August 31, 2016
Tech cross country teams hope to set the pace
The men's and women's programs have talent and depth and have set their sights on berths to the NCAA Championships

By Jimmy Robertson

A sliver of Virginia Tech’s Buford Meredith Cross Country Course will be off limits this fall, as workers continue construction on the new interchange along Route 460 and Southgate Drive, which butts up to the course.

A construction job of smaller proportions is continuing within Tech’s cross country programs, particularly on the men’s side.

Head coach Ben Thomas, the lead engineer, so to speak, on this project, is tasked with trying to find a replacement for Thomas Curtin, who enjoyed arguably the best season of any distance runner in Tech history. One could argue that he enjoyed the best season of any athlete in Tech history.

Curtin earned All-America honors in cross country, indoor track and outdoor track last year, but he probably ran his best during the cross country season in the fall. He won three races, including the ACC’s individual crown when he sprinted past Syracuse’s Justyn Knight in the final 100 meters.

Curtin also won the prestigious NCAA Pre-National Meet and the NCAA Southeast Regional. He finished 22nd at the NCAA Championships, earning All-America honors.

“Tommy was an inspiring athlete, with the way that he raced,” Thomas said. “It was fun to sit back and watch as a fan. Forget being his coach, I just enjoyed watching him as a fan. I’m going to miss that more than anything. It was such a rare attitude that he brought.

“I’m really excited that most of our returners had some time with him and hopefully that’s rubbed off. I’m not saying we don’t have other guys that are tough racers. We do, but I’m hoping it [Curtin’s toughness] rubs off on the cross country side a little more because most of my guys don’t have a lot of experience with cross country. We’ll miss his leadership tremendously. You just don’t replace him.”

Largely because of Curtin, the Tech men’s team received an at-large berth to the NCAA Championships. It marked the first for the men since 2012 and just the program’s second since 1987. The Hokies, who finished fourth at the ACC Championship, came in 27th at the NCAA meet.

In addition to losing Curtin, the Hokies also saw steady Darren Barlow depart, along with Juan Campos. Barlow usually finished in the top 40 of every meet and was consistently among Tech’s top five runners.

Despite those losses, the men’s team returns the bulk of its roster once practice starts in mid-August, leading to optimism about the 2016 campaign. Much of that optimism centers on rising seniors Stuart Robertson, Neil Gourley and Patrick Joseph.

Robertson earned All-Southeast Region honors a year ago after finishing 24th at the NCAA Southeast Regional meet held outside of Charlottesville. He also finished 24th at the ACC Championship and 34th at the NCAA Pre-National meet and may well have been the Hokies’ most consistent runner outside of Curtin.

Gourley and Joseph excel more in the middle distances as track runners than in the longer distances of cross country. Yet Gourley finished 30th or better in half of the races in which he ran, and Joseph earned All-Southeast Region honors two years ago before battling injuries last season. He only ran in three races before sitting out the rest of the year.

“Patrick just had a rough year last year, but you saw what type of talent he had when he nearly won an ACC title during the outdoor season [in the 800] and was an All-American [in track],” Thomas said. “He’s a guy that has the talent to pick up where Tommy left off, if all goes well.

“Neil started that process last fall. He had tremendous progress from the fall before to last fall, and if he continues to have that type of improvement, he can definitely be All-ACC. He has to work for it, but on the day, he’s a tough racer. And Stuart has been an all-region racer. We just need for him to be solid and steady and get slightly better than he’s been in the past. I think he has the potential to do that.”

Thomas also expects improvement from guys like Peter Seufer, Brent Musselman, Daniel Jaskowak and Andrew Gaiser. Seufer was the ACC Freshman of the Year last fall as the highest finishing freshman. He came in 34th at the ACC Championship and gained valuable experience after earning a spot in Tech’s lineup for the ACC Championship, the NCAA Southeast Regional and the NCAA Championships.

Musselman and Jaskowak, like Seufer, were usually regulars in the lineup. Musselman had four top-50 finishes, while Jaskowak came in 31st at the ACC Championships and 33rd at the Virginia Tech Alumni Invite. Gaiser dealt with injuries for much of the season, but he returned later in the fall and actually won the Hokie Open in early November when Thomas rested some of his regulars.

Other runners could factor in, including Diego Zarate – who qualified for the IAAF U-20 World Championships in the 1,500 – Vince Ciattei, Andrew Eason, Kevin Cianfarini and Andrew Goldman. Thomas also expects Fitsum Seyoum, an incoming freshman from Northern Virginia, to be in the mix.

Thomas understands that he probably doesn’t have another runner like Curtin on the roster – those rarely come around – but collectively, the Hokies may have enough to make up the difference and improve on their fourth-place finish at the ACC Championship.

“Some of the things we talked about before they went home for the summer was could we lose Tommy and potentially be a better team next year just by having better depth?” Thomas said. “We should have good depth. We had good depth last year. I’m just hoping the No. 5 guy can be in the top 25 instead of the top 35. That makes all the difference at the ACC meet. With 15 teams, there’s a fine line between being at the top and in the top five.”

On the women’s side, the Hokies return nearly everyone on the roster – a stark contrast to last fall when they saw seven seniors depart. This time, they only lost two seniors (Julie Wiemerslage and Shalonda Mitchell) and Thomas expects much-improved performances, both from individuals and as a team, from the group that finished eighth at the ACC Championship and sixth at the NCAA Southeast Regional.

The Tech women lacked that lead runner a year ago – someone with the ability to run near the front and contend for a win. Two years ago, Sarah Rapp and Paige Kvartunas both filled that role and usually finished in the top 15 of every race.

This season, seniors Abigail Motley, Shannon Morton and Hanna Green are among many vying to move into that role. Without question, they serve as the leaders of this squad.

“We have an experienced group coming back,” Thomas said. “They did a pretty solid job last year to be in the top half of the conference. We had good depth, but we didn’t have a frontrunner. This group could certainly improve from last year.”

Motley is the better of the trio at longer distances, as both Morton and Green run the middle distances during the track seasons. She was Tech’s top finisher at the ACC Championship, coming in 37th.

Despite being more of a middle distance runner, Morton ran fairly consistently in cross country last fall. She recorded two top-20 finishes and her 41st-place finish at the NCAA Southeast Regional marked the best on the squad.

Green, a four-time All-American in track, came in a team-best eighth at the Virginia Tech Alumni meet and a team-best 21st at the Princeton Invite early in the fall. But a foot injury hampered her later in the season and Tech’s coaching staff held her out the remainder of the year following her 70th-place finish at the ACC Championship. The coaches wanted to preserve her for the track season.

Lauren Berman figures to push those seniors as she heads into her sophomore season. She had the best fall of the freshmen in 2015, recording four top-45 finishes, including a 10th-place finish at the Virginia Tech Alumni Invite. She came in a team-best 45th at the NCAA Southeast regional to cap a great season.

“Abby gives us some experience,” Thomas said. “She’s had a good summer and she wants to be a factor. Shannon has been all-region for us in cross country before, and if she puts it together, she could be a high finisher for us. Hanna hopefully will come back a little stronger in cross country this year. She ran late into the summer because of the Olympic Trials, but I think by the end of October, she’ll be ready to hopefully be an all-region runner.

“Lauren Berman has had a good summer. She was ultra consistent last year as a freshman, which is hard to do. She moved up in distance from high school and did a good job and she’s had a good summer.”

Those four figure to be in Tech’s lineup on a regular basis along with Katie Kennedy, a rising junior who had a top-10 finish at the Virginia Tech Alumni Invite and was a strong 49th at the ACC Championship. She stayed in Blacksburg this summer, working an internship in the Tech Athletics Ticket Office, and that allowed Thomas to keep tabs on her training – which went very well. Another freshman last fall, Amanda Swaak, ran just as consistently. She recorded top-20 finishes at the Hokie Invite and the Virginia Tech Alumni Invite and was 49th at the ACC Championship.

Thomas expects to see more of his younger runners emerge. Last year’s roster consisted of 12 freshmen and most of them returned for the 2016-17 year. Someone like Jennifer Fleming, who battled injuries last fall, could develop into a member of the lineup, or Rachel Pocratsky, who ran well during the track season in the spring and could carry that over to the course this fall.

Also, Thomas didn’t rule out Sarah Edwards, an incoming freshman from Bellingham, Massachusetts, as an option. She possesses the versatility to run anything from the 800 to the longer distances of cross country.

“We have the girls with the potential to do it, but I won’t know until we hit the roads here in a couple of weeks,” Thomas said.

Now in his 16th season, Thomas likes the direction of both programs. Both possess more quality, talent and depth than in seasons past.

His goals for this fall are lofty – he wants both teams to receive bids to the NCAA Championships. That means doing well at the ACC Championship, along with a few other meets in which his squads will take on terrific competition.

“Those are our goals,” he said. “Two things need to happen. We need to be consistent throughout the fall, which means staying healthy and getting a lot of good work in. Also, our leaders are going to have to lead and our experienced people are going to have to be very good.

“We don’t have a lot of room for error. But if it all comes together –and we expect it to because we’ve been good about doing that – we hope to be at nationals.”

He and the rest of Hokie Nation will find out just how far along this construction job is on Sept. 2 when the Hokies open the season at home in the annual Hokie Invite. That marks the first of three home meets this fall. The ACC Championship will be held on Oct. 28 in Cary, North Carolina.

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