ANDERSON, S.C. – With relatively young but experienced and talented rosters, the Anderson University cross country teams are set to debut Friday night at Southern Wesleyan's Warrior Invitational, when the Trojans begin their pursuit of regional and national success.
Second-year head coach Kevin Eagle noted, "We have six of our top seven guys coming back and five of our top seven women returning, so we're looking to get back to nationals. We have a deep group this year - last year going into the season we had 20 women on the team and this year we only have 13 but we are a lot deeper. So we are excited to see who steps up. A lot of freshmen and sophomores know it's their time to step up and see who's ready to make that next step."
Paced by five upperclassmen and three all-conference performers among 10 returning letterwinners from a season ago, the women's team is looking to earn its second-straight appearance in the NCAA Championship after becoming the first AU squad – men's or women's – to capture a berth on the national stage a year ago. With four runners finishing in the top-14, AU finished as runners-up at last year's NCAA Southeast Regional in Wingate, N.C.
In late August, the Trojans were tabbed to finish second in the 2018 SAC Preseason Coaches' Poll, just behind two-time defending league champion Queens. AU was ranked third in the Southeast Region in the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA) DII Preseason Poll.
"On the women's side, our strength is pretty much our leadership," added Eagle. "We have a good senior class. We are returning five of the top seven who ran at nationals last year, so we have a more experienced group on the women's side. We are really looking forward to see what we can accomplish this season. We know we have a special group."
The senior tandem of Allyson Malone and Abigail Bozarth, along with sophomore Olivia Evans all took home both All-Conference and All-Region honors a season ago.
"We are going to rely heavily on those three throughout the season," added Eagle. "Martha Coleman is back and she's a senior this year, so we are expecting a lot from her as she bounces back. Then we have a lot of people returning and battling for those next 5-8 spots to go to nationals."
The Trojan men's team finished among the upper echelon at both the league championship and at the NCAA Regionals and narrowly missed out on earning the program's first-ever appearance in the NCAA National Championships with a fourth-place finish at regionals.
With nine returning letterwinners, including five true freshmen, eight sophomores, just one junior and no seniors listed on the men's roster, the Trojans were picked to finish third in the SAC Preseason Coaches' Poll and were fourth in the USTFCCCA Southeast Region Preseason Poll.
"The freshmen last year are now sophomores, so just having a more experienced team is a strength," noted Eagle. "From high school to college, in other sports you still have the same concept – everything is the same, except in cross country the distance doubles, so the guys in high school are used to running 5K, but in college, the transition to 10K in college is a little bit tougher. Just the experience they gained from that great freshmen year that most of them had is a big plus."
"We are looking for that entire sophomore class to step up," said Eagle. Ben [Clark] had a really good indoor [track] season and stated having a really good outdoor season and then got injured, so we are really excited to see how he bounces back. He's our top returner from last year and he's back training full and he's ready to go. He's excited and way stronger."
After opening the campaign at Southern Wesleyan, the Trojans have a two-week layoff before traveling to the Peach State to compete in the North Georgia Cross Country Invitational for the first time in school history. The event will be hosted by the Nighthawks in Oakwood, Ga., site of the 2018 NCAA Southeast Region Championships.
"We are going there to preview the regional championship course," added Eagle. "We've never been to this course before. It's a 2K loop on their campus and is supposed to be pancake flat, so the kids will like it. Since that course is how we get to nationals we are going to preview it and then later down the road we will run it for regionals."
Two weeks later, AU will compete in Charlotte, N.C., for the ninth time in 10 seasons, as the Trojans are slated to run in the Royals Challenge at McAlpine Creek Park on Oct. 12.
"It's a really good, fast course," noted Eagle. "That's been our PR course – probably the fastest that we will go to pretty much all year. We will see a lot of Southeast Region teams, a lot of Atlantic Region and a lot of South Region teams, so it's a good meet to go to for national qualifying implications."
A week later, the Trojans are slated to compete at the NCAA Pre-National
Meet, which will be hosted by Slippery Rock at the Bob O'Connor Golf Course at Schenley Park in Pittsburgh, Pa.
"I said throughout the entire preseason in summer talking to our student-athletes that our goal is to get to nationals," said Eagle. "We put a lot of focus on that, so we are going to preview the national course and set it up just like what we are going to do in December, if we get there. It actually falls in a good place too, because it's our last prep meet for the championship portion of our schedule."
Anderson will follow up by hosting the 2018 South Atlantic Conference Championships, Saturday, Nov. 3, at the Milliken Research Center in Spartanburg, S.C. AU will be hosting the event for the first time since joining the conference in 2010.
"We are really excited about hosting the conference championships," said Eagle.
Next up, the Trojans will return to the mountains of North Georgia for the NCAA Regionals in mid-November, while the NCAA National Championships are slated for Dec. 1, in Pittsburgh, Pa.
"We are excited about seeing what we can do, building off of last year," Eagle concluded. "We'll be trying to get both teams to nationals but we have to be patient. We really are just looking forward to what we can do based off of what we did last year with such a young team."