By GREG LAUDANI
The UNH women’s cross country team made history Tuesday, ranking higher nationally than it ever has before.
The U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association announced Tuesday that New Hampshire is ranked 31st in NCAA Division I Women’s Cross Country. UNH also holds the No. 4 ranking in the Northeast Regional Rankings earlier that the team received Aug. 31.
To put it simply, the Wildcats are starting to be considered one of the best cross-country teams in the country.
“It’s a sign of respect and people understand what we’re doing here as a program,” UNH head coach Robert Hoppler said. “We are one of the up-and-coming programs in the nation and we’re being recognized by our peers as that.”
The program’s recent success is undeniable. UNH captured back-to-back America East titles in 2013 and 2014, and the program has been on the rise, particularly throughout the last six seasons. Since 2010, the Wildcats have finished no lower than second place at the America East Championship meet.
Hoppler said the goal of the program is to always be competitive at the conference title meet. While his team continues to exert conference dominance, the UNH head coach has aspirations to grow the program even further.
“We’ve been able to really establish a tradition and a consistency in the program at that America East level,” Hoppler said. “And now from having that success, now we’re starting to step into that national level.”
UNH also helped advance the program at the NCAA Northeast Regional Meet last season, during which the Wildcats recorded their best finish at the event since 1981. Current co-captain Elinor Purrier paced New Hampshire in that meet with a 14th-place finish in 20 minutes, 42 seconds.
New Hampshire cross-country has also grown as a result of the success of women’s track and field. Purrier and cross-country co-captain Laura Rose Donegan each earned All-American status after competing in the steeplechase at the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships in Eugene, Oregon, last June.
During the NCAA Championships at Hayward Field at the University of Oregon, Purrier collected first-team All-American distinction after placing seventh overall in the steeplechase final in 9:53.69. Meanwhile, Donegan, who is a two-time All-America East cross country runner, placed just only three spots behind Purrier with a time of 9:59.45.
It marked the first time in UNH track and field history, men’s or women’s, that two student athletes on the same team reached the finals at the NCAA Championships. Former UNH distance runner Anne Twombly ’15 also earned All-America honors when she finished 14th in the mile at NCAAs during the 2014-15 indoor season.
Decorated former runners like Twombly, according to Hoppler, have helped advance the UNH cross-country program in addition to track and field.
“We’ve been steadily climbing up the rankings over the last three years,” Hoppler said. “So that’s exciting for the whole program, not just the kids in the program now but for the alumni that have contributed to the program over the last few years as well.”
Hoppler, who is coaching in his 17th season at UNH, said he is happy with where the cross-country program is and he is excited to see it continue to improve.
“The next step in the process is going from that national level track athlete to the team oriented aspect of cross country and getting the entire cross country team to that national level,” he said. “We seem to be on the cusp of doing that.”
UNH continues its regular season when the ‘Cats travel to the University of Maine for a matchup with their America East rivals. The meet is scheduled to start at 3 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 18.