Defending Big South women's cross country individual champion Jennifer Klugh will lead the Lady Flames' quest for their fifth Big South title in the last six years.
The 2011 Liberty women's cross country team will open its season Sept. 2, when the Lady Flames compete in the Virginia Tech Alumni Invitational. A full preview of the two-time defending Big South Conference champions' upcoming season follows.
Many faces have changed, but lofty expectations remain in place for the 2011 Liberty women's cross country team, which was recently voted the Big South Conference favorite.
The Lady Flames won their fourth Big South crown in the last five years last season. However, only four of the 10 runners who competed that day return to the 2011 roster. In addition, 2010 assistant coach Derek Scott has since been replaced by Josh McDougal, a 14-time All-American during his cross country/track & field career at Liberty.
"We are clearly in rebuilding mode," stated veteran head coach Brant Tolsma. "We have made a lot of changes since last year."
Nevertheless, Tolsma expects the Lady Flames to be part of a tight, four-way battle for the Big South title on Oct. 29, along with host Coastal Carolina, VMI and High Point. "Tradition is an important part of the equation," he noted. "Our runners should be highly motivated to defend their title. However, the championship will likely come down to who prepares best and who stays healthy."
Redshirt junior captain Jennifer Klugh is one key reason behind Tolsma's confidence. Last year, the Buckeye State native became the Lady Flames' first Big South women's cross country individual champion since Heather Sagan in 2001. The Big South Women's Runner of the Year also placed 15th at the NCAA Division I Southeast Regional Championship and lowered Liberty's 6K cross country record to 20:55.5.
Klugh then carried her cross country success onto the track, winning three event titles at the Big South Indoor and Outdoor Track & Field Championships. She improved her personal-best times to 4:27.33 in the 1,500 and an indoor conference-record 16:56.14 in the 5K. Needless to say, Klugh is the most highly decorated women's distance runner in the Big South Conference entering the 2011 season.
A year ago, Klugh was followed closely at the Big South Championship by third-place Dacia Bushman and fourth-place Hailey Neal. Both runners graduated, leaving a significant void to be filled. Two of the most likely candidates to step up into leading roles for the Lady Flames this season include junior Khristina Kanagy and freshman Jacy Christiansen.
"We are looking for continued progress from Khristina," said Tolsma. Kanagy placed an impressive 12th at the 2010 Big South Cross Country Championship, after finishing 25th as a freshman. She also improved her 5K time on the track from 18:23.58 to 17:40.35.
"Khristina should receive good competition from Jacy, the American record holder in the 5K for five-year-olds," smiled Tolsma. After clocking a record-setting 5K time of 23:39 at age five, Christiansen developed into one of the top female high school runners in New Hampshire. An 11-time state champion, she owns personal-best times of 10:38 in the 3,200 and 17:44 in the 5K.
"For the remainder of our scoring spots, we expect competition between Betel Yosef, Katie Russo, transfer Alyssa Allen and freshman Meredith Mistretta," Tolsma stated.
Yosef, now a junior, was the Lady Flames' fifth finisher at last year's Big South Championship, crossing the line 19th overall. Meanwhile, Russo was Liberty's top freshman in 2010, placing 28th at the Big South meet (seventh on the team). The duo helped Liberty win the women's distance medley relay title at the 2011 Big South Indoor Track & Field Championships.
Allen joins the Lady Flames after spending two years at Charlotte. Her fastest times with the 49ers were 18:08.34 in the 5K and 37:53.10 in the 10K. Mistretta is another freshman from New Hampshire, whose top high school effort was an 11:15 two mile at the 2011 New Balance Indoor Nationals.
Tolsma also spoke highly of freshman Stephanie Buda, who has "come in looking very strong and competitive in practice, despite being a mid-distance specialist on the track." Buda clocked a 2:19.0 in the 800 and a 5:13.2 in the 1,600 during high school.
Other runners who could challenge for a berth in Liberty's top seven this season include sophomore Jessica Gass and freshman Caroline Parris, both of whom are Maryland natives.
A popular saying in high school and college athletics states that "tradition never graduates." The 2011 Liberty women's cross country team will certainly put that adage to the test, attempting to continue its winning tradition after being hit hard by graduation.
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