MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Known for his ingenuity and masterful capability of utilizing talent when it will most help his team, WVU coach Sean Cleary has set up the formula for a successful program, which the 2011 cross country team looks to once again prove this fall.
“The outlook is good for this year’s team,” the fifth-year head coach says. “We have a lot of girls with several years of experience and we’re hoping it all comes together this season to compete for conference and national championships.”
Expected to be 2011 leaders are seniors Kaylyn Christopher, Jessica O’Connell and Kate Harrison. They were asked by Cleary to sit out last year as redshirts so that he could position the team with limitless potential in 2011. Working with a wide spectrum of experienced runners, Cleary is fully aware of the unbound accomplishments his team can achieve this season.
“I’d like to see us back to the 2007-09 form,” Cleary says. “These girls have improved a lot. My first expectation is for us to be back as a team at the NCAA Championships. If all goes well, we can end up in the Top 10 if we execute properly.”
One returning All-American, junior Kaitlyn Gillespie, has the same expectations of a year ago as she looks to repeat all-region and all-conference accolades. To become an All-American, she placed 34th at the NCAA Championships and had 10th-place marks at the NCAA Mid-Atlantic Regional and BIG EAST Championships to earn all-region and all-BIG EAST recognitions as well. The Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, native also had two first-place finishes on the year and came in 17th place at the Penn State National.
Redshirt junior Sarah-Anne Brault, who also participated as an individual at last year’s NCAA Championships, hopes to repeat all-region honors as she came in 16th place at the Mid-Atlantic Regional. Consistently one of the team’s top finishers, the track All-American came in second place at the Notre Dame Invitational, 11th at the Penn State National and had a nice race at the BIG EAST Championships, placing 22nd with a 6K time of 21:46.
Christopher, an All-American track athlete in the distance medley relay, has also competed well for cross country and is a three-time participant at the NCAA Championships and a two time all-region performer. Before redshirting last season, she placed 87th at the national championships in 2009 and placed 24th at the NCAA Mid-Atlantic Regional. In addition to being a top runner for the team, the Kingwood, W. Va., native is a CoSIDA Academic All-American and United States Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches of America (USTFCCCA) all-academic recipient.
A native of Toronto, Harrison also brings a wealth of experience to the team as a top performer in cross country and track. In 2008, she placed 69th at the NCAA Cross Country Championships and came in 94th one year later in the same event. Before redshirting last season, Harrison was a two time all-region performer having placed 19th at the NCAA Mid-Atlantic Regional in 2009 and 23rd in 2008. This past outdoor track season, she was named a first team All-American in the 10,000-meter race following a second-place finish at the NCAA Championships.
O’Connell returns for her final season as a two-time participant at the BIG EAST Championships and NCAA Mid-Atlantic Regional. In 2009, she placed 74th at the regional and came in 30th place at the BIG EAST Championships, while she came in 33rd at the regional and 29th at the BIG EAST event in 2008. The Calgary, Alberta, native also competed at the NCAA Championships that season, helping the team to its fourth-place national finish.
With an equal amount of experienced and young runners, Cleary will look to both for leadership.
“Time will tell who the leaders are this year,” Cleary says. “We have team leaders on the course and leaders that help the team prepare mentally. Stephanie Caruso is the glue that keeps everyone together, and Stephanie Aldea brings tremendous ideas and energy to the team. We may not have set rally leaders on the course, but several that are going to take this program back to where it was two years ago.”
Having sat out the first part of last season because of injury, senior Ahna Lewis is set to maintain the momentum she picked up in the year’s final meets as she just missed qualifying for all-conference and all-region marks. A Morgantown native, Lewis finished the NCAA Mid-Atlantic Regional in 25th place and came in 33rd place at the BIG EAST Championships. She was an all-region performer in 2008 by placing 15th at the Mid-Atlantic Regional.
Now with a few years of collegiate experience, runners Jordan Hamric, Sarah Martinelli, Aubrey Moskal, Hallie Portner and Chelsea Jarvis are also prepared to make contributions as they look to build on strong performances from the 2010 season.
Hamric placed third at the WVU Invitational and had a solid performance at the BIG EAST Preview with a 39th-place mark. She also participated at the BIG EAST Championships for the team. Martinelli came on strong at the end of the season, placing 52nd at the NCAA Mid-Atlantic Regional and coming in 46th place at the BIG EAST Championships, fifth best on the team to provide its final points.
Moskal, also a Morgantown native, came in second place at the WVU Invitational and finished 25th overall at the BIG EAST Preview. She also contributed to the team with a 55th-place mark at the BIG EAST Championships and arrived in 50th at the Mid-Atlantic Regional. Portner started the year off right with a first-place finish at the WVU Invitational and followed it with a 23rd-place mark at the BIG EAST Preview. She also competed at the BIG EAST Championships and NCAA Mid-Atlantic Regional.
“These girls really stepped up for us last year,” Cleary says. “They’re not going to lie down and give up their spots. They kept our program afloat last season. We were still a national-class program because they were tremendous 4-5-6 runners to Sarah-Anne, Ahna, and Katie. I’m excited to see how they respond this year because they need to be ready to step up.”
Redshirt sophomore Chelsea Jarvis came in fourth place at the WVU Invitational and had a good run at the BIG EAST Preview, arriving in 33rd overall. Competing sparingly last season, redshirt senior Caruso and redshirt sophomore Rachel Buser also will look to play significant roles during the season.
Redshirting last year were freshmen Josie Crouch, Alison Kimble, Lydia Martinelli, Allison Pettit and Aldea, a transfer from Houston. All will utilize the year of training to compete for starting roles on the Mountaineer squad.
The Mountaineers will have their hands full in conference competition as four BIG EAST schools finished in the top 10 at last year’s NCAA Championships. Those schools - Villanova (1), Georgetown (4), Providence (9), and Syracuse (10) - return the majority of their lineups from a year ago as the conference race will be up for grabs.
“The BIG EAST teams, including a much-improved Connecticut team, will provide a huge challenge to earn a conference championship,” Cleary says. “We’re looking at roughly seven schools from our league finishing in the Top 25. We’ll be going up against the national champions of the past two years, Villanova, and a Georgetown team that may win the national title. Providence and Syracuse pretty much have the same teams, too. We may have five schools in the Top 10 this year. It’s the toughest league in the country.”
Heading into the championship races, Cleary simply hopes his team will be mentally prepared by how they treat the initial races of the season.
“Our goal for the BIG EAST Championships is to be prepared for it,” he says. “We’ll have a pretty good season setup to prepare for it, but it all comes down to the conference race. We won’t have the mindset to break course records or to have record-high point totals, but to focus on our strategy for the BIG EAST. We may be a darkhorse team that can upset some schools.”Note: Be sure to follow the Mountaineer cross country team this year on their official Facebook page by clicking the "Like" button.