By GREG LAUDANI
The UNH women’s cross-country team never loses sight of the future. Even during the hustle of working toward a third straight America East title, head coach Robert Hoppler remains focused on developing his squad’s future stars.
On one end, Hoppler prepares his top runners to be at their best by the time the conference title meet rolls around on Oct. 31. In the meantime, the coach instructs and primes the team’s soon-to-be elite runners who will be called upon to step up after the current leaders take off following graduation.
Hoppler’s focus on developing younger runners was apparent in Saturday’s New England Championship meet at Franklin Park in Boston. UNH sat co-captains Laura Rose Donegan and Elinor Purrier for training purposes, which made way for rising leader Hannah Kimball.
Kimball guided the Wildcats to a sixth-place finish after securing 10th overall in a time of 18 minutes, .30 seconds. The junior’s performance got the attention of her head coach.
“Hannah is a very strong runner,” Hoppler said. “She is a very high-achieving kid.”
In Saturday’s finish, Kimball ran her fastest time ever at Franklin Park and further established this cross-country season as her best to date. She has been more of a middle-distance runner throughout her time at UNH, excelling particularly in varsity outdoor track and field.
The junior established herself as a force in the 1,500-meter race with a pair of first-place finishes in addition to a second and third-place honor.
Hoppler said he was impressed with what he called a “really strong effort” from Kimball on Saturday. The coach praised Kimball’s ability to make the jump from running middle distance during track and field to 5-kilometers in cross-country.
“Last spring she had a lot of track success, and she has been able to take that middle-distance speed and transfer it to cross-country,” he said. “You’re talking about increasing distance more than three times and it takes time to get middle distance kids to be good cross-country runners.”
Cross-country runners don’t get faster overnight, and Kimball has improved throughout three years of running cross-country in addition to indoor and outdoor track. Hoppler spoke highly of Kimball’s commitment to get better.
“She’s chosen to be a good runner,” he said. “She’s choosing to do the work and put in the effort. It’s as much of an approach to our commitment than anything. I’m really happy with the way our kids commit themselves to do things here.”
Kimball’s work ethic and breakout performance this season show signs she is ready to take a larger leadership role once elite seniors in Donegan, Samantha Blais, Amber Short and Brianna Boden graduate this spring.
When asked about how the team will replace that lost talent, Hoppler said the team is always focused on getting an elite group ready to replace the upcoming graduating class.
“It comes down to developing the athletes who are on campus now,” he said. “When they leave, you have to have athletes that will step in. We’ve been able to absorb those changes in the past and that’s why it’s always about development in our program.”
Next Saturday, Kimball’s squad travels to Louisville, Kentucky, for its Pre-Nationals meet at Tom Sawyer State Park. The Wildcats will race their top runners, including Donegan and Purrier, against what Hoppler calls “30 of the top teams in the country.”
UNH seeks to pick up a point in order to help boost its chances to qualify for the NCAA Championships. The top 31 teams in the nation make it to nationals and last season the Wildcats missed it by only one spot, as they were ranked 32nd.
Kimball leads ‘Cat pack at New Englands
By GREG LAUDANI