Men’s cross country rounds out 2023 with highest NCAA Regional score in two decades

This past Friday, the University of Rhode Island cross country team competed in the National Collegiate Athletic Association Regional Championship, concluding their season with a 20th place finish.

Going into Friday’s meet, the Rams were projected to place 20th of the 37 schools that competed, according to URI Distance Coach Brian Doyle. URI’s region is made up of schools from New England and New York and features schools such as Boston College, Syracuse University and Yale. This year’s regional was won by Iona University with a score of 40 and Harvard was the runner up finishing with a score of 57. The Rams would place exactly where they were expected to, 20th place, with a score of 573. While the Rams placed 19th in last year’s regionals, their score this year was their best score in almost 20 years.

The Rams achieved this new best score behind fifth-year Ben Fleichser’s sub-five minute mile pace which netted him 62nd place. His final time was 30:47.4 minutes. The Rams’ other top scorers included first-year Garrett Hartline’s 103rd place finish with a time of 31:25.4 minutes. This was Hartline’s first collegiate 10k. It wasn’t third-year Nathan Masi’s first 10k, as he placed 117th with a time of 31:38.5 minutes, a new personal best. These spots landed them in the top half of the 259 person field. Masi also set a new 8k best in the process of this race with a time around 25:10 minutes, running a mile pace at 5:05.5 minutes. The two of them were some of URI’s most impactful scorers this season, and the Rams expect them to be even better next year, according to Doyle.

This season has been one of the most successful seasons in program history and the return of top talent such as Masi and Hartline indicate that there is still progress to be made, according to Masi.

“We’re very young and the whole squad is coming back besides Ben [Fleischer],” Masi said. “I think that we can break into the top five at A-10’s and we’re going to break into the top 15 at regionals as well.”

This season, the Rams placed second in the Rothenburg Run on Sept. 1, won the New England Championship for the first time in 72 years on Oct. 7 and had their best team finish at the Atlantic 10 championship since 1999 on Oct. 28. The team was primarily made up of underclassmen, as only two of the team’s consistent scorers were not second-years or first-years. One of those two is Masi, who’s performance this past Friday was the best of his collegiate career, according to Doyle. Masi himself attributes this season’s success to the improvements made to the teams training regiment.

“It was a gradual progression over the last couple of years,” Masi said. “For me as a freshman, I was running about 60 miles a week but this summer I got up to about 90 miles and it’s the same for everyone else on the team.”

This increased training has happened under the coaching of Doyle. Doyle is an experienced distance runner, and was a standout at both Northeastern and Providence College as an athlete. Doyle was also the assistant coach and recruiting director at Davidson College before his arrival at URI.

Even the Rams’ top performer, Fleischer, attributes his more demanding training to the success he’s had this season. Fleischer won an A-10 player of the week and is a A-10 All-Conference runner this season. He was also named U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association best Division I men’s athlete of the week during the week of Oct. 7.

Besides the more difficult training, the team has also recruited better distance runners as of late. Under previous Head Coach John Copeland, the program had always been good at recruiting. However, their focus wasn’t aimed at distance runners, thus the cross country program hadn’t often landed impact first-year athletes, according to Doyle.

“We never really had guys like Garrett Hartline and [Nick] Martin, guys who came in and were good right away,” Doyle said. “Now everyone is really buying in and knows the ceiling here is much higher than they previously thought.”

This season alone, the Rams featured three first-year runners that had a notable impact – Hartline, Nick Martin and Antonio Capalbo. The Rams also have multiple second-year runners such as Lars Hogne and Tyler Sheedy who had their own moments of success throughout the course of the season. Although the two might not have been as impactful as they had hoped, they were both still able to set multiple personal bests. Doyle expects his second-year runners to have strong bounce-back seasons as they enter their third year.

The Rams’ season is over, but there are still important things to keep an eye out for. The Rams are currently in the middle of their recruiting cycle and are continuing to find talent, according to Doyle.

“We signed one of the best kids on the East Coast,” Doyle said. “We expect to be even better next year, it’ll hurt to lose Ben’s leadership, but other than that we expect our talent to rise.”

The Rams have landed recruits from Maine and Virginia so far. Just last year the signing of California native Hartline showed that the school has extended its reach well outside of the New England region.

With an improved training regiment, better distance recruiting and most of the team returning next season the Rams are poised to take another leap. Although their season might be over now, the foundation for a successful 2024 season is being laid down now.