By Callie Caplan
When the Johns Hopkins women's cross country team won its first national championship in 2012, the team returned from the airport to a surprise.
A group of nearly 300 people associated with the university and the athletic department gathered at the school to celebrate the Blue Jays' first national title in a women's sport.
Three years later, the celebration may have quieted, but the Johns Hopkins' runners continue to churn out championships. As they gear up for the 2015 season, the Blue Jays are striving to bring home a fourth straight national crown.
"These girls -- nothing's good enough for them," head coach Bobby Van Allen said. "They want more. They're already thinking ahead to the fourth one, so [it's become] kind of a short-lived celebration."
Last year, Johns Hopkins blew away competition at nationals with 87 points. Massachusetts Institute of Technology was the runner-up, finishing 25 points behind the Blue Jays.
Sophia Meehan led the team with her sixth place finish, while Ashley Murphy (15th), Tess Meehan (24th), Frances Loeb (29th) and Bridget Gottlieb (37th) helped the Blue Jays become the only team in the race to finish with all five of their top runners in the top 50. The Meehan sisters, Murphy and Loeb, also earned All-American honors, a record number for Johns Hopkins during a single season.
"It's going to take the depth of this team to consistently encourage and push everybody," Van Allen said. "MIT returns pretty much everybody from their team last year and is probably going to be the early favorite for next year -- not us. But if we can get everybody continuing to step in and do their part, I think we'll have just as much of a chance as they do to win."
Building on their three-peat will start with Sophia Meehan, a Havertown, Pa., native who won a championship during each of her first three years in Baltimore. Van Allen thinks she can challenge for the individual national title come November, and Meehan's personal goal is to break the 20-minute mark.
She will work with fellow senior Hannah Oneda, who finished fourth in the country as a sophomore, to serve as the upperclassmen leaders after Murphy and Loeb graduated. Oneda missed most of last year with an undisclosed injury.
"Last year, we had lost three of our top five runners, so that was a huge loss, and I think we came back, and we were the best we've ever been," Meehan said.
Meehan said that continuity stems from Van Allen's structured summer training plans, which include a mix of endurance, hill and sprint exercises. The individual preparation helps many of the young Blue Jays runners improve from season to season. Tess Meehan, for example, improved 113 spots at nationals from 2013 to 2014.
Van Allen also structures his practices to integrate the different ages and levels of his athletes.
"That's always worked to kind of create a team unison," Sophia Meehan said.
Sophia Meehan pointed out sophomore Kyra Meko and junior Veronica Boswell as two Blue Jays who could make that jump in 2015. But with 12 incoming freshman and a slew of underclassmen hopefuls, all 36 runners could contribute to the team's progress during practice and meets.
In their third outing of the season Sept. 19, Johns Hopkins will travel to the Iona Meet of Champions, where the Blue Jays are likely to be the only Division III team in attendance. Three weeks later, the Blue Jays will compete in the Paul Short Invitational in Bethlehem, Pa., against about 120 other schools.
"Not all of the races we can have our entire team run, but everyone races at [Paul Short Invitational], so I'm really excited for that one," Gottlieb said.
The team will also fly to Disney World in mid-October for the Disney Classic, and it is looking forward to extending the trip through the weekend to go to the parks.
The Blue Jays' schedule, however, poses obstacles in their quest to repeat.
The NCAA Mideast Regional meet is slated for a hillier course. The grueling nature of nine meets during the two-and-a-half-month season will also take its toll on the runners. Plus, the national championship is located in Oshkosh, Wis., this year, where fatigue and hills might not be the only race factors.
"Wisconsin, in November, is going to be pretty cold," Gottlieb said. "Just starting to prepare for the winter at the end of the season again is probably going to be the biggest difficulty, because it might be snowy when we race."
Still, the Blue Jays have a while before they must worry about conditions at nationals. Team-wide practices begin Aug. 19, and the NCAA championship is scheduled for Nov. 21.
"It's been pretty incredible," Meehan said of Johns Hopkins' ascent to cross country elite. "It hasn't necessarily been surprising, because we've all worked hard for it, and it's always been in the back of our minds."
The Blue Jays are aiming to match SUNY Cortland as the only Division III school to win four consecutive cross country championships. While they're working to accomplish that feat on the course, though, the Blue Jays also have another idea in mind.
"Hopefully, we can try to bring that big celebration back next year after nationals," Gottlieb said.