September 3, 2015
Cross country squads ready to open 2015 season
The Tech men's team has high expectations for this season, while a young women's squad will be looking to make its mark
By Jimmy Robertson

BLACKSBURG – The Virginia Tech cross country teams open the 2015 season on Friday evening with the Hokie Invite held at the Buford Meredith Cross Country Course on Tech’s campus, and cross country head coach Ben Thomas likes what he has seen so far from both squads during preseason training.

A lot of excitement centers on the men’s squad, which finished sixth at the ACC Championships a year ago. Thomas Curtin, who took a redshirt year in cross country last fall, returns to the lineup. He was a three-time All-American in the distance events during the indoor and outdoor track seasons (in the 3,000- and 5,000-meter runs during the indoor season and the 5,000 during the outdoor season).

Curtin, one of five seniors on the men’s team, headlines the group and gives the Hokies a bona fide threat to win the individual cross country title. He finished second at the ACC Cross Country Championships in 2013, and while successful on the track, he probably possesses more potential for greatness in cross country.

“It traditionally has been his strongest venue,” Thomas said. “Now with the track season he just had, we’re very excited about the potential he has for cross [country]. Staying healthy, staying consistent from here on, I think he’s as good as anybody in the NCAA. He’s a top-10 guy at the NCAAs if he can do that – stay healthy and consistent from here on.”

Thomas knows, though, that Curtin needs to get help from the others for Tech to win the ACC team title. In 2012, Will Mulherin won the individual title for the Hokies, but guys like Curtin, Brayden Burleigh, Michael Hammond and Leoule Degfae all finished in the top 22, giving Tech the points it needed to win its first team crown.

This fall, the Hokies also return experienced runners in redshirt senior Darren Barlow, redshirt junior Stuart Robertson and juniors Neil Gourley and Patrick Joseph. Those four at the least need to provide support for Curtin.

Robertson served as Tech’s top runner last season while Curtin took the redshirt year, and he finished 21st at the ACC meet. He went on to earn all-region honors after finishing 17th at the NCAA Southeast Regional.

Joseph and Barlow finished 25th and 30th, respectively at the regionals. Gourley, a native of Scotland, came in 43rd at his first ACC meet, but ran well during track season and fared well at the European U23 Championships this summer.

“That’s a top five I’d put up against anybody on a given day,” Thomas said. “On paper, this is probably the most talented group we’ve had since 2012, the last time we were able to win. This is our best shot since then. Now, on the other hand, the league has gotten considerably stronger since then, with the addition of Syracuse, Notre Dame and Louisville. They all bring strong distance runners into the mix.

“We have a chance. If we have a good September and October, we’ll have a chance to be in the mix at ACCs.”

Freshmen to watch on the men’s side include Peter Seufer from Lynchburg, Virginia, and Diego Zarate from Germantown, Maryland. Seufer finished 30th at the Foot Locker National meet held in San Diego, while Zarate finished third in Maryland’s state meet. He won 10 of 11 cross country meets his senior season.

On the women’s side, Thomas faces a little more of rebuilding job. Last fall, the Hokies, with a veteran lineup, enjoyed one of the best seasons in school history. They finished sixth at the ACC Championships and fourth at the NCAA Southeast Regionals, and then earned an at-large berth to the NCAA Championships – just the program’s second appearance in school history.

But seven seniors departed, including four fifth-year seniors. Standouts Sarah Rapp and Paige Kvartunas are gone, and they served as the leaders of the group, particularly late in the season.

So the women’s team will be young, but Thomas still has high expectations.

“You have to be patient, but you also have to instill that there is a level of expectation,” Thomas said. “A rebuilding year doesn’t mean we’re not going after it. We’re trying to get there as quickly as we can while keeping them healthy and consistent.

Hanna Green and Shannon Morton have both been successful in cross [country]. They also came from lower mileage, middle distance backgrounds, and they’ve developed confidence in their abilities as cross country runners. They’re going to be leaders of this group.”

Morton, from Chesapeake, Virginia, serves as the top returning runner after earning all-region honors following a 19th-place finish at the NCAA Southeast Regional last fall. She finished 32nd at the ACC meet.

Green is an intriguing cross country option because she dominated on the track as a sophomore this past spring. She earned All-America honors in the 800-meter run during both the indoor and outdoor seasons, claiming third in the event at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in June.

A year ago, Green’s best finish in cross country was 19th at the season-opening VT Alumni Invite. She was 70th at the ACC Championships and 42nd at the regional meet.

Can she run longer distances effectively?

“She’s going to be a lot better in cross [country] this year,” Thomas said. “She’s more motivated to do it this year. She likes cross country, and she wants to get into that all-region level. She was 42nd last year. It’s not inconceivable that she could be in the top 25.”

The rest of the women’s lineup, at least heading into the season, remains a bit of a mystery. Abigail Motley returns after competing in six meets last fall, and Tessa Riley becomes eligible after transferring from Wake Forest and sitting out last season – she finished second in the Hokie Open while running unattached. Katie Kennedy, who ran four meets last fall, and Marie Johnston, another transfer from Wake who sat out last season, also return.

Thomas expects several freshmen – he signed eight – to be contributors, including seven in-state runners. The group includes two from Blacksburg in Jennifer Fleming and Emily Beatty. Fleming finished 10th at the Nike Southeast Regional last November, while Beatty came in 66th.

Lauren Berman, another freshman (from Fairfax, Virginia), finished ninth at the Virginia Class 6A Championships last fall and came in 22nd at the Foot Locker South Regional out of 177 runners in that event. Also, Alyssa Shupe, a freshman from Forest, Virginia, finished fourth at the Class 4A state meet and helped her Jefferson Forest High School to the team state championship.

Most of the group ran more of the middle distances (e.g. the 800 and 1,600) than the longer ones demanded by the sport of cross country. Thus, it may take some time for this group to be competitive in the ACC.

“I’m really going to miss the girls we just had,” Thomas said. “They were a great group of people and performed so well for us at the end of their careers. But I’m excited with the freshmen. I think they have a good range of talent, from middle distance, 800 runners to potential 10K runners. We’re starting to rebuild depth with this group.”

Thomas – entering his 14th season as the head coach – likes the potential with both squads. Perhaps more importantly, he likes the direction of both programs going forward.

“I’m excited,” he said. “My new assistant, Eric Johannigmeier, has done an outstanding job. He’s really picked up the recruiting. It’s the first time I’ve had a full-time assistant devoted to the distances, and we’re seeing immediate payoff with recruiting. And the team’s performances have been getting stronger and stronger each year.”

After the Hokie Invite this Friday, both teams will compete in the VT Alumni Invite on Sept. 18. The ACC Championships will be held Oct. 30 in Tallahassee, Florida.

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