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Big South XC Championships Set for Saturday
For the first time in school history, Liberty will host the 2008 New Balance Big South Cross Country Championships presented by UCS, Saturday morning at the Campus East intramural fields. Flames fans will have several storylines to track, as Liberty figures to contend for the team and individual titles in both the men's and women's championship races.
The action will commence at 10:30 a.m., with the start of the men's 8K championship. The women's 5K championship will follow at 11:30 a.m., with both races beginning in the north intramural field and ending in the south field. At 12:45 p.m., the team champions and individual award winners will be recognized at an awards ceremony, adjacent to the finish line.
Liberty head coach Brant Tolsma, who has led his men's and women's cross country teams to 14 Big South team championships, is excited to host the meet for the first time. "We're excited to have the meet here, and have done a lot of work on this course," stated Tolsma. "[Championship director] Mike Hagen has also done a lot of good work in preparing for this meet. We hope a lot of people come out and watch. It should be fun, as it looks like the weather will cooperate, and spectators will have a chance to see quite possibly the best runner in the country, Sam Chelanga (R-So., Nairobi, Kenya)."
Competitors at the Sept. 20 Liberty Big South Preview quickly found out that the Liberty cross country course presents numerous challenges. As a result, both the men's and women's races produced slower-than-usual times across the board.
"I would say this course runs about 1:00 slower than some of the ‘fast' cross country courses out there, on average," noted Tolsma. "Runners face a lot of different types of terrain and several challenging hills."
Although the runners may not appreciate the number of hills on the Liberty course, spectators will benefit from the course's looping nature.
"This is a great spectator course," Tolsma observed. "I'd estimate that spectators have the opportunity to see about 75 percent of the race."
What should spectators watch for on Saturday? A full meet preview follows.
The Men's 8K Race – 10:30 a.m.
Liberty Team Outlook
The Liberty men's cross country team enters the meet as three-time defending Big South champions. A victory by the favored Flames squad on Saturday would give them four straight conference titles for the first time in program history and 10 overall Big South cross country championships.
Liberty was a nearly unanimous pick to capture the Big South crown in the preseason coaches poll. The Flames have lived up to expectations so far, winning both the Virginia Tech Cross Country Relay and the Liberty Big South Preview. As a result, Liberty has been ranked as high as No. 4 in the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA) Southeast Region poll. The Flames are listed No. 8 this week, and are the only Big South team to appear in the current regional rankings.
The Flames' strength lies up front, as Chelanga, Jordan McDougal (R-Sr., Peru, N.Y.) and Josh Edmonds (Jr., Cooperstown, N.Y.) could potentially sweep the top three spots. Both McDougal and Edmonds are returning All-Big South performers, but they are the only two members of the Liberty team who have previous Big South Cross Country Championship experience. The Flames will need two of their younger runners to post solid performances, in order to win the team title.
"I'm fairly confident in the ability of our men's team to defend our Big South championship. However, we're a little beat up right now, and runners No. 4-8 have been struggling a bit. We should be strong enough to pull it off, but I expect our biggest competition to come from High Point."
Other Top Contenders
High Point – Coach Mike Esposito's Panthers won three consecutive Big South titles from 2002 through 2004, and High Point finished second a season ago. They appear to be in the best position to unseat Liberty, despite the loss of three-time All-Big South runner Tamas Kovacs from their lineup. In Kovacs' absence, senior Jesse Cherry has stepped forward as the team leader. The fourth-place finisher at the 2007 Big South Cross Country Championships, Cherry was tabbed Big South Runner of the Week on Oct. 1.
VMI – The Keydets, coached by Paul Spangler, were successful in their first visit to Lynchburg this fall, finishing second to the host Flames at the Liberty Big South Preview on Sept. 20. A trio of VMI runners—Ermin Mujezinovic, Donnie Cowart and Matt Satterwhite, finished in the top 15 that morning.
Liberty Individual Outlook
As Tolsma alluded to above, Chelanga promises to be the primary attraction at Saturday's meet. He has quickly established himself as a contender for the NCAA national championship, during his first season in a Liberty uniform. Most recently, Chelanga enjoyed a dominating performance at the Pre-Nationals on Oct. 18 in Terre Haute, Ind. He ran a 4:18 opening mile and never looked back, winning the white race by 44 seconds. His time of 22:51.3 broke the Liberty, Big South, course and meet 8K records, all of which had previously been owned by former Liberty standout Josh McDougal.
McDougal had a stranglehold on the Big South individual cross country title during his Liberty career. The 2007 NCAA national champion captured four consecutive conference championships, between 2004 and 2007. In total, five different Flames have combined to win 12 individual Big South cross country crowns in Liberty's 17 seasons as a conference member.
McDougal's younger brother, Jordan McDougal, owns the Liberty course record of 26:16.2, which he set while winning the Liberty Big South Preview on Sept. 20. The younger McDougal was the 2007 Big South cross country individual runner-up, and placed third in 2006.
Edmonds is also seeking his third career All-Big South honor, as he placed ninth as a freshman in 2006 and took sixth place last season. He came in just a fraction of a second behind McDougal at the Liberty Big South Preview.
"Sam likes to run alone in front of the pack. So, I expect him to take the lead fairly early in Saturday's race."
Other Top Contenders
High Point Senior Jesse Cherry - Cherry figures to be near the front of the pack on Saturday. He is the second-highest returning finisher from last year's conference meet, following Jordan McDougal. Cherry was also eighth at the 2006 Big South Cross Country Championship. He clocked a season-best 24:44 for the 8K distance in his most recent outing, to place eighth at the Blue Ridge Open.
Coastal Carolina Junior Jamie McCarthy - A native of Ireland, McCarthy is another individual favorite. He found the Liberty course to his liking on Sept. 20, recording a third-place finish at the Liberty Big South Preview. McCarthy also opened his season with a victory at the Gamecock Invitational, garnering Big South Runner of the Week accolades.
The Women's 5K Race – 11:30 a.m.
Liberty Team Outlook
The Lady Flames have won the last two Big South cross country championships. Like the Liberty men's team, they can make a bit of school history with a win on Saturday. A victory would give Liberty its first-ever Big South women's cross country team three-peat.
Liberty's 2006 and 2007 Big South titles came by a combined eight points over Coastal Carolina, and the 2008 meet figures to be another tight contest. If the Lady Flames are to win, they will need continued stellar performances from their top three runners—seniors Rebekah Ricksecker (Laurel, Del.) and Ashley Osborne (Bristol, Va.) and sophomore Dacia Bushman (Castalia, Iowa). All three are past All-Big South cross country performers.
A fourth All-Big South runner, Katie Albright (So., Wake Forest, N.C.), is out of the Lady Flames' lineup due to injury. As a result, younger runners like Melissa Martens (R-So., Baraboo, Wis.), Denise Troyer (Fr., Kennedyville, Md.) and Hannah Hunt (Fr., Sewickley, Pa.) will be vital to Liberty's chances of defending its conference title.
The Lady Flames have lost a pair of close decisions to Coastal Carolina this season, at the Liberty Big South Preview and the Brooks Paul Short Run. They have not faced a full High Point team thus far in 2008.
"We expect to be majorly challenged Saturday, in our most important race of the season. It looks like it will be a three-way battle at the top, between High Point, Coastal Carolina and Liberty. I feel like we have the best top three runners of any team, but they score five runners. So, we need good races from our other girls as well."
Other Top Contenders
Coastal Carolina – The Chanticleers, coached by Alan Connie, have become a perennial Big South Conference contender. Coastal Carolina has finished in the top two at the conference meet for seven straight years and 14 of the last 15 seasons. The Chanticleers, ranked No. 14 in the Southeast Region, claimed the Liberty Big South Preview title on Sept. 20. A young squad lacking a clear-cut No. 1 runner, Coastal Carolina's strength lies in its balance. Just 26 seconds separated its first finisher from its fifth finisher at the Liberty Big South Preview.
High Point – The High Point Panthers, under the direction of coach Mike Esposito, have come on late in the season. The No. 13-ranked team in the Southeast Region, High Point defeated Coastal Carolina to take second place at the Oct. 17 Blue Ridge Open. The Panthers boast an experienced squad, as their top three finishers at the Blue Ridge Open—Zsanett Kis, Shauna Marsh and Kali Burt—were all seniors. Kis is the top returnee from the 2007 Big South Cross Country Championships, where she placed fourth. Meanwhile, Burt hopes to become the eighth four-time All-Big South performer in conference annals.
Liberty Individual Outlook
The Lady Flames have not had an individual win the women's individual title at the Big South Cross Country Championships since current assistant coach Heather (Sagan) Zealand nabbed back-to-back titles in 2000 and 2001. They should have a couple contenders near the front of the pack on Saturday, however.
Ricksecker, who has finished seventh at both the 2006 and 2007 Big South Cross Country Championships, is fashioning a stellar senior campaign. She has been named Big South Women's Cross Country Runner of the Week three times and owns the fastest 6K time among conference runners, a 21:34. If the race comes down to a finishing kick, Ricksecker owns some of the best sprint speed in the conference. She was the 800-meter runner-up at the 2008 Big South Outdoor Track & Field Championships.
Ricksecker's classmate Osborne took eighth place at the 2006 conference cross country meet and owns the school record for 5,000 meters on the track, 16:42.79. She ran a strong race at the Liberty Big South Preview, pulling away from Ricksecker at the end for second place.
Meanwhile, Bushman took sixth place and earned Big South Freshman of the Year honors a season ago, at the 2007 Big South Cross Country Championships. A true distance runner, she owns a solid 10K personal best of 36:43.19.
"Individually, I expect a battle between Rebekah [Ricksecker], Ashley [Osborne] and Zsanett Kis. Those are the three runners most likely to win, and it will depend on who has a good day Saturday."
Other Top Contenders
High Point Senior Zsanett Kis – As previously mentioned, Kis notched a fourth-place finish at the 2007 Big South meet. She also recorded an impressive victory at the Sept. 20 Liberty Big South Preview. Kis powered to the front of the pack within the first quarter mile and never relinquished the lead, winning the race in a course-record time of 19:11. She also came up with a top 10 finish in her most recent outing, after clocking an 18:30 at the Blue Ridge Open.
VMI Sophomore Hannah Granger – A promising freshman year for Granger was capped off by a third-place showing in the 5,000-meter final at the 2007 Big South Outdoor Track & Field Championships. Granger's 17:49 effort put her 14 seconds ahead of Kis in that afternoon's race. The sophomore has carried her success over to cross country this fall, claiming fifth place at the Liberty Big South Preview and notching an 18:49 at the Blue Ridge Open.