OXFORD, Ohio – Older, stronger and more motivated, the Miami University women’s cross country team is ready to take on the 2013 season. Kicking off the year Saturday with its own Miami Invitational and competing through November, the RedHawks are ready to run their way to the top.

Miami closed its 2012 season with a second-place finish at the 2012 Mid-American Conference (MAC) Championship, then took 10th out of 31 teams at the NCAA Great Lakes Regional Championship. The energy from last season has carried over into Miami’s current team, but fifth-year head coach Kelly Phillips says her runners have more than just last year’s momentum.

“Well, for one, they’re a lot older,” Phillips said. “A year in cross country makes a big difference just from age development, strength, you name it.”

The RedHawks graduated Monica Fischer, Miami’s top scorer at the 2012 MAC Championship, but the rest of last season’s roster plus a trio of freshmen make up this season’s team, which was picked to again finish second in the MAC in the league’s Preseason Coaches’ Poll.  Five runners in particular are expected to make a powerful impact for Miami this year.

Junior Jess Hoover is returning stronger than ever after ending her sophomore year as Miami’s top finisher at the Great Lakes Regional. She placed 39th overall at the championship, improving 31 spots from her 70th-place finish during her freshman year. She earned Second-Team All-MAC in 2011 and was Miami’s second finisher at last year’s conference race.

Hoover isn’t the only RedHawk bringing maturity and experience to the team, though.

Senior Erica Howes is back for her final year as a RedHawk, coming off an impressive season where she finished fourth for Miami and 18th overall at the 2012 MAC Championship, her first conference meet of her college career.

Juniors Anna Lamb and Elisa Frazier should also help lead the RedHawks this season, both finishing in Miami’s top seven at last year’s MAC meet. Redshirt junior Melissa Girgis is another runner expected to be a top scorer for Miami. Girgis was unable to compete for the majority of last season due to injury, but raced at the conference meet, crossing the finish line as Miami’s eighth finisher in her only race of 2012.

“We graduated Monica, but we have a really strong group coming back and they had a great spring, so they’re in pretty good shape,” Phillips said.

Behind this pack of five runners are freshmen Lauren Hoover, the younger sister of Jess, and Jackie Mullins, both of whom are already illustrating speed and leadership qualities beyond Phillips’ expectations.

Lauren Hoover and Jackie both had a really good summer,” Phillips said. “They were right up there with the top group, so they’re definitely ahead of where I thought they would be at this time.”

Following this weekend’s Miami Invitational, the RedHawks will travel to Bowling Green, Ohio Sept. 13 for the Mel Brodt Collegiate Opener, then take on the Wake Forest Invitational in Winston-Salem, N.C. Sept. 20.

Miami will have a week off before competing in the All-Ohio Championship the first weekend of October, then will travel to Indiana Oct. 19 to race in Pre-Nationals before returning home to train for the 2013 MAC Championship Nov. 2. The RedHawks will hold nothing back at the 2013 Great Lakes Regional Championship Nov. 15 in Wisconsin when they attempt to qualify for the NCAA Championship Nov. 23.

With more experience and strength this year, Phillips says her team’s goals are to get this year’s MAC title and be in the top five or six at Regionals.

“They’re pretty fired up. This is probably the most motivated and dedicated group I’ve had. They’re healthy, they’re strong and they’re excited,” Phillips said.