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August 21, 2012

Breaking from the pack

By: Marc Mullen

The Virginia Tech men’s cross country team returns its entire squad, and the Hokies hope to sprint to an ACC championship

Jason Cusack

A pair of All-Atlantic Coast Conference and All-South Regional performers in redshirt seniors Will Mulherin and Michael Hammond return for the Virginia Tech cross country team in 2012, and so does the entire squad that finished fourth at the ACC Championships last year.

So there are good reasons why Tech head cross country/distance coach Ben Thomas is quite optimistic about the upcoming season.

“On the men’s side, as far as experience and level of returners, it should be the best team we’ve ever had, and our best chance to challenge for an ACC title,” Thomas said. “Especially with the experience that we have coming back in Mulherin and Hammond.

“Mulherin is a returning All-American, and Michael Hammond certainly has the potential to be an All-American, and has been an All-American on the track [in the 1,500-meter run]. I’d love to see him do it in cross country. So that’s a pretty good one-two punch.”

Mulherin earned his All-America honor with a 30th-place showing at the NCAA Championship meet, becoming just the ninth cross country All-American at Tech. He also earned All-Region honors at the NCAA Southeast Regional with a fifth-place finish, and he became just the second Hokie on the men’s side to be a two-time All-ACC runner in cross country after his seventh-place finish at the ACC Championship meet.

Hammond wasn’t too far behind, although he did not advance to the NCAA meet. He earned All-ACC honors after a 10th-place finish at the conference meet and All-Region recognition after placing 19th at the Southeast Regional.

After his top guns, Thomas pointed to the experience and depth of the rest of his squad as a reason the Hokies are looking for an ACC title and a possible team berth into the NCAA Championships.

Jason Cusack, a senior who finished 30th and was the third Hokie across the finish line at the ACC meet, and juniors Leoule Degfae (35th at the ACC meet and 34th at regionals), and Jared Berman, (42nd and 49th, respectively) are three more upperclassmen who will provide leadership.

Sophomores Thomas Curtin, (30th and 54th, respectively), Kevin Dowd, who ran strong early last season but was lost to injury, and redshirt freshman Darren Barlow round out the top guys on the men’s side.

“Tommy Curtin ran well on the track in 5K, and he did really well in cross country last year as a freshman. I think he’s going to be a player,” Thomas said. “Leoule Degfae was 13th in our region in the 10K during outdoor track, which is really an outstanding finish, so that was a great ending point for track, and we think he’ll have a lot of confidence off of that to really help us in cross country.

“Jared Berman will be a big help, as will Darren Barlow and Kevin Dowd, who are two guys we redshirted last year and could really be a big boost. Darren had a really nice indoor season, while Kevin ran for us in both (indoor and outdoor) and made the NCAA Championships (1,500). He could be huge for us.”

And Thomas’ opinion on the legitimate possibility of hoisting a men’s ACC cross country trophy – the only one Mulherin and Hammonds have yet to hold?

“It’s so tight between who I think will be the top three teams, so we will really have to nail it on the day,” he said.

For the women, Thomas believes the rebounding of his runners from injuries will determine if they can get back to where he’d like to see them – among the top five in the conference.

“We had some injuries last spring with [juniors] Courtney Dobbs and Madalyn Nuckols to be specific – two of our top four – so it’s going to be dependent on how strong they can come back,” he said. “We can replace Sammy Dow [lost to graduation] with Sarah Rapp [a sophomore], who had a really tremendous freshman year and has a chance to be our No. 1 runner.

“Junior Paige Kvartunas finally stayed healthy all year long, and I think that’s going to help her a lot. Her freshman year (2009), she was all-region, and she needs to really step up for us.”

However, getting back in the top five in the ACC on the women’s side for the Hokies – which they attained in 2006 and 2007 – will be a difficult task when considering the conference had six teams ranked in the top 25 during the course of the 2011 season and four that advanced to the NCAA Championships.

“The ACC is a tough league, and we are hoping to improve and get a top-five finish with this group,” Thomas said. “If we get everyone healthy, this is the third year of a pretty experienced group, and hopefully, we can really move up on what we did last year, at least, in cross country.”

Kaila Blackburn is a freshman and someone who could help out right away, and Thomas also mentioned that another junior, Taylor Crosson, also missed most of the spring to injury.

“They are all back running,” he said. “It’s just that October is coming pretty quick here, so if they can stay healthy and consistent, they could be very good. But we’ve got to see how fast they heal up and get back into real training mode.”