The Lehigh Men’s cross country team leads a pack at the Lehigh Invitational at Goodman Campus on Friday, Sept. 4, 2015. The Mountain Hawks won the meet, scoring 15 points. (Courtesy of Don Paul)

Lehigh cross country starts season off strong in Lehigh Invitational

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As the pistol signals the beginning of the race, the Lehigh men’s and women’s cross country season is on its way.

The Mountain Hawks opened up their season Friday in the Lehigh Invitational. The men’s team dominated the event, finishing the race with a perfect score against La Salle University, Moravian College and Muhlenberg College.

Lehigh was led by sophomore runner Patrick Reilly who finished first, completing the 6K race in 18:33.90. Junior Ryan Cooney placed third with a time of 18:43.30 and sophomore John Tolbert was right behind finishing fourth. Overall, the men’s team finished with 17 of the top 20 spots.

The women’s team experienced similar success, finishing first place among Division I teams at Friday’s meet, topping the University of Delaware and La Salle. The women’s team finished with 27 points with four racers in the top 10. DeSales University, LIU-Brooklyn, Moravian and Muhlenberg all competed in the non-Division I part of the event.

Junior Marissa Karl crossed the line with a fifth place finish in 22:55.80, while freshman Stephanie Hayes made her collegiate debut and finished seventh.

After an offseason full of preparation that featured coach’s workouts, paced training runs as well as mental toughness exercises, the Hawks are ready to compete.

The women’s team has been ranked No. 14 in the USTFCCCA Mid-Atlantic Region Preseason Poll, which is the third highest ranking among Patriot League teams. The squad will rely on its four returning seniors: Shannon Wright, Elizabeth Weiler, Arielle Weiner and Jennifer Markham for leadership as well as experience.

Weiler will look to continue to add to her success as she was Lehigh’s first female cross country runner to be named an All-American after placing 38th at the NCAA championships last year.

“Our main team goal right now is to develop a solid pack of five to seven runners that will finish races within about 45 seconds of one another,” Weiler said.

As a senior, Weiler is a leader as well as role model for her younger teammates.

“The best piece of advice I have for underclassmen at this point in the season is to be cautious and mindful of your body,” Weiler said. “Our cross country season is extremely long, and we have quite a ways to go before the most important meets, so preventing injuries now is critical.”

The women’s team will be fortunate enough to have junior Anne Birkenmaier return after being out all of last year with an injury. In 2013, Birkenmaier ran her personal best 6K (22:38) in the NCAA regionals.

“I’m excited to be back with the team and working together to push each other to step up,” Birkenmaier said.

On the men’s side, the Lehigh will look to contend for a league championship and have its highest ever finish at Regionals.

With the loss of six contributing seniors last year, including three-time first-team All-Patriot League runner, Ryan Mahalsky, the team will have some big shoes to fill. However, senior Sean Burke said he is ready for the challenge.

Last year, Burke was Lehigh’s second-highest finisher at the Patriot League Championships, finishing 22nd overall with a season-best time of 24:47.2. He also placed fifth at the Lehigh-Lafayette dual meet, sixth place at NCAA regionals and 14th place at last year’s Lehigh Invite.

“We’ve prepared with a lot of base work and strength workouts so far as well as running in packs during practice,” Burke said. “The pack mentality we have will be crucial as to how our season progresses.”

Although captains have not been selected, Burke’s experience will be very beneficial for the underclassmen, with his advice to them is to be patient.

“It takes some time to get used to the training methods and to establish your position on the team,” Burke said. “Just trust in the training and be open to different methods,” Burke said.

The men’s and women’s teams next race is a dual meet against rival Lafayette College, which will take place in Easton, Pennsylvania on Sept. 19, followed by the Annual Paul Short Run on Goodman Campus on Oct. 2 at 9:30 a.m.

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