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2009 Men's and Women's Cross Country Outlook
The 2009 season looks promising for the Liberty men's cross country squad, and head coach Brant Tolsma is looking toward a fifth straight Big South Championship. He will look to his top two runners, Sam Chelanga and Evans Kigen, to guide this year's team to reaching that goal.
"We should be a fairly mature team on the men's side," Tolsma said. "We'd like to make a good run at getting the team to the national championship. If we can't do that, I think we can qualify two individuals."
Chelanga, widely considered to be the top returning runner in the nation, enjoyed consistent success on the trails last season, winning five out of six races and finishing second at the NCAA National Championship with a time of 29:08 in the 10K event. The redshirt junior from Nairobi, Kenya was named the 2008 Big South Runner of the Year, and also took home three Big South Runner of the Week honors.
Kigen, who redshirted last year after transferring to Liberty from the New York Institute of Technology, is also expected to be a factor in the No. 2 slot. Both Kigen and Chelanga are past regional champions, and neither athlete has ever been beaten in a collegiate invitational meet. Kigen will be making his Liberty cross country debut this fall, but he ran track for the Flames in 2008. That year, he placed 10th at the NCAA national meet in the Steeplechase.
"It's going to be an exciting year," Tolsma said. "The big question will be our runners in the third, fourth and fifth spots."
With senior Josh Edmonds redshirting this season, the leading contenders to do so are Jake Reed, the fifth-best returning runner from the 2008 conference meet, Mark Hopely, the eighth-best returning runner in the conference, and Kyle Powers and Ryan Cox, the 13th and 14th best returning runners, respectively. Additionally, Isaac Wendland, who took a medical redshirt last season, is a three-time high school state champion from Iowa who could be a factor.
Tolsma will also look to some newcomers to help the team. "We have three new athletes in Liberty sophomore Will Reeves, Biola sophomore transfer David Ricksecker, and freshman Andrew Rigler. The first two ran 4:19 indoors in the mile last season and could very well contribute."
After falling to Coastal Carolina by one point for the Big South Championship last year, the Liberty women's cross country team is hungry to regain the conference crown in 2009. Third-place finisher High Point finished just three points behind the Lady Flames, and Tolsma expects these same three teams to remain top contenders for the conference title this year.
Junior Dacia Bushman, who was sixth in the Big South as a freshman and 11th as a sophomore, is the team's top returnee this year. She is joined by redshirt sophomore Katie Albright, who was on track to have a solid 2008 season before an ankle injury forced her to sit out the season. Albright finished eighth at the Big South meet as a freshman in 2007. Another athlete Tolsma expects to be among the team's top runners is junior transfer Hailey Neal, who joins the Liberty squad from Florida.
"Those three girls have all run under 18 minutes at one time or another in the 5,000 meters," Tolsma said. "So, on paper, they are our top three runners. However, there are several girls who look ready to challenge."
Tolsma estimates there are a half-dozen runners who have posted between 18:40 and 19:10 for 5,000 meters, and any of those women could be in a position to help the overall team.
"My hope is that a couple of those girls are going to have a breakout season so that we don't have any gaps in the top five slots," Tolsma said. "We had some young freshmen last year who really stepped up during the season, and are looking well prepared."
Hannah Hunt and Denise Troyer finished 15th and 17th, respectively, in the conference as freshmen in 2008, and rank as the 9th and 11th best returning runners in the Big South. In addition, redshirt freshman Jennifer Klugh, who was out with an injury last year, and redshirt sophomore Alicia Guridy, who shed three minutes off of her 5,000-meter time during last year's track season, will contend for the top five.
"I like our depth this year," Tolsma said. "The more people you have, the better chance you have that somebody steps up and surprises, and we've had a history of girls recording some phenomenal improvements and going from being a middle-of-the-pack runner to a frontrunner. My hope and prayer is that it happens again this year."
Tolsma expects Coastal Carolina to be tough to beat, as the Chanticleers are returning practically their entire team. Tolsma hopes for the Lady Flames to make a run at the conference championship, but admits that at this time, he sees his squad as the underdog.
Despite the challenges that lie ahead, Tolsma is happy with the good attitude he sees from the returning athletes.
"There's a strong spiritual maturity, which gives promise of surprising things happening," Tolsma said. "God's always looking for people to bless, so when we get good hearts, good things will happen."
Tolsma plans for September to be a laid-back month, with the expectation of things really heating up in October. There are seven meets scheduled this fall, with no home events on tap.
The Flames will open the 2009 season on Sept. 4 with a road trip to Blacksburg, Va., to compete in the Virginia Tech Cross Country Relay. The second meet of the month is scheduled for Sept. 19, when Liberty travels to Winston-Salem, N.C., for the Big South Preview.
Three key meets will take place during the month of October, starting with the Hagan Stone Park Classic in Greensboro, N.C., on Oct. 3. The Pre-Nationals are next up on Oct. 17 in Terre Haute, Ind., and the Big South Championship will take place in Winston-Salem, N.C. on Oct. 31.
After traveling to Charlottesville, Va., for the Cavalier Invitational on Nov. 6, the Flames will run in the NCAA Southeast Regional Championship in Louisville, Ky. on Nov. 14, followed by the NCAA National Championship on Nov. 23 in Terre Haute, Ind.