Leah Esposito

Carroll's Leah Esposito repeated as the Frontier Conference champion in Great Falls on Friday, leading the Saints' women to the team title.

GREAT FALLS -- Down its second-best runner, Carroll still eased its way to a Frontier Conference women's cross country championship.

The Carroll men, down their 2014 conference champion, couldn't defend their title.

Junior harrier Leah Esposito (18:25.38) cruised to her second straight individual conference title Friday at Great Falls' Hickory Swing Golf Course, leading six Carroll's runners that finished in the top seven. The No. 6 Saints (19 points) bested No. 15 Lewis-Clark State (59), which was paced by runner-up Rachel Cundy (19:02.35).

Carroll freshman sensation Samantha Mundel was out with an injury, but the Saints' Sandy Torres (19:11.54), Janie Reid (19:19.44), Heidi Hennings (19:15.82), Regan Bold (19:23.85) and Macala Fifield (19:41.32) finished third through seventh, respectively.

"It's just really awesome, especially with one of our top runners out," Carroll coach David Morris said. "I knew they'd do well today, but not that well."

Esposito and Cundy were ahead of the pack from start to finish before the Helena product separated herself from top-heavy race. Crossing the finish line 37 seconds before anyone else, Esposito saved her smiles until a horde of her teammates finished.

"It's just really awesome, especially with one of our top runners out," Esposito said. "Winning it was nice but I'm more excited for the team."

The men's race added some heat to the chilly and windy conditions.

Third-ranked Lewis-Clark State saw its 2013 national runner-up -- redshirt senior Sam Atkin (26:12.13) -- kick past Carroll's Lyle Pocha (26:24.71) on the final stretch to earn the men's men's individual title. Following runner-up Pocha was a grip of L-C runners whose collective effort was enough to dethrone the defending champion Carroll men.

The Saints' David Thor, who won the 2014 individual title, couldn't make it a two in a row. He dropped out of the race after injuring his ankle early.

When L-C noticed Thor was out and saw a handful its runners ahead of the pack, it knew it had the title wrapped up before Atkin crossed the finish line.

"On the last lap, my coach yelled to me that that the team title is in the bag and to finish hard and win the race," Atkin said. "I've been in a boot the last two weeks (with an injured foot). It's the first race I've run in a long time, so to do well feels good."

Atkin sat out in 2014, he said, because the team was thin in depth and figured saving his final year of eligibility to boost the a better Warriors team this fall.

Carroll saw it firsthand, namely Pocha, who kept up with Atkin the majority of the race.

"The wind was getting to me and he was able to keep it going. It was kind of frustrating, but it was the best that I could do," Pocha said.

Chance Hyatt (26:55.58) gutted his way to a fourth-place finish for Carroll (42 points), which wasn't close to beating the L-C (22).

"They're a good team. We knew it was going to be a tough race," said Atkin, an England native. "But we went out there just doing our own thing."

Morris thought his men's team had its worst outing of the season.

"L-C ran well and we didn't run well for whatever reason," Morris said. "We haven't all run a great race at once yet."

The Carroll women and L-C men each qualified their teams for the NAIA national meet in Charlotte, North Carolina on Nov. 21. The runner-up Carroll men could likely qualify by way of a wildcard due to their high national ranking.

The NAIA will announce the entire championship field on Monday.

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Ryan Collingwood is on Twitter @RwCollingwood and can be reached at ryan.collingwood@helenair.com 



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