The Emerson men’s and women’s cross-country teams will face their toughest competition of the year on Sunday, Nov. 3 as the New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference Championships will be held at Boston’s Franklin Park.
The women’s team was ranked 10th out of 11 teams in a NEWMAC preseason coaches’ poll and has a difficult road ahead against the top-seeded Massachusetts Institute of Technology, winners of the past six NEWMAC Championships.
Although both teams will face formidable opponents, the Lions are already familiar with the course they’ll run at Franklin Park — a 5K race for the women and 8K for the men — having competed in the Saints Invitational hosted by Emmanuel College two weeks ago on the same trails.
“This is the first race coming in that I knew the full course,” said junior Ali Dokus, who won the first meet of her college career on Sept. 13 at the Daniel Webster Invitational. “I love Franklin Park. I have to try to not go out too fast and stay with the top pack or stay right behind them.”
Dokus, from Littleton, Mass., is plenty familiar with Franklin Park, which contains Boston’s most notable cross-country course. Even before her Emerson career, Dokus ran at Franklin Park in her junior year of high school at Parker Charter, located in Devens, Mass. She finished 62nd at the 2009 Massachusetts All-State Cross-Country Championships, completing the 3.1-mile race in 21:45.
The men’s squad, ranked last out of eight teams in a NEWMAC preseason coaches’ poll, will also be competing against a top-ranked team from MIT, which has been even more dominant than its women’s squad, having won 15 consecutive NEWMAC championships.
“We know MIT is one of the top [Division 3] teams of the country,” said men’s and women’s head coach John Furey, who has realistic expectations. “It’s MIT, then it’s everyone else. They’re going to smoke everyone and then everyone is going to be fighting for second.”
In the Saints Invitational, Dokus secured the Lions’ top finish among both men and women, coming in 12th with a time of 20:45, a full minute faster than her high school time.
“I want to finish in the top 10,” said Dokus. “But if I can finish in the top 15, that would be great, too.”
Last year, in the Great Northeast Atlantic Conference Championship, held at Rivier College in Nashua, N.H., Dokus finished fifth with a time of 20:21.
Dokus led her team to a sixth-place finish out 12 teams in that meet, but that result will be hard to match against the speedier competition in the NEWMAC.
“If we beat a couple NEWMAC teams, that would be huge,” Furey said. “But beyond that, it’s seeing these kids run well and show good improvement. We haven’t seen our opponents [earlier in the season] like we did during the GNAC meets.”
Alison DeStefano, a senior cross-country team captain, also ran at Franklin Park as a student at Stoneham High.
DeStefano sat out of the Saints Invitational while nursing a lingering ankle injury this year. Even though she is still working her way back to full strength, DeStefano said she is excited to return to Franklin Park for one last meet.
“There is a nostalgic connection to Franklin Park,” DeStefano said.“The circumstances aren’t great, but I’m just hoping to go out there and finish the race and make my coach proud.”
On the men’s side, Kyle Oppenheimer, who graduated last spring, finished second in the GNAC Championships in 2012, finishing the five-mile race in a time of 26:37, anchoring a fourth-place finish out of seven squads.
Going into the NEWMAC Men’s Championship, freshman Mike O’Connor will have an opportunity to stake his claim as an emergent men’s runner in the conference.
“[O’Connor] is our top guy this year,” assistant coach Matt Sell said. “He comes to every practice and works his butt off.”
Furey said he realizes his team will be facing an uphill battle at Franklin Park.