationals. The top 35 finishers earn recognition.
She was also named to the All-NESCAC team after finishing 13th in the conference race and finishing in that same position at the regional qualifier, clocking a 22:10.