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Big South XC Championships Set for Saturday
Big South Cross Country Championships Central
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The Liberty men's and women's cross country teams both figure to contend for conference titles at Saturday morning's 2014 Big South Cross Country Championships. For the first time, Gardner-Webb will host the meet at its on-campus course in Boiling Springs, N.C.
The women's 5K championship race will get the day started at 10:30 a.m., with the Lady Flames aiming for their fourth team title in the last six years. The Liberty men's squad will then shoot for its unprecedented 10th consecutive Big South team championship in the men's 8K race, set for an 11:30 a.m. start.
How to Follow the Flames and Lady Flames
Liberty fans will be able to keep up with the teams on Saturday via live Twitter updates from the course. Fans are urged to follow the official Liberty Gameday Twitter account (twitter.com/lugameday) for updates throughout the day.
Saturday could be the coolest day the Southeast has seen thus far this fall. In Boiling Springs, the high temperature is only projected to reach about 50 degrees, with winds in excess of 20 mph howling from the northwest and a chance of morning rain showers.
Checking Out the Course
Gardner-Webb's on-campus course features repeats of a 2K loop and several wooded sections. At the Gardner-Webb XC Invitational on Sept. 13, the course was soggy in places and ran slow. Only three women broke 19 minutes for the 5K and only six men ran under 26 minutes on the 8K course.
Gardner-Webb is hosting the Big South Cross Country Championships for the first time, and this is just the third time the meet will be contested in North Carolina. Liberty has swept the men's and women's team titles the two previous times the meet took place in the Tar Heel State.
In 2007, the Flames and Lady Flames were victorious at Jackson Park in Hendersonville, N.C. Current assistant coach Rebekah Ricksecker placed seventh in the women's race that morning.
Two years later, Liberty again captured the Big South men's and women's team titles at Shady Oaks in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Women's Team Preview
The Liberty women's cross country team will chase its ninth Big South title and its fourth in the last six years on Saturday.
Leading the charge will be senior Jacy Christiansen, who has served as the Lady Flames' No. 1 runner at every race this season. She won the Greater Louisville Classic 5K blue race title on Oct. 4, was named Big South Runner of the Week on Sept. 30 and placed 11th in the Pre-Nationals white race.
Christiansen, who placed third at this meet a year ago, is expected to post another lofty finish on Saturday. However, the Lady Flames' final team standing will likely be determined by the performances of their next four finishers.
Sophomores Jessie Proehl and Kat Bouton are back after placing ninth and 29th, respectively, at the 2013 Big South Championship. Redshirt junior Meredith Mistretta came in 15th at the 2012 Big South meet, before missing last year's championship due to illness.
Redshirt junior Caroline Parris and sophomore Terrill Zentmeyer have both enjoyed breakthrough seasons and each look for major improvements over their previous best finishes at the Big South meet. Parris' top previous Big South cross country placement was 49th in 2012, while Zentmeyer came in 78th last season as a freshman.
Liberty placed third at the Gardner-Webb XC Invitational, trailing champion High Point and runner-up Coastal Carolina. The Lady Flames then bounced back to defeat High Point by eight points at the Virginia/Panorama Farms Invitational two weeks later.
Other Team Challengers (Listed alphabetically)
Coastal Carolina – The Chanticleers are literally always in the championship discussion at this meet. For 26 consecutive seasons, Coastal Carolina has finished either first, second or third, including last year's championship performance.
Coastal Carolina features the conference's top 1-2-3 punch, in junior Letitia Saayman, sophomore Kyla van Graan and freshman Aynslee van Graan. All three hail from Pretoria, South Africa, and placed inside the top five at the Gardner-Webb XC Invitational.
Saayman won that race, which was one of three victories this season for the defending conference individual champion. When she sat out at Winthrop, Kyla van Graan took top honors.
In order to win their 14th Big South team title, the Chanticleers will need to close the gap between their No. 3 and No. 4 runners. Rachel Byrd, the team's most frequent No. 4 finisher, has finished more than a minute behind her closest teammate at every race in 2014.
High Point – High Point lacks the front runners of Coastal Carolina and Liberty but boasts the most depth in the women's field. The Panthers won the team title at the Gardner-Webb XC Invitational by placing five runners between sixth and 11th overall. The spread between High Point's No. 1 and No. 5 runners at that meet was just 26 seconds, as compared with 1:37 for Liberty and 2:17 for Coastal Carolina.
Senior Leah Anne Wirfel and freshman Kelly Hayes have been the most consistent runners for the Panthers this fall. Meanwhile, sophomore Cozette Collin could be a competitor to watch on Saturday. She was High Point's top finisher at the Virginia/Panorama Farms Invitational on Sept. 26 but has not raced since.
High Point lost to Coastal Carolina at the Blue Ridge Open on Oct. 17 but packed its top seven runners in between the Chanticleers' No. 3 and No. 4 finishers. If the Panthers do so again on Saturday, they could take home their second Big South team title in program history.
• Liberty has finished in the top two at each of the last 10 Big South women's cross country meets, including victories in 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2012 and runner-up finishes in 2004, 2005, 2008, 2011 and 2013.
• The Lady Flames are the most recent Big South women's team to win back-to-back titles, doing so in 2009 and 2010.
• Coastal Carolina (13 titles) and Liberty (eight titles) are the perennial contenders at this meet. The Chanticleers and Lady Flames have combined to win 13 of the last 14 Big South women's cross country championships, with the lone exception being High Point's crown in 2011.
• The last time the winning margin was smaller than 19 points at this meet came in 2008, when Coastal Carolina (54 points) edged both Liberty (55) and High Point (58) for the title.
Women's Individual Preview
Senior Jacy Christiansen is aiming to become the third Lady Flame ever to claim a Big South women's individual title. Heather Sagan won back-to-back championships in 2000 and 2001, while Jennifer Klugh was victorious in 2010, 2011 and 2012.
Christiansen placed third the last time she ran on Gardner-Webb's course, at the Gardner-Webb XC Invitational on Sept. 13. Three weeks later, she tasted victory for the first time in her collegiate cross country career, at the Greater Louisville Classic 5K blue race.
Christiansen has improved from 16th to eighth to third in her three previous appearances at the Big South Cross Country Championships. She has also claimed a pair of Big South titles on the track, including the 2013 indoor 3K and the 2014 outdoor 5K. In the latter race, Christiansen outkicked Coastal Carolina's Letitia Saayman during the final 200 meters to win.
Other Individual Challengers (Listed alphabetically)
Joan Maritim (Campbell) – Maritim burst onto the scene in just the second race of her freshman season, placing second at the Gardner-Webb XC Invitational on Sept. 13. She has been the Camels' top runner all season and is one of the favorites for the Big South Freshman of the Year honor, along with Coastal Carolina's Aynslee van Graan and High Point's Kelly Hayes.
Letitia Saayman (Coastal Carolina) – Saayman will attempt to defend her championship from 2013 and become the sixth women's runner ever to win back-to-back Big South cross country titles. She has not lost to a conference competitor in any of her four races this season and won three of them outright (Coastal Carolina Invitational, Gardner-Webb XC Invitational and Blue Ridge Open). Saayman was dominant the last time she visited Gardner-Webb's course, winning the Gardner-Webb XC Invitational crown by 33 seconds on Sept. 13.
Kyla van Graan (Coastal Carolina) – Kyla van Graan was tabbed the 2013 Big South Freshman of the Year after placing second behind teammate Letitia Saayman at the conference meet. With Saayman sitting out the Sept. 20 Winthrop Invitational, van Graan claimed first-place honors. She then finished less than six seconds behind Saayman at the Greater Louisville Classic on Oct. 4.
Teresa Williamson (Radford) – Despite placing just 17th at the Gardner-Webb XC Invitational on Sept. 13, Williamson bears watching on Saturday. Three weeks later, the senior finished second in her race at the Greater Louisville Classic, just 11 seconds in back of Liberty's Jacy Christiansen. Williamson took fourth place at the 2013 Big South meet, kick-starting a breakthrough year. She set seven program records on the track and won the mile and 3K at the 2014 Big South Indoor Track & Field Championships.
• Jacy Christiansen is looking to become the seventh Lady Flame ever to earn three or more All-Big South honors in cross country. Current assistant coach Rebekah Ricksecker was herself a three-time All-Big South performer (2006, 2007 and 2008).
• Every time Liberty has won the Big South women's cross country team title, its No. 1 runner has placed in the top three.
• A Lady Flame has placed in the top three at the Big South meet every year since 2005.
• Only two different Lady Flames have been the Big South individual champion in meet history, including Jennifer Klugh (2010-12) and Heather Sagan (2000-01).
• Other than Sagan and Klugh, the other three women who have successfully defended their title at this meet have been Coastal Carolina Chanticleers. The list includes Catherine Conder (1994-96), Jolene Williams (1997-99) and Anne Marie Moutsinga (2002-03).
• No freshman has claimed the Big South women's individual crown since Coastal Carolina's Julia Viellehner did so in 2006.
Men's Team Preview
Liberty enters Saturday's meet having won a Big South-record nine consecutive Big South men's cross country team championships. That is the third-longest active streak of conference titles among NCAA Division I men's cross country teams, trailing only Iona (23 straight MAAC championships) and William & Mary (14 straight CAA championships).
If Liberty is to extend its streak to 10 straight titles on Saturday, it will do so with a team that looks much different than the Flames' 2013 Big South champions. Only three runners are back from that team, but all three finished in the top 13 a year ago. They include redshirt senior Josh MacDonald (fourth place), junior Sam Hibbs (ninth) and redshirt senior Jarred Cornfield (13th).
Four different Flames have served as the team's No. 1 runner in 2014, including MacDonald, Hibbs and a pair of freshmen from Eldoret, Kenya—Titus Koech and Stalline Kurgat.
A third freshman, Canadian Graham Hansel, could also comprise part of Liberty's top five on Saturday. Meanwhile, redshirt sophomore Will Templeton is hoping to recapture the form which saw him place seventh at the 2012 Big South Cross Country Championships.
Ranked No. 12 in the Southeast Region, the Flames have finished one spot behind High Point both times the teams have squared off this fall. The two squads finished 1-2 at the Gardner-Webb XC Invitational on Sept. 13 and 6-7 at the Virginia/Panorama Farms Invitational on Sept. 26.
Other Team Challenger
High Point – Head coach Mike Esposito's Panthers have finished second to Liberty at each of the last seven Big South Cross Country Championships and are the Flames' top contender again in 2014.
High Point is rated eighth in the Southeast Region and has defeated Liberty head-to-head in both meetings this season. The Panthers were victorious at the Gardner-Webb XC Invitational (Big South Preview) on this course on Sept. 13.
The Panthers have been led by a pair of juniors (Jeff LaCoste and Paddy Grandinali) and two standout freshmen (James Quattlebaum and Ryan Udvadia). LaCoste is picking up where he left off, after finishing as the 2013 Big South men's cross country runner-up. He has been High Point's top finisher in each of his three races, headlined by a second-place showing at the Gardner-Webb XC Invitational.
Junior Benji Szalai is a bit of a wild card who could potentially push the Panthers over the top on Saturday. The native of Hungary has been inconsistent throughout his career, but has posted some sterling times, like an 8:43.65 in the steeplechase, when on top of his game.
The Panthers are seeking their first Big South title since capturing three straight crowns between 2002 and 2004. They will also aim to become the fourth straight men's team to win the Big South Preview meet title and go on to capture the Big South crown later that season.
• Liberty has won a conference-high 15 Big South men's cross country championships in the Flames' 23 appearances at the conference meet. During that span, the next closest Big South men's squads are Coastal Carolina and High Point, with three titles apiece.
• Liberty has won every Big South men's cross country, indoor track & field and outdoor track & field team championship since finishing second to Coastal Carolina at the 2006 Big South Outdoor Track & Field Championships. That equals eight straight Big South Triple Crowns and 24 consecutive men's team titles for the Flames.
• The Flames' nine straight Big South cross country titles have been won by an average of 22.2 points. However, four of the last five championships have been decided by 13 points or fewer.
• Liberty and High Point have combined to win 12 straight Big South men's team titles since Winthrop's championship on its home course in 2001.
• Liberty has recorded 11 consecutive top two finishes at the Big South meet. Prior to the Flames' current run of nine straight titles, Liberty placed second behind High Point in 2003 and 2004.
• The Flames have boasted the Big South individual champion 12 of the 15 times they have won the Big South team crown. The only exceptions came in 1994, when Bill Khan led Liberty with a runner-up finish, 2012, when David Ricksecker was the Flames' leader in second place and last season, when Jeremie Bourget led the way in third place.
Men's Individual Preview
Liberty runners have won the men's individual title 17 times in the Flames' 23 appearances at the Big South Cross Country Championships, including a conference-record eight straight individual championships between 2004 and 2011.
None of Liberty's current runners have captured a Big South individual cross country title, but redshirt senior Josh MacDonald is a two-time conference champion on the track (2013 indoor 5K and 2014 outdoor steeplechase). He is the Flames' top returnee from the 2013 Big South Cross Country Championships, where the California native came in fourth.
MacDonald is one of four different Flames who have served as the team's No. 1 runner thus far in 2014, also including junior Sam Hibbs and freshmen Titus Koech and Stalline Kurgat. Koech made an auspicious collegiate debut with a third-place finish at the Gardner-Webb XC Invitational. However, he was edged out by classmate Kurgat at the team's most recent meet, the ISU Pre-National Invitational.
Other Individual Challengers (Listed alphabetically)
Jeff LaCoste (High Point) – A redshirt junior, LaCoste is the top returnee from the 2013 Big South Cross Country Championships, where he finished second to teammate Patrick Crawford. He will attempt to become the third straight High Point Panther to finish first at this meet, following Jacob Smith in 2012 and Crawford in 2013. LaCoste has been High Point's top finisher in all three of his races this season, highlighted by a runner-up finish at the Gardner-Webb XC Invitational.
Amon Terer (Campbell) – Terer triumphed at the Gardner-Webb XC Invitational and will now aim to become Campbell's first Big South men's cross country individual champion since David Pitaro in 1990. Terer displayed his talents on the track a year ago, claiming Big South titles in the indoor 5K and outdoor 10K. He is a bit of a question mark entering Saturday's race, though. He placed just fourth among Big South runners at the Greater Louisville Classic on Oct. 4 and has not raced since.
• If a Liberty runner is victorious on Saturday, he would become the eighth different Flame to capture a Big South individual men's cross country title, joining Bill Khan (1991-92), Josh Cox (1995-96), Stephen Githuka (1997-99), Bruce Kite (2000), Josh McDougal (2004-07), Sam Chelanga (2008-10) and Zac Edwards (2011).
• The Flames have placed three runners inside the top five at six of the last nine Big South Championships.
• A Liberty runner has placed inside the top three at this meet for 11 consecutive years.
• Josh MacDonald will attempt to become the 13th men's runner in program history to earn at least three All-Big South cross country awards during his career.
• The last time a freshman was the Flames' top finisher at this meet was 2004, when Josh McDougal won the individual title.
• The two previous times the Big South Cross Country Championships were contested in North Carolina, the men's individual champion went on to win the NCAA national title. Liberty's Josh McDougal did so in 2007, with Sam Chelanga following in 2009.