Men and Women’s cross country prepare for home meet with high expectations
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An air of confidence is often viewed as beneficial for any athlete, and the Mercer men’s cross country team holds such a mindset as it prepares for its third race of the season, the “Julius Johnson Invitational,” held in Macon at the Georgia Industrial Children’s Home Sept. 25.
“I’d be surprised if they don’t win,” said Head Coach Ryan Bailey after fourth and tenth finishes in the team’s first two races.
Bailey, who is also the head coach for the women’s team, said he thought the girls had a “fair chance of winning” in a meet featuring Division I opponents Georgia Southern, Georgia State, Jacksonville State, and Savannah State. Division II squads Fort Valley State, Georgia Military College, and Central Georgia Technical College will also make an appearance.
“It’s not as big of a race as we raced [September 12] in Furman, so we’re going to possibly be running as a pack,” said freshman Ahmed Jama. “So, really, it’s just going to be place as many guys at the top of the race as we can.”
And because of the easier field, the Bears’ biggest challenge may be the course itself. Bailey laid out, or mapped, the course almost 20 years ago and called it a “true cross country course,” rather than a golf course like the team ran on in its last meet at Furman.
“It’s not an easy course,” Bailey said. “But it’s all on natural surfaces–grass and dirt–which is good.”
Few flat spots can be found on the course as it boasts rolling hills throughout the majority of the 8K track. While Furman’s course was hilly, both Jama and Bailey said it does not match up to the challenge the team will face in its home race.
“It’s a tough course, probably one of the tougher courses we’ll run all year,” Jama said.
So in order to prepare for the course’s challenges, the practice regimen has been simple: run more hills and spend time on the course itself. And with this race, Bailey said the team is transitioning into phase two of the season, when the team will practice more on hills.
“Up until this point in time, we haven’t done a tremendous amount of hill work,” Bailey said. “For the rest of the season, we’re in the next phase of training after the preseason.”
But other than an increase in hill work, Bailey said he will prepare the team no differently for this race than any other.
“We scope out the course, we try to develop a race planned based on the course’s set-up, where the hills are, where the finish line is in relation to the hills or any sharp turns,” he said. “You formulate how you get your race started, and you formulate how your plan of attack in the final third part of the race [will be]. We tend to attack pretty hard at that point.”
Bailey may expect a win now, but before the season, he wasn’t as confident in his men’s squad. While the women’s team returned every runner from last year, the men lost their entire starting five and returned only four from 2014.
“It was a little nerve racking,” Bailey said. “But we’ve had some pleasant surprises with the freshman class that came in.”
In the team’s first race, the “Strut’s Season Opener” at Jacksonville State, Jama broke the school’s 5K record with a time of 15:31.9, which was previously held by Sony Prosper. Jama’s time was approximately six or seven seconds faster than Prosper’s record, Bailey said.
The record-setting time placed Jama 15th overall in the race as he finished with the second best time of freshmen in the field. At Furman, an 8K race, the Woodstock, Georgia native led the team again with a 26:19.34 time and 41st overall finish.
“Ahmed Jama has really met expectations,” Bailey said. “He’s running very, very well. I knew he would, but I didn’t know to what extent. I thought he would be No. 2 on the team.”
Another freshman, Evan Park, has exceeded Bailey’s expectations after running times of 16:40 – third best for the team – and 27:47.30 – fifth best for the team. Bailey called him a “pleasant surprise.” And while fellow freshmen Abraham Balawi, McHenry Power, and Justin Hanson haven’t registered such finishes yet, Bailey has been happy with their progress, as well.
“This is, in terms of a freshman class, is probably my highest quality freshman class I’ve had maybe ever,” Bailey said.
With the new talent on the roster—including transfer sophomore Cameron Gatt from Australia—and the improvement from sophomores Mark Brannen and Nicholas Ashmead, Bailey said he sees a “tremendous amount of potential” on the men’s roster.
For the women, Bailey is not as confident in their prospects for the team’s home race because of some injury concerns. Senior Kami Orrender suffered what Bailey called a “pretty significant injury” but still competed in the first two events; Bailey said she has not yet fully recovered. She finished second on the team in each of the first two races with times of 15:17.05 in the season-opening 4K and 22:58.43 in Furman’s 6K meet.
Fellow senior Jenna Gipperich has taken the reins as the team’s top runner after 13th (14:55.73) and 38th (22:48.11) place finishes. Bailey failed to mention who in particular was struggling with some of the minor injuries on the team, but they are being monitored in order to prevent any setbacks.
“Even though it’s not a severe problem now, if you don’t take care of it, it will become a bad problem,” Bailey said. “We’re just being a little conservative.”
With both teams returning home with an opportunity to run away with a victory, Bailey is asking for some home-crowd support.
“I hear people say, ‘Well, cross country just isn’t a spectator sport,’ ” he said. “But go to any cross country race or road race or even a track meet … and there’s a ton of spectators. People tell me that all the time, and I think they’re talking through their hat because maybe they haven’t been to one. It’s fun to watch. I think, anyway.”