Liberty has won the Big South Conference men's cross country title five years in a row.
The Liberty men's cross country team will begin the 2010 season on Sept. 3, when the Flames travel to Blacksburg, Va., for the Virginia Tech Cross Country Relays. The men's relay is slated to begin at 6 p.m. Below is a season preview of the five-time defending Big South Conference champion Liberty harriers. Liberty Cross Country/Track & Field Head Coach Brant Tolsma begins his 25th season of coaching the Flames, having guided three NCAA Division I national champions and 65 Big South championship teams. However, he is more excited than he has ever been, as Liberty prepares for the 2010 men's cross country season.
"This has to be the most exciting season we've ever entered," remarked Tolsma. "We are returning the dominant 2009 national champion in Sam Chelanga, the No. 20 finisher at last year's NCAA meet in Evans Kigen and Josh Edmonds, who returns to our squad after redshirting last season. This is the first time we, or any team in the Big South Conference for that matter, have had three sub-29:40 10K runners on the same team.
"It's also exciting and very positive for our program that we were able to add a new, full-time distance coach this year in Derek Scott," Tolsma added. Scott has raced professionally for Team Indiana Elite and PUMA, after graduating in 2007 as a 10-time NAIA All-American at Cornerstone.
The Flames have enjoyed an incredible amount of individual success at the NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships in recent years, placing a runner in the top two at each of the last three national meets. This time around, Liberty aims to qualify a full men's team to Terre Haute for the first time in program history.
Liberty hopes to equal Radford's conference record by winning its sixth straight Big South championship, but Tolsma admitted, "Our primary focus this season is getting our team ready for the regional and national meets. We will also shoot to run well at the Brooks Paul Short Run and Pre-Nationals, in an effort to pick up some at-large points."
The Flames' ability to achieve their team objectives will rely heavily upon the performance of their three previously mentioned redshirt seniors, as well as the outcome of three pertinent concerns.
The first and foremost is, "Will the Flames stay healthy?" This primarily applies to Chelanga, Kigen and Edmonds. The trio's list of credentials and accomplishments is lengthy, and the Flames cannot afford to lose any of them in hoping to reach Terre Haute as a team.
Chelanga enters his final season of collegiate cross country looking to become the 10th men's cross country runner in NCAA Division I history to win back-to-back national titles. He claimed the 2009 national crown in convincing fashion, crossing the finish line 25 seconds ahead of his nearest competitor and breaking the course record by 22 seconds.
The nine-time All-American went on to win the 10K national title at the 2010 NCAA Division I Outdoor Track & Field Championships in similarly impressive fashion, besting the runner-up by a margin of 18 seconds. Chelanga also lopped 20 seconds off of his own NCAA 10K record, when he clocked a 27:08.39 at the Payton Jordan Cardinal Invitational on May 1.
Kigen, like Chelanga a native of Kenya, closed his 2009 cross country season with the best race of his career. He earned his first NCAA Division I All-America honor with a 20th-place finish at the NCAA Division I Cross Country Championship, clocking a stellar 30:01.0 for the 10K course. Kigen then went on to qualify for the NCAA Division I Outdoor Track & Field Championships in the steeplechase for the second time.
The third member of Liberty's talented redshirt senior trio, Edmonds returns to the fold after redshirting the 2009 cross country season. He will try to join Josh McDougal as the only four-time All-Big South cross country runners in program history, while improving upon his 18th-place finish at the 2008 NCAA Division I Southeast Regional Championship. Edmonds ran well during the 2010 track & field season, notching new personal bests in the 5K (14:19.36) and 10K (29:39.68).
Chelanga, Kigen and Edmonds should comprise a formidable top three for the Flames in 2010, but Tolsma's second concern this season is who will man the No. 4 and 5 slots. The good news is that possible answers abound on Liberty's 18-man roster.
"We have our best depth during my time at Liberty," noted Tolsma. "I'm sure we'll have the best No. 10 runner we have ever had. That's good for the future, because we will lose so many great runners from this year's team to graduation in May."
One of the Flames' potential No. 4 or 5 runners, Jake Reed, is yet another redshirt senior on this year's squad. He has been a solid performer each of the past two seasons, garnering a pair of All-Big South honors and coming in 58th at the 2008 regional meet.
A pair of juniors should also be in the mix. David Ricksecker placed eighth at the Big South meet and 56th at the regional meet during his first season at Liberty, while Mark Hopely came in 12th at the conference meet.
Isaac Wendland and Will Reeves, both middle-distance standouts on the track, could step up for Liberty on the cross country course this fall. Wendland, a redshirt sophomore, is fully healthy for the first time in his collegiate cross country career, after posting a 1:50.22 in the 800 in May. Reeves, a redshirt junior, lowered his personal-best mile clocking to 4:16.14 on the track.
Not to be forgotten is Ryan Cox, who battled illness a season ago. The junior placed 22nd at the 2008 Big South meet and owns a 15:20 track personal best for the 5K.
Six newcomers join the Flames' roster this fall, and several of them are expected to battle for a place in the top five. The first, Caleb Edmonds of Cooperstown, N.Y., is the younger brother of Josh Edmonds. He clocked a 9:06 for 3,200 meters as a high school senior, which is seven seconds faster than his older brother ran at the same age.
Josh MacDonald of San Leandro, Calif., ran a pair of impressive races at the 2010 USATF National Junior Olympic Championships. He took home the national title for the 2K steeplechase in a personal-best 6:03, before running a personal-best 15:03 in the 5K two days later.
Another top incoming freshman is Jarred Cornfield of Corning, N.Y. He posted a 4:16 in the 1,600 and 9:23 in the 3,200 at Corning West High School.
Tolsma's third and final concern is whether Liberty's No. 4 and 5 runners will perform well enough for the Flames to reach the national meet and possibly place well there.
The answers to these three concerns will help determine where the 2010 Liberty men's cross country team takes its place in relation to the other talented squads in program history.
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