David Ricksecker, the eighth-place finisher at the 2009 Big South Cross Country Championship, returns after a redshirt season to bolster the Flames' top seven.
The 2011 Liberty men's cross country team will open its season Sept. 2, when the Flames compete in the Virginia Tech Alumni Invitational. A full preview of the six-time defending Big South Conference champions' upcoming season follows.
The 2011 season will mark the beginning of a new era for Liberty men's cross country, now that NCAA national champions Josh McDougal and Sam Chelanga have both exhausted their eligibility. This year's squad does not feature a national title contender, but the Flames hope their team depth translates into an unprecedented seventh straight Big South Conference championship.
"The McDougal/Chelanga Era was a wonderful ride," stated head coach Brant Tolsma. "It's great to have it as a part of our program's history and tradition. Now we are settling down to the business of building a strong team, which will be able to get to the NCAA Division I Cross Country Championship in the next few years. That's our focus."
Speaking about qualifying a team to the NCAA meet may sound a bit crazy after the Flames "took the largest beating ever from graduation," according to Tolsma. Graduated seniors Chelanga, Evans Kigen and Josh Edmonds placed 1-2-3 at last year's Big South meet and all placed inside the top 15 at the NCAA Division I Southeast Regional Championship. Then, Chelanga won his second straight NCAA national title and Kigen earned his second straight All-America certificate.
Moreover, assistant coach Derek Scott left to focus on making the U.S. Olympic team in 2012, leading Tolsma to admit, "Replacing all of these great people is impossible, but we're certainly making an effort."
The Flames made a big step in that process by hiring McDougal as Scott's replacement on the coaching staff. Tolsma has noted numerous times that McDougal "put Liberty distance running on the map," thanks to winning the 2007 NCAA men's cross country national title and garnering 14 All-America notations during his career.
The Liberty men's team has not lost at the Big South Cross Country Championships since McDougal's freshman year of 2004, capturing six straight conference titles. That ties Radford (1985-90) for the longest consecutive string of men's cross country championships in Big South history.
Standing in the Flames' way of capturing an unprecedented seventh consecutive Big South crown are formidable High Point and VMI squads. High Point returns four of its top five runners from last year's conference runner-up team and was tabbed this year's favorite by the conference head coaches. VMI placed third in the preseason poll, just behind Liberty.
"We're not picked to win the Big South title this year," said Tolsma, "but we're still aiming to do so."
Sophomore Josh MacDonald is Liberty's top returning finisher from the 2010 Big South Cross Country Championship. He placed 11th overall and second among conference freshmen a year ago, before continuing on to a successful rookie track & field campaign. MacDonald clocked 9:15.37 in the steeplechase and placed fifth in the event at the 2011 USATF Junior Outdoor Track & Field Championships.
David Ricksecker returns for his junior season after being redshirted a year ago. He enjoyed a strong first season with the Flames in 2009, including an eighth-place finish at that year's Big South Cross Country Championships.
Liberty also hopes that a pair of newcomers—Zac Edwards and Ngetich Kipchirchir—can help solidify the front of its pack. Edwards, who has junior eligibility in cross country, is a transfer from South Alabama. Originally hailing from Virginia, Edwards placed fifth at the 2009 NCAA Division I South Regional Cross Country Championship. He also boasts a personal-best 5K time of 13:56.76 on the track.
Kipchirchir is an untested newcomer from Eldoret, Kenya, who arrived at Liberty in January. He ran a 5K in 15:40.07 on the track during the spring, but the coaching staff believes he could be ready for a breakthrough this fall.
Behind that quartet, Liberty boasts a lot of viable options for spots No. 5-7 in its lineup. "Although we don't have the frontrunners we had last year, this may be the best depth our team has ever had," observed Tolsma.
Redshirt senior Will Reeves, redshirt junior Isaac Wendland and sophomores Jarred Cornfield and Caleb Edmonds all ran for the Flames at last year's Big South meet and each finished in the top 32. Wendland enjoyed the most success of the quartet on the track in 2011. He dropped his 1,500-meter personal-best time to 3:47.12 and reached the NCAA quarterfinals in the event.
Cory Reed is a bit of a wildcard on this year's team. He placed 15th at the 2007 Big South Cross Country Championship, helping the Flames win the team title. Since that year, he has served in the U.S. Army instead of attending college. Again enrolled at Liberty, Reed hopes to recapture the promise he displayed as a freshman.
Tolsma noted that sophomore Zach Barker, redshirt freshman Nate Jones and freshman Brandon Taylor have all been looking good in practice and could also battle for a spot among Liberty's top seven runners this fall.
Without a prominent frontrunner like Josh McDougal or Sam Chelanga on this year's team, it will take strong efforts from seven different runners if the Flames hope to extend their Big South title streak to seven in 2011.
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