OXFORD, Ohio - Coming off an injury-plagued 2011 season and a disappointing finish at the Mid-American Conference Championship, the Miami University men's cross country team is ready to start 2012 and erase last year's struggles. The good news for the RedHawks is their entire 2011 squad returns with another year of experience under their belt and a hunger to make sure last year doesn't happen again.
Miami finished eighth out of nine teams at last year's league meet, the worst showing by the RedHawks since before they even were RedHawks in 1989, when the Redskins placed eighth. Prior to last year however, Miami had not finished worse than fourth since 1996, all under 19th year head coach Warren Mandrell. Of the eight 'Hawks who ran at the MAC meet, four suffered injuries coming into or during the season while it was the first league championship for five of the eight runners.
"Hopefully, last year was just an anomaly," Mandrell said. "Four of our top five guys had major time off due to injuries during the season. And then the fact that we were a very young team to start, that just put us in the hole."
With last season in the rearview mirror, Miami now turns its attention to 2012 as the RedHawks open their season Saturday at the Dayton Flyer 5K Challenge. The men's race starts at 10:45 a.m. at Indian Riffle Park in Kettering, Ohio. The RedHawks are the two-time defending champions at the meet and have captured the top spot eight of the last nine years.
Miami will face several local teams at the meet as, in addition to the host Flyers, Cedarville, Urbana, Wittenberg and Wright State will all be competing, as will Ohio State for the first time. The Buckeyes are ranked sixth in the Great Lakes Region entering the season. Cincinnati was also scheduled to compete but due to some injuries will no longer run.
"We can't place too much importance on it because one, it's a 5K, a little shorter (than a normal race), and number two, it's so early in the season," Mandrell said of the Dayton meet. "But it really gives you an idea of where your team is competitive-wise, and if they run well there, then as long as they stay healthy, you know you've got a good team. It'll be nice to have a race scenario with all the new guys because practices and racing are completely different. And if the young guys can race as well as they have been practicing then we'll be in good shape."
Leading the way for the RedHawks in 2012 will be senior Jarrod Eick (Hartville, Ohio), who earned First-Team All-MAC honors last year after placing fifth overall at the MAC Championship. He was Miami's top scorer in four races a season ago and was the team's second finisher in the other three. Eick won the individual title at the 2011 Flyer 5K Challenge and will look to defend his title this year, while he also captured the Miami Open (Miami's home meet) individual title the following week a season ago.
Right behind Eick is redshirt senior David Eichenberger (Plainfield, Ind.), who battled through injury during the second half of the season and was Miami's seventh finisher at the MAC meet. Prior to the injury however, he was the overall runner-up as he led Miami to a team title at the LSU Invitational. Eichenberger was a First-Team All-MAC performer in 2010, as he placed fourth overall at the MAC Championship, showing what he's capable of when healthy. His injury caused him to miss the entire 2012 track season as well and he's still working his way back to his old form after just starting hard workouts again this fall.
"I think certainly that Jarrod has put himself in that position because he's been running at the front of the workouts so far, and I assume he'll continue to be like that," Mandrell said of his leaders. "I'm hoping that David will be there near the end of the season, but in the early races you won't see him at the same level. I think his fitness just hasn't caught up yet, but I know it can and certainly will."
Looking to step into the number two spot until Eichenberger returns to full strength is redshirt junior Matt Marol (Evanston, Ill.), who adds a lot of experience and leadership as well. He missed the first two races of 2011 with an injury, but scored in all five races once he returned, including being Miami's third finisher at the MAC meet. Junior Dave Wing (Naperville, Ill.) is another solid returner who was the RedHawks' top finisher at two meets, including the Great Lakes Regional. He was Miami's second scorer in his other three races, including taking 21st at the league championship and third overall at the Flyer 5K Challenge, but missed two races in the middle of the year with an injury.
"Last fall Matt got off that injury and never really got back into where he was supposed to be. Last spring he had a nice track season as he got fifth in the MAC in the 10K. In that 10K he was leading late in the race, he just really stuck his nose in there, and I think that gave him a really big confidence boost and he's been doing that in practice," Mandrell said. "The same could be said with (Dave) Wing."
Rounding out Miami's core of returning veterans is redshirt senior Brett Wagner (Toledo, Ohio), who missed the first three races of 2011 with an injury. He came on strong at the end of the year however, scoring third or fourth for the 'Hawks in each of his final four races, including taking 53rd in his first MAC Championship after first running cross country just a year earlier. Redshirt sophomore Daniel Garleb (Pickerington, Ohio) will also provide solid depth after scoring in six of seven races in his first year running for the RedHawks.
"Right now, the major players seem to be looking pretty good," Mandrell said of his experienced guys. "Our freshmen, some of them have made some real impact right away and I think that not only helps us from a scoring standpoint, but it also helps us with confidence and also keeping people honest in practice."
Among the freshmen who have impressed so far is Joe Stewart (Naperville, Ill.), who was third in an acceleration run last Saturday and has been at the front of the pack at practice most of the year so far. Mandrell noted Stewart has been very competitive in the early going. Also in the mix to be in Miami's top seven is newcomer Zack McBride (Painesville, Ohio), who was fourth in the acceleration run, and Joe's twin brother, Matt Stewart (Naperville, Ill.). The RedHawks also added transfer Steve Kiplagat (Iten, Kenya), who had a year of eligibility left after graduating from Division III St. Lawrence University, where he placed 12th at last year's NCAA Championship.
Following the Flyer 5K, Miami will face a tough test at the Commodore Classic, hosted by Vanderbilt, Sept. 15 as several SEC schools will be in attendance. The 'Hawks also compete at the All-Ohio Championships in late September and Pre-Nationals Oct. 13, which serves as a tune-up for the MAC Championship Oct. 27 in Buffalo, N.Y.
The RedHawks were picked to finish seventh at the MAC Championship in the preseason coaches poll released Wednesday, despite returning their entire squad while adding more firepower. Defending champion Eastern Michigan was selected to repeat in the poll while Central Michigan was tabbed second after finishing second last year as well.
"My goal with the team and the conference is that we're always one of the three or four top teams, which we were up until last year, the first time we weren't in that (top three or four) for a long time," Mandrell said. "Because if you're legitimately a top three or four team, then you can think about winning. The key for us will be staying healthy."
Following the MAC meet, Miami competes at the Great Lakes Regional Nov. 9 in Madison, Wis. where the 'Hawks will fight to earn a berth in the NCAA Championship on Nov. 17 in Louisville, Ky.