Tech cross country squads ready to make runs at ACC crowns

By Jimmy Robertson

Coming off the greatest year in school history, including three ACC team track and field titles, what could the Virginia Tech men’s and women’s track and field and cross country programs possibly do for an encore?

Why, start by winning the ACC cross country titles, of course.

The Tech men and women open the 2017 cross country season Friday when they participate in the Hokie Invite held at the Buford Meredith Cross Country Course. With a lot of his key runners back, distance coach Ben Thomas is optimistic on his teams’ chances, particularly on the men’s side.

A year ago, the Tech men entered the season with high expectations, but Thomas decided to redshirt Neil Gourley, and then the Hokies lost Patrick Joseph to an injury and Peter Seufer to mononucleosis. Still, Thomas and assistant Eric Johannigmeier managed to piece together a team that finished fourth at the ACC Championships.

“If you had told me before the season that we would have gotten in the top four at the ACC meet without those three guys, then I would have taken it and been happy with it,” Thomas said. “Now hopefully, we can get those guys in the fold. We did lose Andrew Gaiser to graduation, but everyone else returns, and we have the potential to have five all-regional guys. Any time you have that, you have a good chance at making the NCAAs.”

Daniel Jaskowak and Brent Musselman headline the squad after earning All-Southeast Region honors a year ago. Jaskowak, who earned All-ACC honors as well, finished in the top 25 at every meet, and Musselman surprised everyone when he was the Hokies’ top finisher at the NCAA Southeast Regional, coming in 19th.

Seufer, Gourley and Joseph all return this fall, and Thomas expects all three to be among his top seven. Vincent Ciattei and Diego Zarate return as well, and both Jack Joyce and Fitsum Seyoum figure to be challenging all of those guys.

A key, though, is keeping Seufer healthy, as he figures to be the Hokies’ frontrunner. The redshirt sophomore won the 10,000 at the ACC Outdoor Championships during the outdoor track season and thrives at longer distances. Most of the roster excels at middle distances, so Thomas needs a guy like Seufer near the front to lead the way. He expects big things from him this fall.

“Those guys have to be cross country runners in the fall and have that mindset of being willing to go out there and hang with Peter because I feel confident Peter will be at the front of the ACC, as long as he’s healthy,” Thomas said. “If he can drag a few of those guys with him, that’s the only chance we have to win an ACC title and get to nationals.”

Jaskowak, Musselman, Gourley and Joseph are all seniors, giving the Hokies plenty of experience. If five Hokies earn all-region honors, then they probably make Thomas prophetic and earn another NCAA Championships appearance – which would be their third since 2012.

First, though, comes the ACC Championships and competing for an ACC title.

“We have some really good teams in our league, of course, but if Peter Seufer continues to develop … if we can get some frontrunners around that guy, then yeah, an ACC championship is a possibility,” Thomas said.

On the women’s side, the Hokies also return a lot of components from last year’s team that finished a program-best third at the ACC Championships. Seniors Hanna Green, Shannon Morton, Abigail Motley and Tessa Riley all finished their careers, but Green, Morton and Riley dealt with nagging injuries that limited them for much of the 2016 season anyway, forcing Thomas to use a contingent of younger runners.

Thus, four of last year’s top five runners are returning, including lead runner Katie Kennedy, who enjoyed the best year of her career. Kennedy, a senior, earned All-ACC and All-Southeast Region honors and never finished worse than 21st in any race.

“She’s certainly our most capable, having been All-ACC and all-region, and she finished strong during the track season,” Thomas said. “She had a good summer. So far, so good. I think she wants to lead us.”

The key for the Hokies will be finding three or four runners to help Kennedy, ones fast enough to be within a minute of her in any given race. Those in the mix include junior Lauren Berman, sophomores Kayla Richardson, Sarah Edwards and Sara Freix, and redshirt freshman Amanda Swaak.

Richardson and Edwards enjoyed fine first seasons. Richardson won a cross country race last fall and ran consistently during the track season, while Edwards won the ACC title in the 3,000-meter steeplechase during the outdoor season and won a gold medal in the same event at the Pan American Junior Championships.

“Mikayla had a solid year,” Thomas said. “She competed every season, and she was able to stay consistent with her training. She progressed every race, and I think she could break out and be consistent.

“Sarah Edwards knows she has to get a lot better at cross country, and she has the potential to get better. She’s bringing a lot of confidence after winning the ACC championship in the steeplechase. To get better in that event, she has to compete against the best in the ACC in cross country as well, and I think she’s motivated to do that.”

Keeping Berman and Swaak healthy remains a key as well. They both suffered injuries last fall, but both are finally healthy and trained over the summer.

Thomas also expects middle distance standouts Rachel Pocratsky and Laurie Barton to factor in on the cross country scene this season. Both excel in the 800, but could offer depth.

“It’s like with the men’s team,” Thomas said. “We have the potential to have a good frontrunner in Katie Kennedy, and then we’ve got some supporting cast that, if they could be within a minute of her, we have a chance to improve on our finish from last year at the ACC meet and get to the nationals. That’s a big goal for the group.”

Thomas would love to see the women’s program win its first ACC cross country title and qualify for just its third NCAA Championships. The Hokies are young – Kennedy is the lone senior – but many of this group contributed to the women’s team that won the ACC title during the outdoor track season. So they know how to win.

“I’m excited for them,” Thomas said. “Hopefully they can carry some of that momentum into cross country. There are several of them that stayed here this summer and got some training in. The opportunity is there. The ACC is always tough, but we were third last year. We’re still a good ways away from first or second, but I think this group would like to see that gap close.”

Hopefully, both squads repeat what they accomplished during the outdoor season at the ACC meet – winning conference titles. For sure, that’s an encore Hokie Nation would love to see.

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