Fifth place, Six Flags for men’s X-Country in Conn.

Men’s cross-country bussed to Harkness Memorial State Park on the shores of Long Island Sound last Saturday for the inaugural Connecticut College Invitational. The Camels’ new 8-kilometer (5-mile) home course winds around the grounds of the former Harkness estate, tracing the hedged perimeters of the Italian, Oriental and cutting gardens, and loops for nearly a quarter mile through a salt marsh in Goshen Cove. Because Connecticut will host the ECAC Championships next fall, all 13 teams in attendance were interested in a preview and enjoyed an early-season chance to test their legs.

Williams approached the meet with a specific race plan. The team sorted into discrete, predetermined two- to five-man packs and clipped through the first mile at a relaxed pace. At the mile mark, the men shifted gears, dropping 15 to 20 seconds off their split times and maintaining a controlled push through the second mile. They eased the throttle back again for mile three and kept the lid on until the fourth, when they accelerated again. Most powered past the 4-mile mark and hammered through the fifth, but Head Coach Pete Farwell encouraged the first-years – unaccustomed to the 5-mile racing distance after high school careers at 3.1 miles – to cruise in the final leg at a comfortable effort.

A controlled first mile is a difficult task for a distance runner at any time of year, but especially in September on a flat course with a downhill start, among competitors who want nothing more than to blow the doors off the Harkness guest house. The Ephs showed impressive patience.

Matt Winkler ’04 and Neal Holtschulte ’06 tucked in a few meters back from the mob of leaders. “The first mile might have been a little faster than we’d planned, but it was fine. Neal wasn’t too excited about having to hold back,” Winkler said. Captain Mitchell Baker ’04, Sam VanVolkenburgh ’05, Thomas Brennan ’06, Stephen Wills ’07 and Bill Ference ’07 comprised the next group, flashing smiles and looking easy in the middle of the assembled field.

Seniors Eric Engler ’04 and Eric Daub ’04 rallied up an inspiring squadron of first-years – Colin Carroll ’07, Chris Ellis-Ferreira ’07, Doug Hammond ’07, Sean Hyland ’07, Andy Stevenson ’07 and Chris Upjohn ’07. What started as two knots unraveled into one long string by the fourth mile, but all eight harriers finished either with or within a few seconds of a teammate.

Not all of the prescribed pace changes worked perfectly. “When we hit the fourth mile,” Brennan said after the race, “Mitchell and the other guys were on the right side of the path and I was on the left and got kind of stuck behind people. I had to wait to get around and missed the break – I couldn’t really reconnect with them after that.”

“Our paces didn’t really change all that much – they ended up pretty even,” Winkler said. “Once he got going, Neal didn’t want to slow down again. And we’d gotten in front of a lot of people, anyway, so I was hoping I wouldn’t have to pull some kind of huge kick to stay where I was.” Holtschulte and Winkler both placed among the top 15 overall, earning themselves free Conn. College Invite t-shirts.

The pair helped pull Williams to fifth place with 140 points in the team scores. The College of New Jersey team won the gold plaque with 56 points, Tufts took second with 78, Southern Connecticut State landed third with 99 and NYU was fourth with 106.

The story of the day, however, belonged to Eric Engler. After a year of injury and frustration, Engler finished within two seconds of his 8k personal-best, looking as solid as he ever has. To honor his comeback and performance, Baker and co-captain Shamus Brady ’04 awarded Engler with The Bear, the team’s beloved mascot, for the week. Engler has the distinction of taking care of T. Bear until the men race again next Saturday.

After the race, a cool-down and a picnic lunch, the men’s and women’s teams set out for an afternoon at the Six Flags New England theme park in Springfield, Mass. Coach Farwell, assistant coaches Steve Pasche and Yarrow Moench and several seniors – new to the amusement park scene – started off on the classic Thunderbolt roller coaster, with its wood-scaffolding construction and minimal seatbelts. Nearly the entire team, men and women, chatted and stretched while in line for Superman – “the ride of steel” – one of the newest and highest-profile (with an initial vertical drop of over 200 feet, and speeds approaching 80 miles per hour) roller coasters at the park.

Next Saturday the Ephs host the 2003 Purple Valley Classic for a true home debut on their course at Mt. Greylock High School. Racing begins with the men’s varsity at noon.