PASADENA, Calif. (Sept. 2, 2016) – Whereas last season could have been considered one of transition, the 2016 Caltech cross country team is focused on solidifying the foundation built by last year's freshman class, in part due to the addition of a whopping 15 rookies.
"To call this team young is an understatement," Head Coach Ben Raphelson said. "The newcomers are light on experience, but come in with impressive high school careers and track seasons to build on. The future is bright, but as we've been asking ourselves all preseason, is that future in two-to-three years, or two-to-three months?"
Behind two-time NCAA qualifier Aditya Bhagavathi, the 2015 team recorded its best season in over a decade, placing fifth at the SCIAC Championships and earning its first regional ranking in program history. Despite the graduation of five seniors, including three of the squad's top four regular scorers, the 2016 team is still ticketed to finish in the same position of sixth in the SCIAC standings as last year.
The sophomore duo of captain Rohan Choudhury (Cupertino, Calif. / Monta Vista) and Rohan Doshi (West Windsor, N.J. / West Windsor-Plainsboro North) heads the squad having spent their rookie year as fixtures in last year's scoring lineup. Both stepped up their performance significantly during the spring track & field season, with Choudhury cracking the program Top 10 list in both the 3000- and 5000-meter runs as Doshi ended up just three seconds shy of qualifying for finals in the 1500m at the SCIAC Championships.
"Both Rohans learned the importance of balance between academics and athletics as they transitioned to college life and competition last fall," Raphelson said. "We got a much more accurate glimpse of their potential on the track."
While the graduation of Bhagavathi was always going to be a significant loss, Raphelson could have done no better in assembling a deep and talented group to weather that departure. Along with Choudhury and Doshi, freshmen Tommy Alford (Dublin, Ohio / Dublin Coffman), Greg Gephart (Reno, Nev. / Robert McQueen), Tanner Moore (Roseville, Calif. / Oakmont), Nikhil Poole (Arcadia, Calif. / Flintridge Prep), Simon Ricci (Chicago, Ill. / Latin School of Chicago) and Gianmarco Terrones (McLean, Va. / The Potomac School) have all been part of an increasingly large lead group in workouts, forming the core of a team which has the potential to be a significant presence in the SCIAC before long. Sophomore Joey Hong (Campbell, Calif. / King's Acad.) – another regular in the 2015 scoring lineup – and freshman Sam Blazes (Seattle, Wash. / Sidwell Francis) are also knocking on the door of that lead group.
"I'm already seeing further improvement from Choudhury, Doshi and Joey from last fall and spring, while Nikhil has arrived in exceptional shape – this entire squad is focused and determined to find out how good they can be as soon as this year," Raphelson said. "I'm not setting any limits on what any of them or we as a team can accomplish."
Another quartet of runners – junior captain Gene Vaughan (Mission, Texas / Sharyland), freshman David Fager (Miami, Fla. / Belen Jesuit Prep), sophomore Michael Hashe (Plano, Texas / Texas Acad. of Math & Science) and junior Mason MacDougall (La Mirada, Calif. / La Mirada) – have also demonstrated that they are well ahead of where they were last year.
"You would be hard-pressed to script a better team with this kind of youth – whether by ability, work ethic or enthusiasm," Raphelson said. "Last year's team found success with a front-runner competing with other teams' top guys and a mix of seniors and freshmen rounding out the scoring group. This year's squad is, again, very young, but very talented, deep and close in ability. It's a different dynamic, but one that can be similarly successful."
All-time top-15 performers Melissa Gutierrez (Pico Rivera, Calif. / El Rancho) and Michelle Marasigan (Elk Grove Village, Ill. / James B. Conant) return to build off their instant-impact rookie seasons and are joined by a trio of seniors who bring tremendous leadership to the group. Emily Mazo (Bala Cynwyd, Pa. / Harriton) and Gauri Shastri (West Lafayette, Ind. / West Lafayette Jr.-Sr.) return from abroad looking to pick up where they left off as sophomores, with Mazo pairing Lilly Luo (Belle Mead, N.J. / Montgomery) as captains.
"The seniors have already demonstrated their value to the group through their dedication and mentorship," Raphelson said. "We're fortunate to have them – they will make a huge difference through their performances as well as guiding the newcomers."
Leading that freshman class are Jena Srikanth (Fresno, Calif. / Clovis North), Sophie Walton (Emerald Hills, Calif. / Sequoia) and Skye Reese (Concord, N.H. / Concord), with sophomore Cherie Jia (Auckland, New Zealand / Auckland International Coll.) and rookie Michelle Zhao (San Diego, Calif. / Canyon Crest Acad.) also in the early mix for scoring spots in the lineup.
"Jena, Sophie and Skye have all shown strong performances in cross country over their high school careers," Raphelson said. "Cherie and Michelle clearly trained hard over the summer and are also poised to make a big impact that could surprise some people."
Junior Robin Brown (Potomac, Md. / Richard Montgomery) and freshman Nicole Feng (Bethany, Conn. / Amity Regional) have shown tremendous improvement over the past year as well and could break into that top seven before long.
"This is a larger, deeper group than we had last year, and the overall talent level reflects that," Raphelson said. "I see this group of newcomers teaming with Michelle Marasigan, who improved considerably during track, and Melissa to form the deepest group we've had in years. They're all eager to race in a Caltech uniform, and it's exciting to think what this can all add up to."
The season begins on Saturday, Sept. 3 at the Redlands Invitational, where both men and women will run shortened distances of 6k and 4.5k, respectively. Both teams will be eyeing the first leg of championship season in the SCIAC Multi-Duals, which take place a race earlier this year, on Oct. 1, followed by the SCIAC Championships on Oct. 29 and the NCAA West Regional on Nov. 12.
"On paper, this is one of the most talented teams in program history," Raphelson said. "That creates some really exciting opportunities, and it will come down to our ability to navigate the ups and downs of a collegiate cross country season. Everything we're doing is geared to produce our best performances during the championship season. The bulk of this freshman class has come here expecting to be competitive on the conference and regional level, and the team's actions to this point certainly make me think that is possible. I'm excited to see where this group takes us."