By MATTHEW CRUMP
The start of the 2013 cross-country season brings promise and new challenges to Eastern’s men’s and women’s cross-country teams.
The men’s team has a lot more pressure on it after its stellar year in 2012. The Colonels won the OVC tournament, placed second at the NCAA Southeast Regionals and competed in the NCAA National Championship.
The year starts with high expectations for the men’s team. A preseason poll by the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA) ranked Eastern at no. 11 nationally, in front of schools like Indiana (20), UCLA (13) and Oregon (12).
“These polls cause a certain amount of tension,” Head Coach Rick Erdmann said. “They do put a sort of target on our backs. It’s interesting.”
The strength for the men’s team is the returning athletes.
Senior Soufiane Bouchikhi, three-time OVC Male Runner of the Year from Antwerp, Belgium, is the team’s strongest runner. Bouchikhi led the team to the NCAA national tournament after winning the NCAA Southeast Regional in 2012. He was named the NCAA Southeast Region Male Runner of the Year in the spring.
The team’s second strongest runner is junior Wade Meddles. Meddles transferred to Eastern at the beginning of last season. He was shaking off an injury most of the 2012 season and hit his stride during the NCAA Championship, where he finished first on the team, 38th overall and earned All-American honors.
Even with the strong performances from last year, Erdmann said the team still has work to do. While the no. 1 and 2 runners for Eastern would perform strongly, the runners behind them would lag and the final places would be stretched out. Eastern could get three or four runners in the top 20, but the fifth runner would lag behind. This would cause the team as a whole to get a worse score.
“This is a team sport,” Erdmann said. “We can’t have one guy worrying about the number one guy, the number two guy. You want to be the best you can be and get them as close together as possible.”
Erdmann said some smaller races would help the team get a strategy to solve this problem.
“Sometimes in these big races, there’s so many people they can’t see each other and they can’t figure out where they are,” he said. “This will help in terms of formulating the ability to stay close together. Our level of success will depend on our ability to overcome that.”
Erdmann said his focus is on the NCAA Regional Championship at the end of the year. The men’s team placed 24 out of 31 last year, with Meddles and Bouchikhi finishing in the top 20.
“We weren’t able to put it all together at nationals,” Meddles said. “We feel like last year was kind of like our learning curve and now this year we can fix what we did wrong.”
Despite winning the OVC tournament last year, the women’s team has an uphill battle this fall. The Colonels lost three runners from last season.
Junior Ann Eason is the highlight for the women’s team. She was named the OVC Female Runner of the Year last year. Erdmann said the team is young and he isn’t sure how they will perform until the team gets a few races under its belt.
Eason echoed Erdmann’s thoughts on strategies the team needs to win.
“We have a lot of depth,” she said. “I think it’s going to be competitive. I think we’re going to have a lot of girls running together, which is something we struggled with in the past.”
One of the biggest issues both teams will face this year is injuries.
Junior Ben Toroitich was injured near the end of the season in 2012, which he has not recovered from. He earned All-Southeast Region honors after finishing 15th at the NCAA Southeast Region Championships with a 10K time of 30:29.91, despite his injury. Toroitich missed the 2013 track and field season completely. Erdmann said he hopes Toroitich will be fit to compete after a few more weeks of recovery time.
Another runner who is out because of an injury is sophomore Amos Kosgey. He was named the OVC Male Freshman of the Year in 2012. Kosgey injured his foot.
Two runners from the women’s team, Meri and Viivi Rantanen, left the team after Meri sat out the majority of the 2012-2013 cross-country and track and field season because of injuries.
Both teams start the year at the University of Kentucky Invitational. The Colonels will be facing teams like Louisville, UK and Oklahoma State. Oklahoma State’s men’s team won the NCAA National Championship last year, so Eastern will be facing strong competition.
The University of Kentucky Invitational will be on Sept. 14.