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Liberty Men's and Women's Harriers Share National Aspirations: 2007 Liberty Cross Country Outlook
Last season, Liberty swept the Big South men's and women's cross country team titles for the first time in 14 years, serving as a achievement for the program. With all of the major protagonists from those championship squads returning in 2007 and some promising newcomers thrown into the mix, the Flames and Lady Flames are hoping to make a bit more history. Both Liberty teams harbor ambitions of qualifying for the NCAA National Cross Country Championships for the first time ever.
Individually, Josh McDougal returns for his senior cross country season, owning a trio of cross country All-America honors and 11 All-America distinctions in total. The New York native is still in search of his first individual national title, however.
"Our women's team is aiming to repeat as Big South champions," noted men's and women's head coach Brant Tolsma, starting his 22nd year at Liberty. "We also feel we have a realistic shot of getting to nationals for the first time. We have a senior-laden team and need to take advantage of that.
"On the men's side, our goal is also to make it to nationals, and we'd like to crack the top 15," continued Tolsma. "We want to make an impact nationally, and this is the year to do it.
"To say the least," Tolsma summarized, "we expect it to be a very exciting fall at Liberty." A full 2007 cross country season preview follows.
Last season, Liberty's Big South title came as a bit of a surprise. Coastal Carolina had won five-straight conference championships, and the first two runners to cross the line at the Big South meet were Chanticleers. However, the Lady Flames packed their top five runners in the next six spots to pull out the win. With all five of those All-Big South performers back in the fold, expectations are high entering the 2007 campaign, and Liberty is picked to defend its conference crown.
"We are very optimistic because we have plenty of veterans, good up-front running and good depth," explained Tolsma. "However, we do have some question marks entering the season."
Four of Liberty's All-Big South runners from last season went on to enjoy success on the track as well. Seniors Carol Jefferson and Piper Newby and juniors Ashley Osborne and Rebekah Ricksecker all competed at the NCAA East Regional meet at the end of the 2007 track season. The quartet now hopes to build upon its positive results of the past year.
Newby finished as the top Lady Flame finisher at all six cross country meets a season ago, including a third-place effort at the Big South Championships. She also ran a 21:31 for 6K at Pre-Nationals, breaking the school record of current Liberty assistant coach Heather (Sagan) Zealand. In track, Newby went on to win the Big South steeplechase title and set the school record in the event.
Jefferson struggled a bit during the early stages of the 2006 cross country season, before bouncing back for a fourth-place finish at the Big South meet and a personal-best 21:59 clocking for the 6K race at regionals. She later came into her own on the track, slashing 1:40 off of her 10K personal best and earning an invitation to the NCAA National Outdoor Track & Field Championships for the first time.
Osborne, whose eighth-place effort at last season's Big South meet marked a major cross country breakthrough, excelled on the track. She became the first Lady Flame ever to crack 17 minutes for a 5K and lowered the school record to 16:42 at the Penn Relays.
Ricksecker, a mid-distance specialist on the track, finished her sophomore cross country season with personal-best times in her final two races. She took seventh place at the Big South meet and was Liberty's No. 3 finisher at regionals. On the track, Ricksecker won the Big South 1,500-meter title outdoors and advanced to the regional meet in the event.
Seniors Jo Welch and Rachel Valliere will also contribute to Liberty's deep stable of upperclassmen. The Lady Flames' No. 5 runner at last year's regional cross country meet, Welch went on to run a personal-best 18:01 in a track 5K race in the spring. Valliere comes to Liberty for her final season of collegiate running, after spending three years as one of the top runners on Cal Poly's team.
Sarah Roberts, yet another senior on the Lady Flames' roster, has earned All-Big South accolades in cross country three-straight seasons. However, the Pennsylvania native, who finished sixth at last year's cross country meet, is trying to bounce back from a foot injury, which kept her out of indoor and outdoor track competition altogether a year ago. Her status is one of the question marks for Tolsma and the squad for the upcoming season.
Another point of uncertainty is which of the underclassmen will step up and contribute this season. Sophomore Leah Ramey returns from the 2006 team and six freshmen appear on the women's roster. Two of the most promising newcomers include Kati Albright, who ran a 17:51 cross country 5K at age 14, but has battled injuries ever since, and Dacia Bushman, twice a state cross country runner-up in Iowa.
Uncertainty also abounds for the Liberty men's cross country team. Injuries and eligibility questions have left the status of several key runners in question, even on the eve of the new season. As a result, Tolsma admitted, "Until our roster is finalized, it's hard to say what our goal is."
No matter how things end up unfolding, the Flames are a prohibitive favorite to win their third-consecutive Big South crown. Four All-Big South runners are back from Liberty's 2006 conference titlists.
Josh McDougal, who has won three-straight Big South individual cross country titles, headlines the returnees. "It's a tremendous blessing to have Josh back," explained Tolsma. "He could have turned pro, but has a strong commitment to our team and is hungry for his first NCAA national title."
McDougal, 27th at last year's national cross country meet, enjoyed his best-ever season on the track. He broke the hallowed 4:00 mile in March and became the fifth-fastest collegiate performer in the 5K with a 13:20.43 two weeks later. He looks poised to be a top contender for the national cross country individual title this year.
McDougal's younger brother Jordan McDougal, a redshirt junior, is hoping for big things himself. He finished third at the Big South Cross Country Championships last year and went on to run a 14:00 5K at the Penn Relays in the spring. Tolsma believes Jordan McDougal has the potential to be a cross country All-American this year.
Senior Jarvis Jelen and redshirt junior Clint Jackson, both former All-Big South cross country performers, are the pair of athletes with injury concerns. Jelen was the Big South cross country runner-up last season, but missed the entire track season due to injury. Jackson's injury, which required surgery, kept him out of all athletic competition in 2006-07. In 2005, Jackson finished fourth at the Big South Cross Country Championships.
Josh Edmonds, a sophomore, picked up invaluable experience as a freshman. During the Flames' regular season, he gained All-Big South recognition with a ninth-place effort at the conference cross country meet and went on to take 42nd at the regional championship. He then earned the right to represent the U.S. at the World Junior Cross Country Championships in Kenya.
Kalib Wilkinson will use his final year of eligibility at Liberty after beginning his career at the Air Force Academy. While at Air Force, he ran at the NCAA National Cross Country Championships twice, and hopes to do the same as a member of the Flames.
Sophomore Sam Chelanga, a native of Nairobi, Kenya, has transferred to Liberty from Fairleigh Dickinson, but must complete a year in residence at his new institution prior to running for the Flames. If he were able to compete, Chelanga would challenge Josh McDougal as Liberty's top runner. Even though he has only been running for two years, Chelanga won a pair of All-America honors a year ago, including a 16th-place finish at the NCAA National Cross Country Championships.
Among the freshmen most likely to contribute for Liberty this season are Cory Reed and Dan Hibbs. Reed was a state cross country champion in his home state of New York, and Hibbs earned all-state honors in Pennsylvania.
The Flames' 2007 season will open with in-state trips to the Virginia Tech Invitational on Sept. 8 and the Longwood Invitational the following week. The team's top runners will not open up until Sept. 28, though, when Liberty makes its first of what it hopes will be three trips to Indiana, for the Notre Dame Invitational.
Liberty will return to the Hoosier State on Oct. 13 for the Pre-Nationals, held at the site of the NCAA National Cross Country Championships, in Terre Haute. Josh McDougal has won the individual title at Pre-Nationals two years in a row and owns the course record.
UNC Asheville will play host to the 2007 Big South Cross Country Championships, Oct. 27 at Jackson Park in Hendersonville, N.C. Both the Flames and Lady Flames will aim to defend their conference crowns at the meet.
Liberty runners who will not compete at the regional meet will make a return trip to Blacksburg for the Hokie Open, on Nov. 3.
The following Saturday, the rest of the Flames and Lady Flames will travel to Louisville, Ky., for the second-consecutive year, to compete in the NCAA Southeast Regional Championships. Here, the Liberty squads will attempt to qualify for the national meet.
The NCAA National Cross Country Championships are slated for Nov. 19 at the LaVern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course in Terre Haute, Ind. Josh McDougal hopes to qualify for the meet for the fourth-consecutive year, nab his first national title and have some familiar faces beside him on the starting line.