Thirty runners strong, the Keene State College women’s cross country team resembles a stampede when it makes its way down Appian Way over to the trails at Owl Athletic Complex.
Looking to find his top-seven varsity runners among his largest team in program history, Head Coach Peter Thomas hopes that there is quality amidst the quantity. “Hopefully they push each other so hard that the top-seven emerge from the group,” he said.
Ranked seventh in the preseason New England poll (based on last year’s finish at the new England Regionals), the Owls have a steep hill to climb if they want to hang on to their position in the highly-talented region as well as maintain their supremacy in the Little East Conference by securing their 13th straight crown.
Thomas’ first task will be patching up his lead pack. With the loss of two-time All-America Paige Mills, the Owls must find a new leader. To make the job a little more difficult, Thomas must also find capable replacements for Andrea Walsh and Sarah Titus, the teams’ second and fourth runners respectively last season.
While the Owls do return their third and fifth runners, senior (Branford, Conn.) and junior Erin Crawford (Townsend, Mass.) respectively, the large gap between the remaining members of the pack is a matter of concern. “We need everyone to step up or we’re going to be hard pressed to be as good as we were last season,” said Thomas. “We’ll aim for a top-10 finish in the region and see what happens.”
After spending her summer training in Keene, is poised to take over as the teams’ top runner. “I’ve been on the varsity team since I was a freshman, so I learned and experienced a lot,’ said Fitter. “I think I have a lot to offer the team.”
“Maggie looks better than she has in any other year,” said Thomas. “It’s obvious that she put in a good summer. She looks like a girl on a mission.”
That mission includes a trip to the NCAA Cross Country championships that will take place in Terra Haute, Ind. “My goal is to have a good regional race and qualify for nationals,” she said.
At this stage of the season Thomas is hard pressed to determine the rest of his lead pack, but feels returnees including juniors Marie Whitney (Jaffrey, N.H.), Erin Duffy and Crawford and sophomores Kaley Mientkiewicz (Hanson, Mass.) and Riley Wilk (Burnt Hills, N.Y.) will all be in the mix. Hitting the trails for the first time, sophomore Kate Wheeler (Exeter) will also be in the hunt for the spot with the lead pack.
“Last year I was on varsity but wasn’t a point scorer,” said Mientkiewicz. “This year I’d like to be more of a contributor. I’d like my times to improve so I can help my team is a positive way.”
Despite the loss of several top runners, Crawford said don’t count the Owls out.
“I still think we can do well,” she said. “Everyone is coming in with a positive attitude. We want to run, we want to race, we want to win.”
For the second year in a row, Thomas has brought in a large and talented recruiting class. Samantha Goldsmith (Derry, N.H.), a top-runner at Pinkerton Academy tops the list of newcomers that also includes Molly Schaefer (Center Moriches, N.Y), and Melinda Noel (Burlington, Vt.). Thomas feels Goldsmith has a chance to crack the Owls’ top-five.
A large and talented team the Owls will rely on their depth to hopefully hold off a challenge from Southern Maine for the Little East Championship. While Keene State always has its eye on the prize – a return to the NCAA Championship – the competition among team members will bring out the best in each runner. While the young Owls might not make it back this season. The future is bright for the team with a NCAA berth hopefully waiting from them around the bend.
Fitter graduated from Branford in 2009. Her senior year she anchored two state championship relay teams. During indoor track, the sprint medley relay won the Class M state championship and finished third in the state open. In the outdoor season, she anchored the 4x800 relay team which won the Class MM state championship and competed at a national meet. In high school, also ran the 400 and 800 meter races (as reported by Patch in 2011).