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2012 Liberty Women's Cross Country Outlook
The Liberty women's cross country team will officially begin its 2012 season Friday evening, at the Virginia Tech Alumni Invitational in Blacksburg, Va. A season preview of the 2011 Big South runner-up Lady Flames follows.
Regardless of how her final collegiate season plays out, redshirt senior Jennifer Klugh has already established herself as one of the top women's cross country runners in Liberty and Big South Conference history. This fall, she will attempt to become just the third women's runner in conference history to capture three straight Big South individual cross country titles. In the process, she hopes to lead an experienced Lady Flames squad back to the top of the Big South Conference.
Liberty had captured two straight Big South women's cross country titles and four of the last five before being unseated by High Point in 2011. The Panthers were listed as a slight favorite over Liberty in the Big South preseason coaches poll.
"Defending champion High Point is certainly the team to beat in the Big South once again this year," observed head coach Brant Tolsma. "Much of our season will be focused on trying to recapture the Big South title."
The Lady Flames' top six finishers from last year's Big South runner-up squad are back in 2012, led by the senior trio of Klugh, Khristina Kanagy and Betel Yosef.
"Our team possesses great senior leadership, with Jennifer Klugh, Khristina Kanagy and Betel Yosef all having a lot of experience running in our top five," stated Tolsma. "That's a real positive for us. Experience can go a long way, and I'm glad we have it on this team."
Rebekah Ricksecker, who joins the cross country coaching staff as a full-time assistant coach this season, also brings an impressive collection of experience along with her. During her four years as a Liberty cross country runner (2005-08), Ricksecker was a three-time All-Big South performer and helped the Lady Flames claim Big South titles in 2006 and 2007.
Ricksecker's former teammate, Klugh is a considerable preseason favorite to win another Big South women's cross country individual championship on Oct. 27. The program cross country record holder at both the 5K (17:28.3) and 6K (20:55.5) distances, Klugh has won the last two Big South cross country titles by a total of 23 seconds. Moreover, the Buckeye State native has not lost to a non-teammate at a Big South cross country or track & field meet since the 2009 Big South Cross Country Championships.
Kanagy placed sixth at the 2011 Big South Cross Country Championships, before enjoying successful indoor and outdoor track & field campaigns. She won the women's 5K title at the Big South Indoor Track & Field Championships and went on to lower her 5K (17:27.13) and 10K (36:33.99) personal-best times significantly.
The 12th-place finisher at last year's Big South Cross Country Championships, Yosef also excelled on the track in 2012. She became the third-fastest women's steeplechase performer in program history at 11:01.58 and placed third in the event at the Big South Outdoor Track & Field Championships.
Along with the senior trio, sophomore Jacy Christiansen is also expected to be one of the Lady Flames' top performers in 2012. She came in 16th overall and second among freshmen at the 2011 Big South Cross Country Championships. Christiansen then notched indoor track clockings of 4:58.44 in the mile and a Liberty freshman-record 9:53.19 in the 3K.
The biggest question mark for the 2012 Lady Flames is who will emerge as the team's No. 5, 6 and 7 runners. "The positive thing is that we expect great competition for our final scoring and pushing positions," Tolsma noted.
Tolsma then listed six names who could battle for one of those spots, including juniors Jessica Gass and Katie Russo, sophomores Stephanie Buda, Meredith Mistretta and Caroline Parris and the team's lone freshman, Courtney Russo.
Among the group, Mistretta and Parris fared the best on the track last spring, as each clocked 18:30 for the 5K. The elder Russo sister was Liberty's No. 5 runner and the 25th-place overall finisher at the 2011 Big South Cross Country Championships before battling injuries during track & field season. Tolsma noted that she, Buda and Gass have all recovered from injuries and other ailments which slowed each of them down a year ago.
"I'm not worried about the attitude on our team at all," stated Tolsma. "The girls are committed, focused and experienced as we prepare for a new season." Mathematics major Klugh and her teammates certainly hope that those qualities add up to a Big South Conference title for the Lady Flames.