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Feature: Merrimack Cross Country Takes Aim at Northeast-10 Championship

NORTH ANDOVER — In this weekend’s Northeast-10 Championship, the Merrimack cross country teams are looking to make history.

For the women, they’re looking to unseat a Stonehill team that is looking for its eighth straight championship. The Skyhawks were picked first in the coaches poll, with the Warriors selected to finish fourth. The Merrimack men’s team was picked fifth.

Stonehill will also have a home-field advantage, with the meet taking place in Easton.

(Ed. Note — This story also appears in The Eagle Tribune, click here to access that story)

The Warriors opened the season with the Northeast-10 Preview meet, which was also held at Stonehill. That raced helped prep the Warriors, who know the course and what it will throw at them on Saturday.

“The difference now is that we’re running a 6k instead of a 5k,” said women’s senior captain Claire Aalerud. “It’s a little different with the longer course, but it just gives us more time to compete.

“I know the course is pretty flat. We won’t need a lot of planning for hills. The biggest thing is just knowing the mentality and what it’s going to take to prepare. It’s a huge field and there are some tight corners and other things. When we start off, it will be a funnel and we need to get out strong. We want to get a good spot and then hold on. It’s a big field.”

The Merrimack women raced to wins in two of their three races this fall. Last weekend, the Warriors had an off week in preparation for this week’s championship.

Junior Maddie Mercado has led the team in three of four races this season and freshman Katherine Ferrara is one of several freshmen to make immediate impacts on the women’s side.

The men’s team has been led by Keith Steinbrecher. Now a junior, he has finished as the top runner for the Warriors in all three regular-season meets.

Men’s senior captain Phil Harris missed a chunk of the season with an injury, but returned at the New England Championship and posted Merrimack’s top time.

Aalerud said that the team’s top-five, which scores the points, is really up in the air with the top-10 runners on the women’s side all posting similar times.

“You’re really on top of each other at first,” Aalerud said. “We want to get out strong and get into a good pack, and then make other people try to pass us. Then about one mile in, I like to pick it up. In the third mile is when you’re at the peak and pushing as hard as you can, just taking out girls one by one and passing them.

“On our team, moving as a pack is easier because our top-10 runners are all around the same time. We’re all working really well in workouts. We need to practice hard as a group and coach () makes sure we do that. We race well together and we trust each other. A lot of high school teams you have one or two runners who are really the standouts, and on our team, it’s totally different. We work for one another and we win as a team. When you’re passing other runners, you’re trying to pull your teammate with you.”

The Warriors have started to log fewer miles now that the season is nearing its end. The runners need fresh legs heading into Saturday.

Summer training is when most miles are logged, as athletes work on their endurance. Training at this part of the year includes less mileage.

“We can’t kill ourselves on Tuesday with a race on Saturday,” Aalerud said. “The biggest thing at this point in the year is to focus on your speed and strides. Make sure you have good tempo. Sleep has been the biggest thing this week. We want to make sure we’re prepared and everyone is getting at least eight hours. Some girls are even getting 10.”

The team will also gather on Friday for a pasta dinner.

“Get those carbs in,” Aalerud said.

One of the goals for this weekend is for Merrimack’s top-five runners, the point-scorers, to finish within 30 seconds of each other.

“It’s important to have a close pack,” Aalerud said. “It’s easier to win as a pack. It pulls your teammates up, too.”

Mike McMahon is in his 12th year covering Merrimack College for The Eagle Tribune and is the founder and managing editor of The Mack Report. Mike also serves on staff as a senior writer at College Hockey News. Follow him on Twitter @MikeMcMahonCHN

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