Young runners shape future of teams

Every morning and night the Lions head out. No, they’re not hunting for prey…yet.

Southern’s men’s and women’s cross country teams are training for victory.

Both teams were selected to be runners-up in the MIAA preseason coaches’ polls, both behind CMSU.

Last year the men placed fourth in conference and third in the region.

The women placed third in conference and fifth in the region.

Head men’s cross country coach Tom Rutledge looks forward to the men’s season, seeing it as a rollercoaster.

“I think we’ll surprise

people,” he said.

With 11 of the 13 Lions being freshman, sophomores or first-year transfer students, Rutledge thinks they’ll do more than expected.

“This is an exciting group of young men,” he said.

“They come up to practice tired and beat up but they don’t show it.”

Incoming freshman include Dustin Dixon, Patrick Maina, Bret Musser, Andrew Reed, Nick Weis and Derek Wright. Middle distance runners Tyler Chiartano, Nick Patrick, freshmen and junior Marcus Walton also compete in cross-country.

Returners include sophomores Ryan Arthur, Kyle Davis, Rustan Crockett, junior Dustin Miller and senior Lucas Plocher.

“Kyle Davis and Dustin Miller are doing a good job bringing the young ones along,” Rutledge said.

The men have been running roughly 15 miles a day and had at least 100 miles ran in a week.Rutledge said that youth would be considered a weakness, but they work hard and give 100 percent.

“Yeah, they’re young, they’re going to make mistakes,” he said. “But they’re young and they have no fear and I like that.”

On the other hand, the women only have three rookies coming on the team. Freshmen Krista Merrill, Kara Eckard and Kari Fritchie all come to Southern with all-state experience in cross country and track in high school.

“We may have to count on this group of freshman more than we have in the last couple of years to step in and fill the role in the top five to seven,” said Patty Vavra, head women’s cross country coach.

With the graduation of Ashley Caffey three-time all-conference and Megan Russell, All-American in 2004, the returning members are having to step into leadership roles new to them.

“They’re quite capable,” Vavra said. “Kelly Fanning and Erin Click will be great leaders for us and are currently filling that role very well.”

She noted every year there is a different group with a whole different chemistry.

“I think you’ll see more parody amongst this team,” Vavra said.

She thinks they’ll be more closely matched and not quite the time gap between fourth and fifth like there was last year.

Returning members include Abby Adams and Kelly O’Toole, sophomores, Kate Brittan and Ashley Hendrix, juniors, and Erin Click and Kelly Fanning, seniors, taking the lead.

“The biggest challenge will be keeping everybody healthy,” said women’s cross country assistant coach Jamie Burnham. “We have three pretty good freshman doing well right now and we have to keep them going … if they hold up during the year they’ll probably be some key people down the road.”

With the first meet approaching, both the men’s and women’s teams are picking up the intensity.

But the coaches all agreed that chemistry has been an important factor in the mix.

“I feel the group meshed together very quickly,” Vavra said.

“There’s already a good camaraderie amongst the group.”

Rutledge felt the same way about the men’s team, who would like to bring the MIAA conference championship back to Southern.

“As far as compatibility-super; as far as attitudes-super … I can’t say enough. If they keep a good attitude we will have a great season,” he said.

The Lions start out their season Sept.9 at the University of Arkansas. Then Sept. 17 they bring it home for the Southern Stampede where the women will start at 9 a.m. and the men will follow.