College cross country: Greenfield’s Claire Abelson helped William Smith program grow

  • Greenfield’s Claire Abelson competes during the Conference Championship race in Geneva, N.Y. for the William Smith cross country team earlier this fall. The senior closed out a stellar running career with the Herons. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/Kevin Colton-Hobart and William Smith

Staff Writer
Published: 12/2/2019 8:52:52 PM

When Claire Abelson arrived on campus at Hobart and William Smith Colleges four years ago, she had one goal in mind for the cross country team she would be joining: leave the program in better shape than when she arrived.

After concluding her final season with the Herons this fall, the Greenfield native feels she’s accomplished just that.

In her freshman year, William Smith took 29th at the NCAA Division III Atlantic Regional Championship. Her sophomore year, the team crept up to a 28th-place finish. Things started rounding into form her junior year, when the Herons took 16th at the race and this year, they finished 21st out of 38 programs.

In a fierce Liberty League, William Smith finished seventh in the league championship in Abelson’s final three years. She feels the program is continuing to head in the right direction.

“We are building a cross country program while we’re in a really hard league,” Abelson said. “It’s tough but the teams we got beat by won National championships. We had a really good season. We’re a really young team. We went out and made people look at us more than they have in the past which is always a positive.”

Building a program is nothing new for Abelson. She entered the cross country team at Greenfield High School as an eighth-grader, hoping the program would improve during her tenure.

By the time her senior season ended, the Green Wave finished second in the Pioneer League North, which was a proud accomplishment for Abelson. She tried to bring the same energy to the Herons, encouraging the younger runners. She hopes they will continue to blossom after her graduation later this spring.

“I think coming from Greenfield, we didn’t have a very big cross country program at all,” Abelson said. “I was by myself a little bit. By the time I left my senior year we were doing really well as a program. The year after (I graduated) they won the league championship. So that was my goal coming to William Smith. I knew my role and I wanted to leave behind something better than I found it and I think we did that. We definitely have a more unified team than my freshman year. We’re more competitive and we take ourselves more seriously.”

For Abelson personally, the year was a success. She set a personal best 5K time in 21 minutes, 6 seconds at the Hamilton Invitational in Clinton, New York in October.

She was pleased with the time, as the 5K distance isn’t one she prefers.

“I’m not a 5K runner,” Abelson said. “I do better with longer races. I like 6Ks, so getting that time for a 5K was awesome.”

Perhaps one of the biggest reasons for the team’s improvement in recent years has been its head coach. That would be fellow Greenfield native Evan Abelson, Claire’s older brother. 

The third-year coach has put an emphasis on recruiting, and has a young team ready that should be competitive moving forward. Evan Abelson was hired during Claire’s sophomore year, and she said she’s loved the family camaraderie that has followed.

“Having him being in school with me was one of the best things to ever happen,” Claire said. “I really love having him on campus. He’s a great coach and it was really cool because the way Greenfield is set up with the eighth-graders going up to high school for cross country, I got to run my first season with him because he was a senior. Then my senior year in college was also with him. It’s really cool. I know my parents (Justin and Deena) loved it more than anything.

“It was so nice having him there,” she continued. “As much as I didn’t want to be his little sister from a small town, it was great. He was always good about taking me out to dinner and stuff like that.”

Like most athletes who come from a small school and go on to play sports afterward, there’s an adjustment to the level of collegiate competition.

Abelson was used to placing high at meets in Franklin County, but knew it wouldn’t be so easy at the Division 3 level. She adjusted quickly, though, crediting her high school coach for preparing her the right way.

“It was definitely interesting,” Abelson said. “It was a shock my freshman year because I was used to scoring pretty regularly and things like that. But through high school, the way Greenfield ran their program by running with the guys, I never ran with the front. (GHS coach) Stu Elliot really prepared me for the work I was going to have to do and put in to move up. It took time but I established myself as a varsity member of  the team.”

With graduation upcoming in the spring, Abelson plans on staying at William Smith to get a master’s degree in education, where she will focus on teaching childhood special education.

Besides having a strong athletic career with the Herons, Abelson’s best work came in the classroom. She has made the Dean’s List every year and was on the Liberty League All-Academic Team her sophomore and junior seasons.

“I am really proud of how I’ve done in college,” Abelson said. “I worked really hard to get where I am in school and sports. I actually had my best grades in season. Having the discipline and things to do helped. Our team has a high academic culture. We had the highest team GPA for cross country in the school’s history. It’s pretty cool.”

While she’s made countless memories at William Smith, her fondest came at the NCAA Regional meet her junior year. 

“I think the NCAA Regional Championship last year was a really fun race,” Abelson said. “Across the board, we all had a great day as a team. We ended up coming in the best finishing place our team has seen since 2002 which was so awesome and exciting.”

Abelson may be done racing cross country, but she still runs just about every day and is currently training for a 77.7-mile relay race in the spring.

As for what she’ll miss most about college, it’s the relationships she’s made along the way. 

“I’ve been running since eighth grade,” Abelson said. “I’ve been doing this for nine years. I don’t know what to do with myself anymore. I’ll miss my teammates and having people who have to run with me. Roping people into going for a run on a snowy day is a little hard. Definitely going to miss them and the team aspect.”

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