(New Orleans, La.) Annie Hills, Francesca Vaccaro, Kennedi Henneberger and Paul Freese competed for Loyola University New Orleans at the NAIA Cross Country National Championships on November 23 at Rim Rock Farm in Lawrence, Kansas.
Hills ran at the NAIA Nationals for the second consecutive season. She completed the 5K women’s race in 20:49.76 which was good for 251st out of 319 competitors. Last year, as the lone Wolf Pack representative, she bolted to the seventh fastest time for a Wolf Pack runner at the event when she ran 20:48 in Vancouver, Washington. This season, Hills qualified for nationals after finishing seventh at the SSAC Championship meet on November 9. Her time of 19:34.76 was the fifth fastest in school history. For her efforts, Hills earned SSAC All-Conference honors for the second straight year. The senior from Swisher, Iowa currently holds the top time in school history in the 5K with a 19:14 at the Sand Shark Invitational set on October 26. She holds three of the top five marks in Loyola history in the distance.
“I can’t believe this was my final race,” said Hills. “Dating back to junior high, I have been running cross country for 10 seasons. It probably will not hit me until next fall when I’m not at Loyola training for an upcoming season. I’ve enjoyed my time with my teammates for the past two years. It has been a great experience training for Coach Andy and I’m grateful for the opportunity to compete and train with all my teammates over the course of my career.”
Vaccaro followed 26 tenths of a second behind Hills to finish in 253rd place. The sophomore qualified for Nationals with a time of 19:51.14 which placed her 15th at the SSAC Championships. She ran the course in 20:27 last season, but finished 16th and narrowly missed the 2012 Nationals. The Yorba Linda, Calif. native walked onto the team last September and immediately became one of the top runners on the squad. She posted a season best 19:55 at the Sand Shark Invitational. This season, she had the third fastest time in school history as she finished the Sand Shark Invitational in 19:24. In addition to her exploits on the course, Vaccaro is also a member of the University Honors program, majoring in biochemistry.
“Balancing cross country and academics has been difficult,” stated Vaccaro. “There have been sacrifices that I had to make, but I am extremely passionate about both areas of my life. Running has become a part of my identity and crucial for my success in the classroom. It has fostered my endurance and ability to work hard even when I would rather not. Personally, I feel that running has always complimented every other area of my life.”
Henneberger joined Hills and Vaccaro in the women’s race after qualifying by finishing 13th at the SSAC Championship with a time of 19:49.78. The freshman from Richardson, Texas burst onto the scene by finishing 8th at the Loyola Wolf Pack Invitational in her first collegiate meet. Henneberger then entered the Loyola record books by running the Sand Shark Invitational in 19:27, the fourth fastest time in school history. She earned SSAC All-Freshman team honors for her efforts at the SSAC Championship. Henneberger clocked in with a time of 20:56.89 in her first national championship event of her career.
“I've been working hard in practices and have been pushing myself throughout the fall,” said Henneberger. “As a freshman, I didn't know what to expect coming into the season, but my hard work paid off. I was excited to compete against many of the best runners in the country at nationals.”
Freese, the lone Wolf Pack competitor and first since 2009 in the men’s 8K competition, finished the course in 27:48.51. He finished 10th in the men’s 8K race at the SSAC Championships with a personal best time of 26:30.12 which was the fourth fastest mark in school history. It was the third time Freese cracked the school’s all-time top 10 list. The junior from New Orleans earned SSAC All-Conference honors for his 10th place finish. Freese has rebounded from an injury-plagued sophomore campaign, which kept him from finishing the 2012 SSAC Championship. He also missed the opening meet of the 2013 season as part of his comeback from injury. Freese returned to full strength at the Crimson Classic with a 27:53 time before besting that mark with a 26:53 time at the Sand Shark Invitational.
“The injuries have been incredibly disappointing when they happen and undoubtedly have had a negative impact on my potential this season,” said Freese. “Recovering from them gives me a sense of urgency to work in practice and in races. I suffered an injury at the worst possible time last season, and I did not want to allow it to keep me from accomplishing my goals for a second year in a row.”
The 2013 NAIA National Championships was the first time Loyola sent four or more runners to the meet since 2004.
“Our runners put forth an all-out effort on a cold and extremely difficult course,” said head coach Andy Canegitta. “This was probably the toughest course of the season and I thought all four did an excellent job competing. I’m so proud of their effort this season. Paul set a personal best at the SSAC Championships. Annie, Francesca, and Kennedi have been running as a pack throughout the year. The top five times in school history belong to these three girls.”
272 Paul Freese 27:48.51
251 Annie Hills 20:49.76
253 Francesca Vaccaro 20:50.02
264 Kennedi Henneberger 20:56.89