Nearly two decades of dominance lies behind the Keene State College women’s cross country team. For the past 17 years in a row, the women’s team has dominated the Little East Conference (LEC), winning every single conference final.

Now looking upon a younger team, and what some are calling a rebuilding year, the cross country team looks to continue their amazing run of success. Coach Tom Pickering said neither he nor the team will allow the past to distract them from their goals.

Pickering said, “One of the team goals is to continue to thrive in our conference and compete for that top spot each year,” but that the pressure of past accolades won’t distract his runners.

Colton McCracken / Equinox Staff

Colton McCracken / Equinox Staff

Pickering admitted the team is in a “transition year this year,” with nine of the 15 runners on the team in their first year of running. Despite the inexperience of his team, Pickering remains confident they can succeed. Pickering’s optimism comes from the strength of the program that has been built over the past two decades, of which he has been the coach for the past three years.

Pickering said the key to a successful program is the players “buying in,” and working hard every workout.  He knows that he and his team will have to rely on leadership from his returning runners to be successful this year. He pointed out runners such as senior Katharine Lynch, whom he says has come back from a summer of great preparation, as well as others such as sophomore Lynne Hebert and junior Alana Olendorf, among others, who will help lead the team this year.Pickering thinks these leaders will be essential to lead such an inexperienced team if they want to continue the legacy of success that Keene State cross country has created.

Speaking with one of his young runners, first-year Emma Brown, the confidence of their coach is matched by his runners. Brown said she believes the girls have a great shot at success this year. She said the “girls team and the freshman are really strong,” and that despite their youth, they can continue their run of success. She does admit that coming on as a first-year to such a successful team can be intimidating.

Brown said the transition to college has been a lot of hard work and that she has succeeded so far by setting her mind to pushing herself harder than she ever has.  She also said the coaching staff is a great resource and helps by always being positive and pushing the runners to their maximum potential. Brown said this first week they “are just trying to stay really positive and have been doing a lot of team bonding.” Brown said she believes this team bonding will help the team stay strong and run well this year. This focus on a strong team over individual running skill was echoed by junior Brittany Gravallese.

Gravallese said the team has been focusing on “running more in groups, rather than as individuals.”

Coach Pickering is aided in his efforts by two assistant coaches, Nikolas Athanasopoulos and Meggie Donovan who are providing the team with lots of expertise and leadership.

Gravallese said that Meggie Donovan, who ran cross country for Dartmouth, is an excellent role model for these athletes. Gravallese said that Donovan is always “very positive, and always pushes us.” That positivity stems from their head coach who has his eyes set on more than just the LEC title.

Pickering said that he believes his team has the potential to compete on a national scale, and that the conference isn’t the only thing they are training for. He remains undaunted by the idea of this being a “rebuilding season,” instead preferring to think of the players as “tabula rasa, you know, they’re blank slates and we can really start right now working towards the future, an opportunity for change, opportunity for new goals.”

Along with this line of thinking, Pickering and his team are looking past this year and to the future when his new block of first-year students will be veterans, and possibly even more dominant than they are now.  Even as the cross country team seeks their 18th straight conference title, they dream of a larger stage and greater accolades to leave their mark on Keene State’s storied program.

Simon Burch can be contacted at sburch@kscequinox.com