PASADENA, Calif. (Sept. 1, 2017) – The addition of a second straight recruiting class rich in depth and talent has the 2017 Caltech cross country team boasting a sizeable roster dominated by youth while leaning heavily on several key returners. This combination has the program poised for its most successful fall yet.
Among the returners are the team's three captains – senior Gene Vaughan (Mission, Texas / Sharyland) and juniors Rohan Choudhury (Cupertino, Calif. / Monta Vista) and Melissa Gutierrez (Pico Rivera, Calif. / El Rancho) – who have filled crucial leadership roles over the summer and into the fall. Entering his fourth year with the team, Head Coach Ben Raphelson will be joined on staff by long-time track & field assistant Caleb Weidert as well as Bijan Mazaheri, who begins graduate work at Caltech after a highly decorated running career at Williams College.
The returning core has arrived considerably further ahead of where the team started last fall, leading Raphelson and the squad to set their sights on continuing the progress last year's team made in finishing sixth at the SCIAC Championships. The rest of the conference seems to be aware that 2016 was no fluke but is still cautious to proclaim Caltech a true threat just yet, with the Beavers tabbed to place sixth once again in the SCIAC Coaches' Preseason Poll.
"We took a nice step forward in the conference and region last year," Raphelson said. "Although young, this team has the talent and ability to take another as soon as this year, and that is certainly our goal."
Sophomore Nicole Feng (Bethany, Conn. / Amity Regional) has shown perhaps the most marked improvement after finally shaking off a series of injuries that had plagued her since high school, while sophomore Jena Srikanth (Fresno, Calif. / Clovis North) and Gutierrez both appear poised for breakthroughs as well.
"Nicole is in the best shape of her life after spending all of last year trying to get past injuries affecting her throughout high school," Raphelson said. "Jena had a snake-bitten rookie year too due to injury and illness, but learned a lot from the experience and is applying it constructively. Melissa's poise and maturity are huge for this young team, and she will be a key performer again after a super-consistent sophomore campaign."
Along with that trio of high performers in the preseason, sophomores Skye Reese (Concord, N.H. / Concord) and Michelle Zhao (San Diego, Calif. / Canyon Crest Acad.), mainstays in last year's top 7, return as well. Both are eager to build on last year's success.
"With our depth and talent, we're not reliant on a handful of runners performing at a high level every single race," Raphelson said. "Our finishing order may change week-to-week, but the results can be consistently strong. We have 11 runners ready to perform."
Six newcomers have already made a dramatic impact on the team. The three with the most decorated high school careers – Krystal Brodsky (Redmond, Wash. / Redmond), Molly Crotteau (Chicago, Ill. / Payton) and Claire Hu (Palo Alto, Calif. / Henry M. Gunn) – can realistically expect to compete at the top of the lineup and among the conference's best rookies from the outset. Jessica Ye (Lutherville Timonium, Md. / Dulaney) brings additional potential after splitting time between running and tennis prior to arriving at Caltech, while Sirisha Gudavalli (Boulder, Colo. / Fairview) and Lily Kitagawa (Portage, Mich. / Portage Central) may need time to orient themselves to the demands of collegiate running but figure to be important pieces of the line-up going forward.
"Krystal, Molly and Claire have helped the team raise its expectations from both a training and racing standpoint," Raphelson said. "Jessica hasn't run quite as much as a dual-sport athlete and Sirisha is joining us a bit late, but both have intriguing potential."
Seven of last season's top 11 runners return for the men, putting them in good position to improve on their own sixth-place finish at the Championships as well. It is already evident that many took major steps forward in their training over the summer, which combines well with the across-the-board talent of the eight-man recruiting class.
"With so many of our top runners returning from last year, we're optimistic that we can take another step and perform at a more consistent level," Raphelson said. "Everyone has clearly brought an urgency and increased diligence to their individual training over the summer. We didn't end last year the way we had hoped to, so they're especially eager to get another crack at championship racing this year."
Five of those returners made regular appearances in the team's top seven throughout last season. Choudhury and sophomores Tommy Alford (Dublin, Ohio / Dublin Coffman), Sam Blazes (Seattle, Wash. / Sidwell Friends), Tanner Moore (Roseville, Calif. / Oakmont) and Simon Ricci (Chicago, Ill. / Latin School of Chicago) are already significantly ahead of the level of conditioning they held upon arrival last preseason as they look to solidify their positioning in the lineup given the infusion of new talent. Several other upperclassmen – juniors Michael Hashe (Plano, Texas / Texas Acad. of Math & Science) and Joey Hong (Campbell, Calif. / King's Acad.) and sophomores Bhairav Chidambaram (San Diego, Calif. /Canyon Crest Acad.), David Fager (Miami, Fla. / Belen Jesuit Prep) and Tiger Lu (Shanghai, China / Shanghai American School Puxi) – are positioning themselves to contend for spots in the top 7 for the first time in their careers.
"We learned a lot last year about the importance of experience when it comes to racing 8km at a consistently high level," Raphelson said. "These guys were all part of an exceedingly young team last season, but now we're reaping the benefits of the experience they gained. We have upperclassmen who have figured out how to deal with all their other commitments and we're leaning on them to play a significant role as our freshmen start to confront that same undertaking."
Those freshmen include three already challenging for spots toward the top of the lineup in Michael Brown (New Orleans, La. / Isidore Newman), Matthew Earney (San Diego, Calif. / Del Norte) and Jacob Ressler-Craig (Atlanta, Ga. / St. Pius X Catholic), all of whom turned in high-level performances at their respective state championships in high school. The depth of the class becomes apparent with Spencer Morganfeld (Palo Alto, Calif. / Palo Alto), Davis Tardif (Roswell, Ga. / Roswell), Alex Popov (Tarrytown, N.Y. / Hackley School) and Daniel Rostovstev (Swarthmore, Pa. / Strath Haven) right behind that trio in workouts in the early stages of the season.
"The number and relative strength of our returning group will give our freshmen a chance to grow at their own pace," Raphelson said. "It's hard to know how their relative youth will translate in the SCIAC this year, but what's more important in the first year is to learn how to race and navigate college rather than feeling a pressure to perform. That being said, their talent level should express itself by the end of the year."
The season begins on Saturday, Sept. 2 at the University of Redlands Invitational, with races every other week from that point through the NCAA West Regional on Nov. 11. The SCIAC Multi-Duals, an important mid-season gauge, will take place on Friday, Sept. 29 with the SCIAC Championships set for Oct. 28.
"We feel that we're coming into this year with elevated expectations, internally and externally," Raphelson said. "Like every year, we want to end the season running at our best. Our attitude towards the championship portion of the schedule is that we can begin to compete with the best teams out there. Doing so requires putting in the necessary work in and out of practice, and I think we've developed a much better understanding of what that entails. We have an exciting fall in store for us."