Top Recruiting Classes Will Help Both Teams This Season
As the VMI cross country teams enter their third season in the Big South Conference, head coach Paul Spangler is looking for his charges to continue the steady ascent that he has overseen in his three years at the helm of the program. Following an eighth place finish in the Keydets' final year in the Southern Conference, the men's team came up with a seventh place showing in their first Big South Championships in 2003. Last season saw the team's breakthrough performance, as VMI staked claim to fourth place in the conference after being voted seventh in the preseason poll.
"I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't excited for this season to begin," said Spangler concerning the 2005 men's cross country season. "The top returnees on the team have been doing a fabulous job this summer in preparation for the fall season. Combine that with arguably the best recruiting class of distance runners in the history of the program and the fact that we lost no graduates from last year's team, and there is no doubt that this year's team could be a force to be reckoned with by the time the conference championship rolls around."
Like the men's team, the women's squad has been blessed with a strong recruiting class as well. Last season, injuries severely limited the team's ability to compete in events, as only three women ran in the Big South Championship, two less than the minimum to field a team. This year that should not be a problem, as the team lists 13 members on their roster, double that of last season's.
"This year I can undoubtedly say is the best recruiting class that we've ever seen on the women's side," said Spangler. "We signed two of the top distance runners in the state of Virginia, along with a pair of quality middle-distance runners. A lot of our success will depend on how they adjust to the distance that we run. But we're very excited to see what this team of young ladies can do on the course."
Pacing the Keydets this season on the men's side will be junior Anthony Harris (Orlando, Fla./Cypress Creek), who capped an impressive season last year with a 14th place finish in the Big South Championship. Harris pushed himself hard over the summer to prepare for this season, charting three weeks with 100 miles each, averaging approximately 15 miles per day.
"We expect Anthony to be at the top of our ladder going into this season," said Spangler. "He has worked hard over the summer to stay in shape and is coming off of a great track season. Anthony has just never been able to enjoy an injury-free season. If he remains healthy, I think that he can be one of the top performers in the conference this season."
Expected to step into the second spot this season is freshman Patrick Eggleston (Nokesville, Va./Brentsville HS). The four-time Virginia State AA Champion was regarded by some as the top distance runner in the state this year. Expected to join Eggleston up front will be three more underclassmen, in sophomores Donnie Mikels and Kurt Able, along with freshman Jared Klajnbart.
Mikels (Rustburg, Va./Rustburg) was another consistent top performer for the Keydets last season, as he finished among the team's top three in all but one race last season. He was named All-Conference in the indoor track season in the mile, and nearly duplicated the feat in the outdoor meet, missing that distinction by one place. After a good summer of training, Mikels is looking to duplicate and improve on a solid first year in Lexington.
In Jared Klajnbart (Colorado Springs, Colo./Cheyenne Mountain HS), Coach Spangler has yet another quality freshman competitor that is expected to claim a top-five spot. Klajnbart has never run cross-country, instead playing on soccer in the fall for his high school, but focused on middle distances in the track season. Kurt Able (Wesley Chapel, Fla./Wesley Chapel) is expected to round out the top five following a very good track season, where he finished in the top five in the conference in the 10,000 meters.
"With Patrick and Jared coming on board, I think we have a pair of guys who could contend for Freshman of the Year honors," said Spangler. "Patrick is loaded with talent and will be a good fit at VMI, and Jared is really going to be a good one. He can do almost anything on the track, turning in quality times from all the events from the 800 to the 3200 meter. Donnie (Mikels) had an outstanding freshman season that saw him become one of the top freshman steeplechasers in the state. Kurt Able had a good summer working out, and if he can build upon what he did in track, he definitely can add a lot of depth to this year's team."
Competing to get into the top five will be a number of talented runners, led by junior Edwin Lugo (Orlando, Fla./Timber Creek). Lugo turned in his season's best performance when it counted most last season, finishing as the second-highest Keydet at the conference championship to help the team surprise the rest of the league with their fourth-place finish.
"Edwin had a good summer of training, and we're looking for him to come out of the gates strong," said Spangler. "He tends to come on toward the end of the year, which means he runs well when it counts. Hopefully he can do the same for us this year."
Also in the mix are a pair of freshmen and a pair of sophomores. The freshmen include Jeremy Falke (Ashland, Va./Patrick Henry-Ashland HS) and Andrew Rademaker (Fork Union, Va./Fork Union Military Academy), who were two of the top distance runners in Virginia as high school seniors. Rademaker has a pair of state championship titles and is expected to join Falke in the top seven, possibly giving the team as many as four freshmen in the top seven.
The sophomores expecting to compete for a top seven spot include local products Casey Grey (Amherst, Va./Amherst County) and Ben Switzer (Rockbridge Baths, Va./Rockbridge County). Each competed for the track team last season, with Grey contributing in the steeplechase and Switzer competing in the middle distances. However, Switzer has put in between 70-80 miles a week to prepare himself for the cross-country season.
BIG SOUTH CONFERENCE
Though the Keydets have begun their climb to the upper tier of teams in the Big South Conference, advancing into the top three will not be an easy feat. In last year's championship, High Point ran away with the championship, placing four runners in the top six, with Liberty and Costal Carolina coming in second and third, respectively. The gap between third-place Coastal and fourth-place VMI, however, was the largest of any among the top five teams, and the Keydets claimed fourth over UNC Asheville by a mere one point.
"For our team, we lost only one member of last year's top five (freshman Matt Bierlein), while all of the teams that finished ahead of us lost at least one top runner as well," said Spangler. There is no doubt that we're better than last year, but the teams ahead of us are probably better also. We were voted fourth in the preseason poll, behind Coastal, High Point and Liberty, but I really think that Liberty is the team to beat. I think that the conference will be better at the top positions, but we can't control what other teams do. I think that the one advantage that we have over the rest of the teams is our recruiting class. If we can stay healthy and train well, then anything is possible."
The Keydets start the season with a bang, traveling to former Southern Conference rival Appalachian State on Sept. 2. There they will tangle with preseason Big South favorite Coastal Carolina and the host Mountaineers, who were voted second in the preseason poll for the SoCon.
The team then returns home to host the VMI Invitational on Sept. 17 at the Virginia Horse Center Complex, the same course that will host the Big South Championship at the end of the season. A pair of road meets will then test the Keydets against the Big South's best, as the Paul Short Invitational at Lehigh will pit the team against Liberty and other nationally ranked teams before a trip to Winthrop will also see High Point compete, among other conference schools.
"I like the way our schedule has shaped up this year," said Spangler. "We start out early with the meet at Appalachian State, that will be a good test for us going against some of the top teams from the Big South and Southern Conference. We're already expecting our freshmen to be tired for that weekend, so some of our veterans will need to step up for that meet. Then we come home for the VMI Invitational; it's always good for our guys to get to run at home on a course that we know.
"The Paul Short Invitational will be a good mid-year indicator on how good we are. There will be some nationally ranked teams there, and hopefully we'll be able to match up against Liberty to see where we stand against one of the top teams in the Big South. Next we'll go to Winthrop and match up against a lot of the Big South teams, hopefully including High Point, before we get ready for hosting the Big South Championship.
"The course is a hilly, tough course that about half of the teams and coaches in the league have seen before. It's a course that you have to know how to run correctly, it's a very strategic course. I'm not sure how much of an advantage that we'll have by running on our home course, but I can tell you that it is one of the best facilities and courses in the state."
A pair of goals will motivate the Keydets this season, as they look to continue the rise of the program that began just a few years ago. The first goal is obviously to improve their place in the Big South Conference, moving into the highly competitive top three among league schools. As mentioned before, this will not be an easy task, with established programs Coastal Carolina, High Point and Liberty bringing back a lot of talent.
The second goal of the team this season focuses on a broader scope. The NCAA publishes Regional rankings weekly that include the top 15 teams in nine separate, geographically-based regions. VMI has never seen a ranking in the South East ranking, and will be gunning to do so this fall.
The women's team will be bolstered by another great recruiting class, one that will put the program on a solid foundation for the coming seasons. Leading this class are a pair of in-state signees, Kelsey Stafford (Charlottesville, Va./Western Albemarle HS) and Christina Mowatt-Larssen (Chantilly, Va./Westfield HS).
Stafford was a 2005 Indoor Track and Field All-American in the distance medley relay and eight-time All-State performer. Mowatt-Larssen was twice the MVP of her cross-country team in high school and holds her school's records in the Indoor 3200m and 4x800m.
"Kelsey and Christina were two of the top distance runners in the state last year," said Spangler. "We're hoping that they will step in to the top of our ladder and be able to hold those positions for the years to come."
Also joining the team this season are two more freshmen in Amanda Moore (Rustburg, Va./Rustburg HS) and Roxanne Franck (Poquoson, Va./Poquoson HS). Primarily middle-distance runners in high school, Moore and Franck will be asked to convert to longer distances to help the team achieve its goals this season.
"Amanda and Roxanne will be very important for us this season," said Spangler. "A lot of our success will depend on how the adjust to running 5,000 meters."
Returning to the top five from last year's team will be senior Amber Blain (Chesapeake, Va./Western Branch). Blain is coming off an injury-plagued year last year and had surgery in the early summer. She has since returned to action and should hopefully feel no effects from the off-season procedure.
A secret weapon for the ladies could come in cross-over contributor Hatley Clifford (Plano, Texas/Carollton Christian). Clifford, a starting midfielder on the women's soccer team, competed for the track and field team last season and is the school record holder in both the 5,000 and 10,000 meter. Though only expected to compete in one or two meets, Clifford could be a huge key for the Keydets placing well at the conference championship.
As the team begins its third season in the Big South, the Keydets are looking to overcome the challenges they have faced over the past two seasons. In their first year in the Big South, the team had six girls run with only one finisher among the top 50, as VMI finished ninth of nine teams. Last season, injuries hit the Keydets hard, as only three members were able to compete in the championship, two short of the necessary five to qualify as a team.
However, this year's team has grown substantially in both talent and depth, with 13 girls currently on the team's roster. Therefore, the team's goal of finishing in the top six at the championships is not that far out of reach for the team.