OXFORD, Ohio - When the Miami University women's cross country team begins its 2012 season Saturday at the Flyer 5K Challenge in Kettering, Ohio, 16 of the 21 RedHawks running will be freshmen or sophomores. While most coaches might be worried about youth and inexperience, head coach Kelly Phillips likes what she's seen from her girls so far.
"Surprisingly, this group is probably more focused and motivated than any group I've had in years," said Phillips, who enters her fourth season at the helm of the program. "They're really young, but they just get it. Some teams get it and some don't. This team just gets it, and they're really fit."
Gone are graduates Maggie Bingham, Jillian Dickman and Kelley Miller, who were four-year staples on the squad, helping Miami win its first two MAC championships in cross country in 2008 and 2009 while Bingham and Miller were both All-MAC performers. In comes a talented class of seven freshmen to join nine sophomores, which makes up the core of the team.
Leading the group of sophomores is Jess Hoover (Hilliard, Ohio), who earned Second-Team All-MAC honors in her rookie season after placing 12th at the MAC Championship as Miami's second scorer. She scored in all six meets she competed in 2011, scoring no worse than third for the RedHawks in any race.
"She did have a great freshman year, but quite honestly, because her goals are so high she was frustrated the whole year, which is awesome," Phillips said. "This year she has come in so far ahead than a year ago. She's a completely different runner. It's going to be a fun year."
Several of Hoover's classmates will also be counted on to provide both scoring and depth for Miami's harriers this year, including Alex Chitwood (Carmel, Ind.), who was the third RedHawk to finish at last year's MAC meet, placing 19th overall. She scored in four of her six meets as a freshman. Phillips also said sophomores Elisa Frazier (Williamsville, N.Y.) and Amanda Hancock (Lexington, Ky.) have stepped up and shown great improvement and will likely factor into Miami's scoring five as well. Frazier ran in last year's MAC meet but placed 38th as Miami's ninth finisher while Hancock saw limited action as a freshman.
"Amanda Hancock has done a really nice job this summer and so has Elisa Frazier, who will be in our top five," Phillips said. "She had a great freshman year for someone who certainly surprised me as a freshman and now she's gotten a lot stronger."
Several of Miami's newcomers will also have a chance to contribute early in their careers with three freshmen hailing from Indiana, two from Ohio and one each from Kentucky and Michigan. Brenna Poulsen (Indianapolis, Ind.) and Julia Valencia (South Lyon, Mich.) have established themselves as the head of rookie class so far and will certainly fight to be in the scoring five.
"Julia Valencia certainly surprised me. She was one of our high recruits but just coming in as a freshman, I didn't expect her to be as far up with the front group as she is," Phillips noted. "Brenna Poulsen, I sort of expected her to be (at the front) and she is doing really well."
The RedHawks aren't all freshmen and sophomores however, as they do have three juniors and a pair of seniors who will contribute more than just leadership and experience. Redshirt junior Monica Fischer (Cincinnati, Ohio), who only ran her first full year of cross country a season ago, came on strong late in the year, scoring fifth for the 'Hawks at the Great Lakes Regional while placing 31st overall at the MAC Championship as Miami's seventh finisher. Junior Erica Howes (Fairfax, Va.) and senior Emily Mossler (Indianapolis, Ind.), neither of whom has run in a MAC or regional meet in their careers, will also factor into Miami's top seven.
"No pressure on them, but our juniors and seniors decided that they want to be junior and senior leaders and they typically haven't been up in the top seven," Phillips said. "Monica was at the end of cross last year and really surprised the heck out of me but she and Emily Mossler have really stepped up this fall. Those two and Erica Howes are three upperclassmen who have completely stepped up."
Junior Kate Carter (Ann Arbor, Mich.) could also contribute late in the season, as she has perhaps the most experience of any upperclassmen, but is still recovering from an illness in the spring that caused her to miss the entire 2012 outdoor track season. Carter has run in the MAC Championship each of her first two years, finishing 27th and 25th, respectively, and could be back to full health just in time for conference meet Oct. 27 in Buffalo, N.Y.
Before the RedHawks can worry about their ultimate goal of winning their third MAC title in program history, Miami gets its first taste of competition Saturday at the University of Dayton's Flyer 5K Challenge. The RedHawks have won the meet four of the last five years after taking second last season despite resting some of the team's top runners for a home meet the following weekend. Hoover was Miami's top finisher at last year's race, placing fifth overall, while Chitwood took 10th and sophomore Mattie Moncayo (Lexington, Ohio) was the third RedHawk scorer in 11th.
This year's Flyer 5K features a larger field than normal however, as both Ohio State and Cincinnati will be at the meet for the first time in years. Other schools competing along with the host Flyers include Cedarville, Cleveland State, Urbana, Wittenberg and Wright State. The women's race starts at 11:15 a.m. following the men's race at Indian Riffle Park.
"It's kind of just to see where we are," Phillips said of the opening meet. "I think we are in a pretty good place, better than I thought we would be this time of year because we haven't done any workouts for the upperclassmen all summer, we've just done mileage. With Dayton being there, and they're ranked just below us in the regional ranking, and Ohio State also being there, they're significantly higher than us in our region, it'll be good to see where we are in our region."
Miami is ranked 14th in the first USTFCCCA Great Lakes Region Poll while Ohio State is eighth and Dayton is 15th. The RedHawks will face more tough competition throughout the season, traveling to a meet at Michigan State, who is second in the region, Sept. 14, while also competing at a meet in Chicago in late September. Pre-Nationals, which will feature top teams from around the country, takes place in Louisville, Ky. Oct. 13 and serves as a final tune-up for the MAC Championship two weeks later.
Toledo, who is ranked 23rd nationally and third in the region, was picked to repeat at MAC champions in the league's preseason poll released Wednesday. The RedHawks were tabbed fourth while Ohio, who is ninth in the region and second among MAC teams, was selected second and should also prove to be a strong threat to dethrone the Rockets along with Central Michigan.
Following the MAC Championship, the RedHawks run at the Great Lakes Regional, Friday, Nov. 9 in Madison, Wis., looking to clinch a spot in the NCAA Championship Nov. 17 in Louisville.
"Certainly being top five to seven in the region would be a successful season. We could run great and still end up third at the MAC meet. Right now Ohio and Toledo are good teams, it's not like being third still doesn't mean we didn't have a great year," Phillips concluded. "It's just going to be a matter of going to the meet, running well and keeping them healthy. If they keep the attitude and the fitness they have right now and go into the MAC meet, whatever happens it'll be a good meet. For the matter of training, attitudes, fitness level and health right now, I couldn't ask for more."