Vision remains the same as Oregon women attempt to defend cross country title

Oregon freshman Molly Grabill competes in the women's 5000m run where she finished second with a time of 16:38.01 during the Oregon Relays at Hayward Field. (Alex McDougall/Oregon Daily Emerald)

Oregon freshman Molly Grabill competes in the women's 5000m run where she finished second with a time of 16:38.01 during the Oregon Relays at Hayward Field. (Alex McDougall/Oregon Daily Emerald)

Posted by Chris Mosch on Monday, Oct. 7 at 3:00 pm.

The Ducks are the reigning NCAA cross country champions. This season, they are faced with the difficult task of defending the national title despite losing their top three runners, including the most decorated harrier in school history: Jordan Hasay.

The Oregon women — now without Hasay, Alexi Pappas and Katie Conlon — lost not only a batch of talented seniors, but their veteran leaders. Stepping up to lead this year’s new-look Oregon squad is Megan Patrignelli, a senior from Monroe, N.Y.

Patrignelli wasn’t even a scorer on last year’s NCAA championship team, but has been Oregon’s top finisher at each of its three meets this season and has grown to be one of the team’s leaders.

“I’ve actually surprised myself a little bit because I’m a more of a shy person,” Patrignelli said. “But I’ve definitely had to step up and lead the team.”

The Ducks have plenty of talented young harriers to build around, starting with sophomores Allie Woodward and Annie LeBlanc. Woodward finished 44th overall and LeBlanc finished 68th at last year’s NCAA championships. They are Oregon’s highest scoring returnees.

Neither woman has appeared in a race this season, but head coach Robert Johnson assured that they are healthy and training well.

Molly Grabill faced a long road to recovery after injuries sustained in a car accident last November — the result of a 19-year-old man throwing a rock off an I-5 overpass. The rock, which was larger than a baseball, crashed through the car windshield and struck Grabill in the face.

Grabill said she experienced headaches and dizziness during the ensuing months and that she didn’t quite feel 100 percent until seven months later in June.

“Getting back into shape is always rough and I’ve been out for so long, so that was hard,” Grabill said. “But the competitiveness came back and I think I’m just more motivated than I was before.”

The perseverance that Grabill possesses is evident, as the redshirt sophomore has been one of Oregon’s top-three finishers in each of its three races this season. At the Portland State Viking Classic in early September — her first race back — Grabill ran 16:10 over three miles, good enough for a second-place overall finish.

Abbey Leonardi was a scorer on last year’s NCAA championship squad and finished in the top-20 overall at both the Boston College Invitational and this past weekend’s Bill Dellinger Invitational.

Maggie Schmaedick, a Eugene native, finished second on the team in Boston and closely behind Grabill and Leonardi this past weekend in Springfield.

Led by Patrignelli and a pack of talented underclassmen, this is a completely different Oregon team than the one that captured its third NCAA championship. But despite a new cast at the forefront for the Ducks, the vision remains the same.

“It’s a whole new set of girls, but we have the same mentality,” Patrignelli said. “Coach Johnson always says, ‘Just be Oregon,’ so that’s just what we’re doing. We have enormous potential and just watching everyone grow and improve everyday, I think we can do some pretty big things. At the end of the day, we’re still Oregon and we’re still going to have the same goals that we’ve always had.”