The Binghamton women’s cross country team is sprinting headlong into their fall season, competing in the Meet of Champions last week. At the team’s first major event of the season, sophomore Aziza Chigatayeva excelled, taking fifth place out of 163 runners. The Bearcats’ next-best women’s finisher was senior Jessica Cueva-Scarpelli. The teammates discussed their performances in the opening meet as well as the team’s success and goals for the season on this week’s episode of Pipe Dream’s Bearcast.
“One of our teammates [junior Kaylee Stone] said in a workout, ‘45 seconds left,’” Cueva-Scarpelli said. “You can do anything in 45 seconds.”
Chigatayeva and Cueva-Scarpelli said although teammates are competing against each other in cross country races, a cooperative mentality is still fostered.
“In a race, I look for my teammates to … push me,” Chigatayeva said. “I don’t think I have to beat her because she’s younger or older, but she’s gonna push me and help me get to where I want to be, and I’m gonna help her as well.”
The women’s cross country team has a chemistry that is supportive and committed to the team’s success. Each runner pushes one another to do their best, something that Chigatayeva and Cueva-Scarpelli said is distinctive from other programs.
“We have a great team culture that you might not even find at other schools,” Chigatayeva said. “We’re all really close and try to create a comfortable environment for everyone to enjoy running.”
Chigatayeva had an outstanding freshman season. After being named America East (AE) Most Outstanding Rookie at the AE Cross Country Championships, she had immense success competing in the steeplechase during the track and field season, including winning the 3,000 steeplechase at the AE Outdoor Championships.
Among the factors leading to her strong debut at the Meet of Champions last week was her familiarity with the course she ran, something she used to her full advantage.
“It was my home course,” Chigatayeva said. “I ran on that course all throughout high school, so I knew all the hills and the whole trail, so I wanted a rematch with my performance.”
Chigatayeva, a sophomore majoring in electrical engineering from Brooklyn, New York, became the first freshman, male or female, to be named Binghamton University’s Athlete of the Year since 2006. Despite her immediate collegiate success, she surprisingly did not start running until she was a freshman in high school.
“One of my friends was on the team,” Chigatayeva said. “I felt like it was too late to do a sport that required a lot of hand-eye coordination … I tried it and I felt that I was better than I should be having no prior experience, and I kinda just stuck to it.”
Cueva-Scarpelli, a senior majoring in integrative neuroscience from Monroe, New York, was somewhat lackluster about both her the team’s performance, but said it was a good start to the season nonetheless.
“For me, it wasn’t my best race, but it wasn’t my worst either,” Cueva-Scarpelli said. “But I thought it was a good solid opener for the season. Most of the girls that day kind of felt that way, and it kind of made them hungry for the next one to do even better.”
Cueva-Scarpelli had an earlier, but unusual start to running.
“I started in middle school,” Cueva-Scarpelli said. “I always wanted to be a soccer player when I grew up, and I tried out for my middle school team and they told me I was too small and too slow. I don’t like being told I’m too small or too slow, so I went out for cross country and it turns out I was the perfect person for it.”
Reflecting on both team and individual performance, both Chigatayeva and Cueva-Scarpelli cited breakouts in their individual performances, but also noted a significant progression in the running times of the team. The possibility of the Binghamton women’s cross country team making a big splash and reaching a top spot at the conference meet is quickly emerging.
“When I came in as a freshman, we didn’t have girls running under five minutes in the mile,” Cueva-Scarpelli said. “Now, we’ve got three of us running five and under. The fact that we have a chance to maybe be top three at conferences for cross country would be amazing. I believe in us.”