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August 14, 2013

Tech men's cross country team ready for another run at ACC title

By: Marc Mullen

Redshirt years should prove beneficial for 2013 women’s squad

The 2012 men’s cross country team won the program’s first ACC championship, and the Hokies have several veterans returning to make a run at the 2013 crown.

The trophy still sits on his desk almost a year later. It can’t be missed as you walk into Ben Thomas’ office. You can’t help but notice it, even if you’re just passing by the Tech head cross country coach’s office in the hallway – the 2012 ACC Men’s Cross Country Championship team trophy.

It’s appealing to the eye, has a few siblings down the hall in Director of Track & Field and Cross Country Dave Cianelli’s office, and is certainly a showcase piece for any high school prospects who may stop by on a recruiting trip. It also serves as motivation to Thomas’ teams, both his men’s and his women’s squads, for the upcoming 2013 cross country season.

Don’t let the departures of some of the most decorated men in the men’s program’s history – Will Mulherin and Michael Hammond – fool you. There’s still plenty left over from Thomas’ 2012 squad that earned Tech’s first team bid to the NCAA Cross Country Championships in 25 years.

“It’s going to be an interesting year,” Thomas said. “We have a mix of enough veterans up front to maybe make a run, with Tommy [Curtin] and Lee [Degfae]. It’s just going to be about how much can the freshmen step in and add some depth to the team.

“We do have some outstanding freshmen coming in, and we have had freshmen finish in the top 15 in the conference before. I think, if there is one or two of those in this class, that’s kind of what it’s going to take for us to win another ACC title.”

Curtin, a junior, scored a surprising seventh-place finish at last year’s ACC Championship. Then after a disappointing regional (207th place), he rebounded with an 88th-place finish at the NCAAs. Degfae was 22nd at the ACCs, 30th at regionals and 82nd at the national meet.

“It’s certainly a goal for Tommy and Lee to make it back to the NCAAs this year,” Thomas said. “They went to the national meet last year [with the team] and competed very well. If they had competed at the regional meet the way they did at the national meet last year, they would have advanced through [as individuals]. They just didn’t have great regional meets last year.

“I think they learned at the national meet last year that they belonged at that level, and they, certainly if healthy, will have a chance to make it individually. That’s very difficult to do. Obviously, our goal is to make it again as a team, and I think that’s in the cards if the men can stay healthy and get the work done.”

Thomas points to a number of men who have the ability to step up to help the team attain those goals. Seniors Grant Pollock and Kevin Dowd, redshirt junior Jared Berman and redshirt sophomores Darren Barlow and Juan Campos are the particular runners whom he envisions taking that next step.

He’s also very excited about his incoming freshmen.

“Patrick Joseph stands out,” he said. “He was 12th in the Foot Locker regional, just two spots away – seven seconds – from making the Foot Locker national meet. On the day, he’s one of the premier high school cross country runners and maybe one of the top 40 in the country last year.

“So he could help out as well as Vincent Ciattei and Daniel Jaskowak. These are all guys that I could see coming in and – it’s tough, because they are going from 5Ks in high school to 8Ks or even 10Ks in college, so you never know how they’re going to react to that jump – but those are guys that I feel could get to a point where they are helping as being in the top five by the ACCs.”

On the women’s side, a 10th-place finish at last year’s ACCs was a bit of an illusion. Sort of like a magician, Thomas is always making runners disappear for a year only to have them reappear at the precise time for optimal success – a trick he performed masterfully for last year’s men’s title run. Mulherin and Hammond both redshirted two years ago, and the added year of experience and training aided the Hokies in their ACC title run last year.

Thomas is hoping for similar results from the women’s team after redshirting several key contributors last season.

“The plan was to redshirt four out of our top five last year, at least the way I looked at it,” Thomas said. “[Redshirt juniors] Courtney Dobbs, Paige Kvartunas and Madalyn Nuckols, those three women we redshirted last year with the idea of having a real solid two years with them, starting this year.

“And they are motivated to do that. If they come back strong, we’ll be much improved over last year certainly, and hopefully, we can be in a position to have our best ACC finish ever. Sarah Rapp, along with those three, is the key to that. They’ve all been top-25 ACC types before, and they’ve been all-region before, so they have the ability. If we can get them together and do it on the same day, we will be very good.”

Rapp earned all-region last year with a 25th-place finish, while Kvartunas was an all-region runner in 2010 (18th place) and Nuckols was all-region in 2011 (23rd place). Dobbs is the only one of them to post a pair of top-40 finishes at the regional meets (2010, 38th and 2011, 39th).

However, even if those four post runs of less than 21 minutes – which are all capable of doing – five runners are needed for team points. Thomas believes several women can fill that final role.

“We have a solid freshman coming in this fall in Abby Motley, and she could help out,” Thomas said. “Shannon Morton has the potential to step up and really help our cross country efforts, and that’s kind of what we need to happen – someone who hasn’t really been there before but has the ability to. She’s young. She didn’t run cross country last year, but had a really outstanding track season. She could add some depth to our team.”

This year’s ACC Championship will feature a couple new wrinkles, as three new teams – Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Syracuse – enter the picture, and the site will be at Beeson Park in Kernersville, N.C. (Wake Forest is the host), a course unfamiliar to nearly all of Tech’s runners.

“I think this will be the best distance conference in the country,” Thomas said. “Just from sheer numbers, we just have more teams, and those teams are emphasizing the distance areas. It doesn’t get any easier, but hey, that’s why you come to the ACC. You come to run against the best distance runners in the country, and with those teams coming in, that’s going to be truer than ever.

“We’ve never been [on the host course] before, so we are going to be going down there and checking it out at some point this fall. It’s the North Carolina high school state meet course, so Sarah Rapp is very familiar with it, but outside of her, no one else has really run it before. From what I hear, it’s not as challenging of a course as our course is, which might be better for the freshmen.”

The ACC Championships are set for Nov. 1. It’s a date circled on Thomas’ calendar.

After all, if a few of the younger runners fulfill their potential and the older runners continue to progress – on either the men’s or women’s side – then they may be able to bring home a matching trophy for Thomas to sit on his desk.