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August 15, 2011

Cross country squads optimistic about opportunities in 2011

By: Marc Mullen

The Virginia Tech women’s cross country team has been there just once – five years ago – while the men’s team hasn’t advanced to the NCAA Cross Country Championships in more than two decades. Yet those are achievable goals for both those Hokie squads entering the 2011 campaign.

The women return an entire squad that placed fifth out of 37 teams at last year’s NCAA Southeast Regional, just outside of moving on to the national event. The men, who didn’t fare as well but were still 14th out of 34 teams, return most of their lineup and will add a couple of familiar faces.

“That is always the goal – to be in the top three of the ACC and getting to nationals, and with how (the women) finished the cross country season last fall and gaining another year of experience, that’s the next step up,” Tech head cross country coach Ben Thomas said.

In regards to the men, he said “We knew we were going to take some lumps last year, but this was our best shot to have a chance to win in the next few years and that’s certainly what we are shooting for – an ACC Championship. And if we are able to do that, we’re certainly at a level that is going to qualify for the NCAA Championships. You just got to be able to do it on that day.”

One of the top runners for the Hokies on the women’s side will be Sammy Dow, who led Tech with a 32nd-place finish at the ACC Championships and will be looked to as a front-runner and provide leadership to the young squad.

“Sammy Dow will be in her senior cross country season, so she’s been through three ACC and three regional championships and she was a national qualifier for us in the steeplechase [track] last year,” Thomas said. “So she is probably the most experienced of the group. If we are to be successful, she’s going to have to contribute a lot. Her and those returning freshmen are going to be key to having a chance to move up in the ACC and get over the hump and get to nationals as a team.”

Those freshmen are a quartet – Paige Kvartunas, Courtney Dobbs, Madalyn Nuckols and Taylor Crosson – who placed anywhere from 36th to 57th at the 2010 ACC Championships and 18th to 55th at the regional meet. Kvartunas actually earned All-Region honors last year. Thomas envisions all their contributions to be even greater this season now that they have a full season under their belts, including a full track season.

“Paige Kvartunas finished 18th at the regional as a freshman, which is an outstanding finish, and she has the chance to be a front-runner. We certainly need to develop one or two of those,” Thomas said. “Five out of our top seven runners were freshmen, and it’s tough coming in as a freshman and competing right away at an ACC level and also adjusting to a slightly new distance – going from 5K to 6K.

“So to finish the season fifth in the region, one spot away from making the NCAA Championships was a really solid finish for them. And they continued to get experience through the track season, so now, they kind of know what to expect coming back for their second year.”

At the ACC meet, six Hokies finished within 26 places of each other, led by Dow’s finish, and were within 45 seconds, while at the regionals – taking Kvartunas’ effort out – five Hokies were 15 seconds apart, finishing between 38th and 57th. And that pack is instrumental in accomplishing Thomas’ goal.

“We do have a really nice tight pack. The hope is that, after a year, we’re able to move the whole pack up together,” Thomas said. “We don’t have to move up too far, and then we are right there for being an NCAA qualifier at regionals and hopefully being a top three at ACCs.”

Glancing over the men’s roster from 2010, a couple names pop out as missing in the likes of juniors Michael Hammond and Will Mulherin. The pair was instrumental in leading the Hokies to a third-place finish at the 2008 ACC Championships, finishing 15th and 20th, respectively. Then, in 2009, Mulherin became just the fourth Tech male to earn All-ACC in cross country with a seventh-place finish

However, it was Thomas’ decision to hold those two runners out last year, and combine them with University of Tennessee transfer Leoule Degfae to make a serious run over the next few seasons at an ACC title and NCAA appearance.

“We had a really solid transfer coming in in Leoule Degfae, and he had to sit out last year, so I really wanted him, Will and Michael to have two years together in cross country,” Thomas said. “I think that’s our best shot to elevate our program to a higher level, and that’s what we did.

“So, we redshirted those three. They’ll all be back for two more seasons of cross country, and we also redshirted Jared Berman, who was 10th at the US Juniors in the steeplechase after his freshman year. He’s gotten healthy and he’s back. So those guys coming back, with what we have returning, should really bolster our position from last year.”

Also among the ACC team title talk with Tech’s version of the “Big Three” is the mention of Mulherin’s opportunity at an ACC individual title.

“He’s beaten everyone in the conference at some point during the year, whether it’s cross country, indoor or outdoor track. He’s raced all these guys before and at some point has beaten them,” Thomas said. “He’s just never done it over 8K cross country and won the title, but that is certainly a goal of his and something he is shooting for.

“Michael hopes to make big improvements in cross country. He redshirted last year and he certainly has the capability of being a big-time runner. And we are hoping Leoule Degfae, in his first season for us, can come out and be right there with those guys.

“And that’s what it takes. You’ve got to have that top three, not just a top one or two. But if you have three guys really banging at the front and some depth behind them, that gives you a chance to win an ACC title.”

Thomas believes that redshirting those two runners last year will also have a positive impact on the future of Tech cross country as well, pointing to a strong incoming class.

“We actually have, on paper, our best freshmen class ever coming in,” he said. “So that’s exciting, and another reason we redshirted those other guys, to have a Will Mulherin, a Michael Hammond around a couple more years to hopefully get the freshmen going this year and be even stronger next year.”

Those newcomers added to the redshirt returners and four other runners that placed in the top 100 at last year’s regionals – senior Chris Walizer (59) and juniors Joseph Murray (74), Jason Cusack (91) and Tuhut Degfae (96, and Leoule’s twin brother) – and the men’s goal of making the NCAAs could be a reality.

“There’s some depth that we have coming back and we are certainly excited about that because you’re going to need that. It’s never going to go perfect,” Thomas said. “You need a team that, even on a good day, you’re still among the best in the conference and you can’t do that without a lot of depth. That’s something we feel like we are getting going on the men’s side.”