Heading into the American Athletic Conference meet on Friday, the men’s and women’s cross country teams are confident they will place in the top half of their respective fields.
The women’s 6-kilometer race at the Tulsa University-hosted meet is set to start at 10 a.m. CST, followed by the men’s 8K at 10:50 a.m.
Assistant cross country coach Steve Fuelling said the expectations are much higher than in the past.
“I think we are expecting a lot more than what we expected last year,” Fuelling said. “We’ve had some consistent training for both teams to place in the top half of the conference, which would be a significant improvement.”
Redshirt junior Matt Kacyon, who won the Ted Owen Invitational in September with a time of 25 minutes, 50.52 seconds, agrees with his coach and feels the team could finish in the Top 3.
“There are some great teams in our conference,” Kacyon said. “I don’t see why we can’t compete with these guys and give them a run for their money. We could finish in the Top 3, but no matter what the Top 5.”
For the men, redshirt-junior Alex Izewski has produced improved times from his results last season.
In last year’s conference meet, Izewski ran the 8K in 27:13.20. This season, Izewski’s best time came at the Penn State National Invitational, in which he won. He finished the 8K in 26:20, 53 seconds faster than his mark at the meet last year.
The team also is adding Kacyon into the mix, who didn’t run in the conference meet last fall.
Izewski said he’s hopeful in the team’s ability this weekend and feels he has a chance to take first overall.
“There is nowhere for us to go but up,” Izewski said. “I think we can be up there contending. I don’t see why we can’t be in the Top 5 or higher. Individually, I would like to try and challenge for the win. I am probably in the best shape of my life. After this season I think I am ready to step up and compete with the best guys in our conference.”
In last year’s inaugural conference meet, the men’s team finished seventh out of eight schools and the women finished eighth out of 10.
This year, The American has nine men’s teams and 11 women’s teams, as Central Florida and Southern Methodist do not have men’s squads.
The coaching staff is pleased with the Top 2 runners for each team and feels that all four runners can produce at the conference championships.
For the men’s team, Kacyon and Izewski have been leading the way for the majority of the season. Senior Jenna Dubrow and freshman Katie Pinson have paced the women.
Dubrow has run her season-high 6K in 21:59 this season, which is 28 seconds slower than her best time last fall.
Pinson has established herself as the team’s consistent No. 2 runner in her rookie season, and turned in her best 6K with a fifth-place time of 22:33 at the Penn State National.
“With all four of them, I think they are all in the All-Conference [team] mix,” Fuelling said. “The conference is very competitive and they need to bring their ‘A’ game, but if they do that, the sky is the limit for all four of them.”
Heading into the meet, the team has yet to discuss its strategy, but the runners are confident it will remain the same as it was all season long.
“We haven’t talked specifically about this meet, but I assume Matt [Kacyon] and I will stay together in the front and the rest of the guys will pack up like we’ve been doing,” Izewski said.
Kacyon said he is looking forward to this meet and is excited to see what the team can do. He said the team, despite last year’s result, should enter the meet with a clear-headed approach.
“I want these guys to go into every race with a level head,” Kacyon said. “I don’t want them to have any kind of doubt. I want them to have a good time with it. Running is, what I tell everyone, 75 percent in the head. They should go into the race knowing we have a solid team behind you.”
Fuelling said the latter part of the fall is the best portion of the schedule. From the conference meet to the prospect of competing in the NCAA National Championship meet, the championship season is why the team trains for months, he said.
“This is the most exciting part the season, this is why we put all the miles in,” Fuelling said. “There is no way to emulate a conference type atmosphere and adrenaline and excitement that go into that.”
Ed LeFurge III can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @EdLeFurgeIII.