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Flames, Lady Flames Ready for Pre-Nationals
The LaVern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course, the site of the 2008 NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships, will play host to the Pre-Nationals. Presented with an opportunity to both preview the course for the national meet and pick up coveted at-large points, 83 women's teams and 81 men's squads have entered the Pre-Nationals.
The Lady Flames have been placed in the 42-team women's 6K white race, set to begin at 11:35 a.m. Liberty is ranked No. 15 in the Southeast Region this week, but will certainly be challenged on Saturday. Ten of the white race participants appear in the national rankings, headed by No. 3 Florida State, No. 5 Princeton and No. 8 Arizona State. The Lady Flames will also meet Commonwealth rivals Virginia and William & Mary.
Liberty seniors Ashley Osborne (Bristol, Va.) and Rebekah Ricksecker (Laurel, Del.) and sophomore Dacia Bushman (Castalia, Iowa) have comprised a strong top three for the Lady Flames all season. However, Liberty head coach Brant Tolsma noted that his squad's No. 4 and No. 5 runners will be keys to the Lady Flames' success, both this weekend and at the Big South meet. He is encouraged by what he has seen during recent practices.
"Hannah [Hunt] (Fr., Sewickley, Pa.) and Denise [Troyer] (Fr., Kennedyville, Md.) have both looked good in practice," observed Tolsma. "Also, Melissa Martens (R-So., Baraboo, Wis.) appears ready to step it up."
Just over an hour later, at 12:50 p.m., the Liberty men's squad will toe the line for the 40-team men's 8K white race. The Flames are listed No. 4 in the Southeast Region, but they will be matched against their toughest competition so far this season. Eleven nationally ranked teams, including No. 3 Colorado and No. 7 Iona, will compete in the white race. Liberty will also get the chance to go head-to-head with regional foes Virginia and Louisville.
A dozen teams in Liberty's race competed in the 2007 NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships, and the Flames nearly joined them, based upon their performance at last year's Pre-Nationals meet.
Tolsma explained, "We finished 17th in last year's white race, and the 17th-place team from the blue race [Louisville] made it to the national meet. So, we were extremely close. Had we run the same times and been in the blue race, we would have earned the necessary at-large points to qualify for the national meet."
Saturday's race will be Liberty's last opportunity to pick up at-large points toward qualification for the 2008 NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships. Like the Lady Flames, the men's squad will count on its fourth and fifth runners to come through with strong performances.
"We have proven that our top three of Sam Chelanga (R-So., Nairobi, Kenya), Jordan McDougal (R-Sr., Peru, N.Y.) and Josh Edmonds (Jr., Cooperstown, N.Y.) are among the best anywhere, but we really need runners No. 4 and 5 to do well to claim any at-large points."
Many eyes will be focused on Chelanga, to see what the sophomore has in store for an encore, following his record-breaking performance at the Brooks Paul Short Run on Oct. 3. Meanwhile, Chelanga views the Pre-Nationals race as a learning experience, which will help fine-tune his preparation for championship races later this season.
"Before the season started, I marked down two races—Paul Short and Pre-Nationals—as places I could see where I'm at compared to other people and evaluate how my training is progressing," said Chelanga.
Chelanga is considered one of the favorites to win the white race title, and a victory would make it four straight Pre-Nationals titles for Liberty men's runners. Former Flames standout Josh McDougal captured Pre-Nationals championships in 2005, 2006 and 2007, setting a course record of 22:56.4 as a senior.
Chelanga's stiffest competition in the white race could come from his countryman, Auburn junior Elkanah Kibet. The native of Iten, Kenya has finished first in all three of his races this fall, and blazed an 8K time of 22:16.4 to win at Auburn's Tiger Invitational in his most recent outing, on Oct. 4.