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Liberty Looks to Extend Big South XC Streaks
The first two Big South Conference titles of the 2011-12 athletic year will be awarded Saturday morning in Conway, S.C., at the Big South Men's and Women's Cross Country Championships. The Liberty men's and women's teams will both attempt to continue their respective streaks of conference championships during the meet at Coastal Carolina's Quail Creek Golf Club.
The meet will get under way at 10:30 a.m. with the men's 8K championship. Liberty will aim to become the first Big South men's cross country team ever to win seven straight conference titles. Meanwhile, redshirt junior Zac Edwards has a chance to become the Flames' eighth consecutive individual champion at this meet.
The women's 5K championship will follow at 11:30 a.m., and the Lady Flames will have two crowns to defend. The Liberty women's cross country squad has captured two straight Big South team titles and four in the last five seasons. Additionally, redshirt junior Jennifer Klugh will try to join Heather Sagan as the only Lady Flames ever to win Big South individual cross country titles in back-to-back seasons.
Saturday is projected to be a very pleasant day in Conway, from a distance runner's perspective. The forecast calls for partly cloudy skies and a high of 60 degrees.
The race courses at Quail Creek Golf Club are relatively flat and fast, as Liberty found out at the Coastal Carolina Invitational/Big South Preview on Sept. 17. The Flames' trio of David Ricksecker, Josh MacDonald and Caleb Edmonds all significantly lowered their personal-best 8K times that day, headlining Liberty's notable clockings.
Jennifer Klugh ran an 18:09 for the 5K in her season debut at the Coastal Carolina Invitational/Big South Preview. Six weeks later, as she is rounding into championship form, it would not be out of the question for her to run the fastest time ever by a Lady Flame at the Big South Cross Country Championships. Heather Sagan owns the current mark, with her winning time of 17:38 from the 2001 meet.
Some rain is in the forecast for Friday, but the weather in Conway has been predominantly dry lately. So, mud and puddles are not expected on the race courses Saturday morning.
Women's Team Preview
Last season, the Lady Flames successfully defended their Big South team title in impressive fashion. Jennifer Klugh, Dacia Bushman and Hailey Neal finished first, third and fourth, respectively, as Liberty won the meet by 25 points. It was the Lady Flames' largest margin of victory at the Big South Championship since 1991.
Despite the graduation of Bushman and Neal, Liberty was tabbed as the preseason favorite to win its third straight championship and opened the year with several appearances in the Southeast Region rankings.
The Lady Flames have suffered several setbacks to Big South opponents during the regular season. They trailed High Point, Coastal Carolina and conference newcomer Campbell at the Coastal Carolina Invitational/Big South Preview on Sept. 17. Two weeks later, Campbell again finished just ahead of Liberty at the Charlotte Invitational.
Klugh is expected to be one of the top individual finishers on Saturday, but Liberty's chances at a team title will likely come down to the performances of its No. 2-5 runners. Two of those runners—juniors Khristina Kanagy and Betel Yosef—stepped forward with breakthrough performances at last year's conference meet. Kanagy placed 12th and Yosef was 19th, sealing the Lady Flames' team title. Liberty will also look to freshmen Jacy Christiansen and Meredith Mistretta for solid contributions on Saturday.
Other Team Challengers (Listed alphabetically)
Campbell – The Camels finished just eighth at the Atlantic Sun Championship a year ago, but have made themselves a team to watch in their return to the Big South Conference. Saturday will be Campbell's first appearance at this meet since 1993, and the Camels could rival their best-ever Big South finish (tie for third in 1991).
The Camels tied Coastal Carolina for third place at the Coastal Carolina Invitational/Big South Preview on Sept. 17 and defeated Liberty at the Charlotte Invitational on Sept. 30.
Campbell's strength, like that of pre-meet favorite High Point, is the tightness of its pack. The Camels' top seven runners at the Coastal Carolina Invitational/Big South Preview finished within a 48-second window.
Coastal Carolina – Like Liberty, Coastal Carolina is almost always included in the discussion about Big South women's cross country favorites. Coach Alan Connie's squad has won a conference-best 12 Big South titles and finished as the runner-up last year. For 23 straight seasons, Coastal Carolina has finished either first, second or third.
The Chanticleers, who tied for third place at the Coastal Carolina Invitational/Big South Preview on their home course earlier this season, return three runners who placed in the top 11 a year ago. Emily Marchini took seventh place, Christian Johnson was 10th and Janel Reeves (younger sister of Liberty's Will Reeves) was 11th.
High Point – Last season's fourth-place finisher, the Panthers have assumed the role of favorite heading into this year's championship. They took over that role after defeating all other conference teams by 24 points or more at the Coastal Carolina Invitational/Big South Preview on Sept. 17. High Point is the only Big South team currently ranked in the Southeast Region, checking in at No. 14.
The Big South Preview put the Panthers' strength and depth on full display. Liberty and Coastal Carolina both had a runner cross the finish line before High Point's Kayleigh Perry. However, the Panthers' seventh runner, Colleen Hollowood, came in before either the Lady Flames or Chanticleers had gotten all five of their scorers across.
High Point will certainly be motivated heading into Saturday's meet, as the Panthers chase their first-ever Big South women's cross country championship.
VMI – The VMI Keydets have finished inside the top four teams at this meet for three straight years and will attempt to keep that streak alive on Saturday. They have not gone head to head with any of the other top Big South contenders yet this season, so it is difficult to get an accurate gauge of where the Keydets stack up.
VMI is led by a strong 1-2-3 punch, consisting of junior Jenna Moye and two of the conference's most promising freshmen, Michelle Church and Emily Dinning. Moye was the 2009 Big South Freshman of the Year and both Church and Dinning are top candidates for that honor this season.
--- Coastal Carolina (six titles) and Liberty (five titles) have combined to win the last 11 Big South women's cross country championships since UNC Asheville's back-to-back championships in 1998 and 1999.
--- Liberty is attempting to win three straight Big South women's cross country titles for the first time in program history.
--- The last Big South women's cross country team to capture three championships in a row was Coastal Carolina, which won five straight titles between 2001 and 2005.
--- Liberty has finished in the top two at each of the last seven Big South women's cross country meets, including victories in 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2010 and runner-up finishes in 2004, 2005 and 2008.
Women's Individual Preview
Last season, Jennifer Klugh became the first Lady Flame to win the Big South women's individual cross country title since Heather Sagan in 2001. Now Klugh will attempt to join Sagan as the only Lady Flames ever to win back-to-back conference championships.
Klugh, who has not lost a cross country race to a Big South opponent since 2009, has enjoyed a strong redshirt junior season thus far. She was the top conference finisher at the Coastal Carolina Invitational/Big South Preview and broke a longstanding program record in the 5K with her 17:28.3 effort at the Charlotte Invitational.
Klugh, the conference's only two-time Big South Women's Runner of the Week this season, will enter Saturday's race as a pretty clear favorite. If she is challenged in the race's final stages, Klugh can call upon the closing speed which helped her win the Big South indoor mile and outdoor 1,500 titles on the track a year ago.
Other Individual Challengers (Listed alphabetically)
Michelle Church (VMI) – At each of the last two Big South meets, VMI has had a freshman run inside the top four and earn Freshman of the Year honors. Church will look to extend that string of success by Keydet rookies on Saturday.
The Big South Women's Runner of the Week on Sept. 14, Church has been the Keydets' top finisher at each of her four meets this season.
Christian Johnson (Coastal Carolina) – The 10th-place finisher at last year's meet, Johnson has shown steady improvement throughout the 2011 season. She has been Coastal Carolina's top finisher in each of the last two races.
Like Jennifer Klugh, Johnson has good sprint speed. She finished as the Big South runner-up at 1,500 meters last season, crossing the line less than a second behind Klugh.
Emily Marchini (Coastal Carolina) – Marchini, a sophomore, is the top returnee from the 2010 Big South meet not named Jennifer Klugh. She placed seventh a year ago and first on her team.
Marchini gave Klugh a good battle on the championship course at the Coastal Carolina Invitational/Big South Preview. She placed fifth overall, coming in just one place and five seconds behind the Liberty standout.
Jenna Moye (VMI) – Moye enters Saturday's meet as something of a wild card, since she has not raced since Sept. 10. However, if healthy, the junior should be near the front of the pack.
Moye came in fourth at the 2009 Big South Cross Country Championship and also boasts some impressive track credentials. Last year, she ran a 4:55.96 indoor mile and placed second in the Big South indoor 3K final.
Kayleigh Perry (High Point) – It is difficult to say for sure which High Point Panther will serve as the team's No. 1 runner on Saturday, but Perry has played that role for most of her breakout sophomore season.
Perry placed just 22nd at this meet a year ago as a freshman, but she was the third Big South finisher at the Coastal Carolina Invitational/Big South Preview on Sept. 17.
--- After Klugh's victory last season, Liberty has now won three Big South individual women's cross country titles in program history.
--- Meanwhile, Coastal Carolina has captured 14 women's individual crowns in the 25-year history of the meet.
--- Every time Liberty has won the Big South women's cross country team title, its No. 1 runner has placed in the top three.
--- Klugh will attempt to become the first back-to-back Big South women's cross country champion since Coastal Carolina's Anne Marie Moutsinga in 2002 and 2003.
--- With a top 10 finish, Klugh would also become just the sixth Lady Flame ever to earn three career All-Big South honors in cross country. Dacia Bushman, Urlene Dick, Samantha Pelletier, Rebekah Ricksecker and Sarah Roberts are the other members of that exclusive club.
Men's Team Preview
Liberty won its sixth straight Big South men's cross country team title last season, led by an impressive 1-2-3 individual finish by seniors Sam Chelanga, Evans Kigen and Josh Edmonds. With those three standouts now graduated, a new-look Flames squad will attempt to become the Big South's first men's cross country team ever to win seven conference titles in succession.
High Point was voted as the preseason conference favorite, but Liberty defeated the Panthers, 25-40, Sept. 17 at the Coastal Carolina Invitational/Big South Preview. The Flames are also the only Big South team ranked in the Southeast Region (No. 15).
Zac Edwards, a transfer from South Alabama, has stepped right in as Liberty's No. 1 runner, claiming the individual championship at both the Coastal Carolina Invitational/Big South Preview and the Charlotte Invitational.
Edwards has been backed up by a solid pack of redshirt senior Will Reeves (the lone senior on the roster), redshirt junior David Ricksecker and sophomores Caleb Edmonds and Josh MacDonald.
Other Team Challengers (Listed alphabetically)
High Point – The Panthers were tabbed the preseason favorite to win the Big South title, due to returning five runners who placed in the top 15 at last year's conference meet. That performance had helped High Point finish second for the fourth straight year.
Reigning Big South Freshman of the Year Patrick Crawford has fashioned a strong sophomore year, including a second-place finish at the Coastal Carolina Invitational/Big South Preview.
The performance of senior Neal Darmody will play a key role in High Point's team performance on Saturday. He finished fourth at last year's Big South Cross Country Championship and won the Big South 10K title on the track. However, he has battled some health issues this season and has yet to run to his full potential in 2011.
VMI – Like the VMI women's squad, the Keydet men's team is a bit of an unknown due to its lack of head-to-head matchups against the other Big South contenders this season. However, the Keydets boast a deep, talented roster and have won two team titles in 2011—at Washington & Lee on Sept. 10 and at Furman on Oct. 8.
Noah Hagos has been the Keydets' most consistent performer during a breakthrough redshirt junior campaign. He claimed individual championships at both Washington & Lee and Furman. Track 800-meter standout Felix Kitur, in his final season of cross country eligibility, has also given the Keydets a boost. He placed an impressive third in his season debut, Oct. 14 at the Queens Invitational.
--- The only other men's cross country team ever to win six straight Big South championships was Radford, from 1985 to 1990. Liberty halted the Highlanders' streak in 1991, the Flames' first appearance at the Big South meet.
--- Liberty has won a conference-best 12 Big South men's cross country championships in the Flames' 20 seasons as a conference member.
--- The Flames' six straight Big South championships have been won by an average of 27.3 points. However, last year's 12-point margin of victory over High Point was the smallest during Liberty's current championship run.
--- Liberty's streak of six straight Big South titles began in 2005, when current assistant coach Josh McDougal was a sophomore on the team.
--- Liberty has enjoyed eight straight top-two finishes at the Big South meet. Prior to the six consecutive titles, Liberty finished second to High Point in 2003 and 2004.
--- Liberty and High Point have combined to win nine straight Big South team titles since Winthrop's championship on its home course in 2001.
--- The Flames have boasted the Big South individual champion 11 of the 12 times they have won the Big South men's team championship. The only exception came in 1994, when Bill Khan placed second overall, while leading Liberty to a team title.
Men's Individual Preview
Liberty has boasted 15 men's individual champions in its 20 appearances at the Big South Cross Country Championships, including seven in a row. Current assistant coach Josh McDougal won four straight Big South titles between 2004 and 2007, before Sam Chelanga won three in a row spanning 2008 and 2010.
Redshirt junior Zac Edwards gives Liberty a good chance to continue its streak. He captured individual championships at the Coastal Carolina Invitational/Big South Preview and Charlotte Invitational, winning the two races by a combined 20 seconds.
Edwards has experienced winning a conference cross country title before. He was the men's individual champion at the 2009 Sun Belt Cross Country Championships while representing South Alabama.
Among the other runners on Liberty's roster, David Ricksecker has posted the best individual finish at the Big South Cross Country Championship. Ricksecker came in eighth in 2009, his first season with the Flames.
Other Individual Challengers (Listed alphabetically)
Patrick Crawford (High Point) – The 2010 Big South Freshman of the Year has picked up right where he left off last season. He has been the Panthers' top runner for most of the year, posting a runner-up finish (behind Liberty's Zac Edwards) at the Coastal Carolina Invitational/Big South Preview and coming in third at the Blue Ridge Open.
Crawford was the most recent Big South Men's Runner of the Week, capturing the award on Oct. 19.
Neal Darmody (High Point) – Darmody is the top returning finisher from the 2010 Big South meet, where he placed fourth overall. He also won the Big South 10K title last year on the track and clocked a 29:54.25 10K at Stanford.
Darmody has not been in top form this season, but his ability and experience make him a runner to watch on Saturday.
Adam Freudenthal (Winthrop) – Freudenthal finished just behind Darmody a year ago, taking fifth place at the 2010 Big South Championship. He has only run two races this year, but one of them was a decisive victory at the Winthrop Invitational on Sept. 17.
Noah Hagos (VMI) – Hagos has never finished higher than 25th at the Big South Cross Country Championship, but that should change this year. The redshirt junior has enjoyed a strong season for the Keydets, including individual titles at Washington & Lee and Furman. Hagos has also lowered his 8K time from 25:51 to 25:03 this season.
Felix Kitur (VMI) – Saturday's race will mark the final Big South competition of Kitur's distinguished career. Although best known as a seven-time conference champion 800-meter runner, he placed eighth at the 2010 Big South Cross Country Championship.
Kitur has run only one race this year, but it was a stellar third-place performance at the Queens Invitational two weeks ago.
--- Liberty runners have not only won seven straight Big South individual titles, but the Flames have placed three runners inside the top five at five of the last six Big South Championships.
--- Liberty lost a total of 11 All-Big South cross country honors to graduation last year, including four by Josh Edmonds, three by Sam Chelanga and two apiece by Evans Kigen and Jake Reed.
--- Conversely, this year's team boasts a total of just one All-Big South recognition entering Saturday's meet. David Ricksecker placed eighth in 2009 to make the all-conference team.