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August 11, 2009

Your Attention, Please - With the women's cross country team set for a rebuilding year, the men's team aims to make headlines

By: Matt Kovatch

Senior Devin Cornwall is expected to lead the pack again in 2009.
It’s not often that a team can make program history and go largely unnoticed for it, but that’s what happened to the Virginia Tech men’s cross country team last season. The Hokies teamed up to finish third out of the 12 conference schools at the 2008 ACC Cross Country Championships, marking their highest team finish at the league meet since Tech joined the elite conference prior to the 2004 season.

The only problem is then-senior Tasmin Fanning finished second that same day for the women’s team – the highest finish by a Hokie, male or female, in an ACC title race during that same span. She then went on to win the NCAA Southeast Regional before placing third at the NCAA Championships, capping the most impressive individual season any Hokie runner ever.

Fanning had a similarly successful 2007 season, and the women’s team, as a whole, qualified for the national meet in 2006, all the while rendering the men’s results to the bottom of the page.

But in 2009, men’s runner Devin Cornwall says, that’s about to change.

“The guys’ team has always kind of taken a back seat to the women’s team’s success,” the senior from Culpeper, Va., acknowledged. “And it’s not that we’ve been jealous; we’ve just wanted to join them in their accomplishments. But this year, the tables are flipped somewhat.”

And he’s right.

With Fanning and the other top three runners (the graduated Jessica Fanning, Erin Reddan and Natalie Kretzer) gone, the women’s team enters what will be likely a rebuilding year with mostly sophomores and freshmen. But the men essentially return everyone (minus Billy Berlin) from that surprising squad of last season.

“The men’s team looks to be the strongest I have seen yet,” Cornwall said. “We basically have the same team as last year, which boasts well for our potential.”

Head coach Ben Thomas agreed.

“It’s the best shape we’ve been in, especially in terms of depth of returnees,” the ninth-year head coach said. “We have the kind of depth where we can go to the regional meet and potentially be among the top four teams, giving ourselves a chance to make nationals as a team. That’s our goal.”

Cornwall, who placed third at the ACC meet last year and was an all-region performer in 2007, will have plenty of help in trying to accomplish that goal. Senior Paul LaPenna, a former all-region and All-ACC performer himself, returns for his final year after redshirting last season due to injury. Sophomore Michael Hammond is back after being one of the highest-placing freshmen at last year’s ACC meet, where finished 15th, one place off of all-conference pace.

Then there’s sophomore Will Mulherin, who had a solid rookie season on the cross country course before really breaking through in the spring on the track, where he won the ACC title in the 5,000 meters and was named the ACC men’s outdoor track and field freshman of the year. A third sophomore, Brian Welch, was strong throughout his debut season and could round out the Hokies’ top five.

“Those five guys right there could be a really good top five,” Thomas said. “In addition to that, Matt Kroetch has shown the potential to be as good as anybody we have. As long as he can be consistent and stay healthy, he could be a big player.”
So who steps out from that pack and becomes the go-to guy, so to speak? Not so fast.

“The thing that I like about our team is that we don’t have a clear-cut No. 1 guy,” Thomas continued. “Our strength is not necessarily going to be in our frontrunner, but in having our fifth-place runner be right there with our frontrunner. We’re going to live and die by having small-time gaps between our No. 1 runner and our No. 5.

“Will can certainly be our No. 1, or Paul or Devin or Michael. All four of those guys could legitimately be our top guy on any given day. Then I see guys like Brian and Matt being right there, too. When you have five, or even six, guys who could possibly be your No. 1, that shows pretty good depth. If we keep those guys fit and healthy, we could be pretty dangerous.”
Should any of those runners not meet expectations, Tech can also call upon two contributors from the track – juniors Eddie Judge and ACC indoor 800-meter champion Ryan Witt.

“We’re really hoping Ryan and Eddie can move up in distance,” Thomas said. “They’ve been really strong on the track for us in the middle distances and I think they have the potential to help us out in cross country. It’s tough [to make the transition], but they are starting to get the mileage in that they need to make it happen.”
While the men’s team has plenty of proven veterans to lean on in its quest for higher ground, the women might need some time get back to where they’ve been.

“It’s going to be a team of freshmen and sophomores with a couple of juniors in there, so it’s definitely a rebuilding year,” Thomas said. “But I’m excited about the talent in this young group. They’ve mostly been middle distance runners at the high school level, but I think they’ve got a good attitude. If we get them together and working, they could surprise us this first year, but we’re not going to rush it. We’re just going to try to develop them and definitely try to get them ready for track season, which is where I think they can really shine for us. It’s going to be one of those years where we’ll have to wait and see how quickly they adapt to the longer distances.”

The youthful women's team must group together in 2009 as it tries to replace the loss of four seniors.
Only juniors Jackie Merrick and Jessica Trapeni have been around for more than a year, but sophomores Sammy Dow and Lauren Pinkston had consistent results as freshmen and return as two reliable assets. There’s also Lauren Lemieux, who will technically be a freshman in cross country, but who gained valuable experience during the outdoor track season when she made the finals of the 1,500 meters at the ACC Championships.

Joining those five, and sophomore Erin Stehle, will be a group of nearly 10 true freshmen, which presents a situation that Thomas hasn’t really had to deal with in the past.

“This is the first time we’ve really reloaded,” he said. “But I’m really excited about it because they all had some pretty good success in high school and they all have some pretty good basic foot and leg speed. Of course, it all depends … you never know how long it’s going to take them to work on sustaining that speed.

“I think that, next fall, we’ll definitely be in a lot better shape than we are this fall, but sometimes they surprise you with how fast they come around. It’s going to be fun to go and start the process again. We just had an outstanding senior class go out, but there are more of them in this class, so hopefully we’ll have the same kind of success with even more of these girls over the next four years.”

While the women’s team won’t quite be on par with those of the recent past, that’s okay in the men’s book. It’s their turn to make headlines this year.

“As long as we do our job day in and day out, I think we'll be pretty strong,” Cornwall said. “It's exciting to have teammates like this who like to work and really take pride in running with the VT on their chest.”