Tech squads with solid 2016 cross country seasons

By Jimmy Robertson

BLACKSBURG – The Virginia Tech men’s and women’s cross country seasons didn’t go quite as head coach Ben Thomas had envisioned back in August.

Actually, that’s an understatement. Neither teams’ seasons went anything at all as Thomas expected.

Both squads wrapped up the 2016 campaign with solid performances at the NCAA Southeast Regional held at hilly Panorama Farms outside of Charlottesville, Virginia in mid-November The Tech men finished sixth out of 29 teams, while the women came in eighth out of 32 squads. Neither team received an at-large bid to the NCAA Championships.

That either team was in the discussion after what transpired through the course of the season, though, serves as a testament to Thomas, assistant Eric Johannigmeier and the runners themselves.

“I really feel like both teams overachieved when you look at the season as a whole and everything that happened,” Thomas said. “I can’t say enough about the effort that the kids gave.”

Thomas expected the men’s team to be a contender in the ACC this season, even with the loss of All-American Thomas Curtin and Darren Barlow from last season’s squad. The roster featured seniors Neil Gourley, Patrick Joseph and Stuart Robertson.

But Gourley and Joseph elected to take redshirt years because difficult majors – mechanical engineering and geography, respectively – were going to keep them in Blacksburg for a fifth year anyway. A balky hamstring kept Robertson off the course for the entire fall.

So that left Thomas without any seniors. Making matters worse, Peter Seufer – last year’s ACC Freshman of the Year – contracted mononucleosis after the third meet and missed the rest of the season. Then talented freshman Fitsum Seyoum suffered a foot injury that robbed him of the rest of the fall.

But Thomas and Johannigmeier found a way to cobble together a competitive lineup. Andrew Gaiser and Daniel Jaskowak grabbed leadership roles and ran consistently all season. The two redshirt juniors finished in the top 25 of every meet, and both earned All-Southeast Region and All-ACC honors for the first time.

Diego Zarate nearly earned All-ACC honors, and Brent Musselman earned All-Southeast Region honors after running the best race of his career at the NCAA regional. Jack Joyce, Baron Kieffer and Daniel Rau – all relative unknowns before the season – ran well enough to help the Hokies finish sixth or better in every meet.

“I was really pleased,” Thomas said. “We had three really good individual performances at the regional. Brent, of course, Andrew and Jaskowak … all of those guys had never been all-region before, so it was great to see those guys get their first all-region performance. I also thought the other guys raced well.

“You look at the whole season, and like I said, I feel like this team really overachieved. I can’t complain about their efforts at all. So I’m excited about the individuals and excited for track season.”

The situation wasn’t quite as crazy on the women’s side, but situations did arise. The Tech women’s team went into the season with seniors in Hanna Green, Shannon Morton and Abigail Motley, but Green and Morton dealt with nagging injuries all season, and Tessa Riley, a junior, also dealt with injuries for much of the season. That left Motley to handle the bulk of the leadership responsibilities.

Fortunately for the Hokies, Katie Kennedy emerged and enjoyed a fantastic fall. She earned All-Southeast Region and All-ACC honors for the first time and finished no worse than 21st in any race this fall.

Behind Kennedy and Motley, a young Tech squad finished third at the ACC Championships – easily the best finish at the league meet in program history. The injuries forced Thomas to go with a lot of freshmen, including Laurie Barton, Kayla Richardson and Sara Freix. They handled the pressure well.

Thomas was forced to juggle a lot of parts this season, but both squads finished higher at the ACC Championships than league coaches expected. Both were picked to finish fifth (the men came in fourth) before the season.

“We just killed it at ACCs,” Thomas said.

If nothing else, the cross country season served as training for the upcoming track seasons, and the Hokies’ distance runners on both sides gained valuable experience. The men’s track team won the ACC outdoor track title last spring and return a lot of key components from that group, and Tech’s track coaching staff, including Thomas, expect the women’s team to compete for an ACC title this season.

For both teams to be in the hunt for an ACC title, both need for the distance runners to score valuable points in the distance events. Thomas likes direction in which the group is trending.

“I’m excited about the individuals,” he said. “With what we got done this fall with this group, I’m pretty excited for track season. I really liked the effort this fall, and I’m excited about where they’re headed.”

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