MACON, Ga. – Days before the first cross country match of the year, Lipscomb’s cross country squads have already acquired recognition from the Atlantic Sun coaches.
"It's great to get recognition for the success our program has been having,” said Bill Taylor, director of cross country. “Of course they are just preseason polls and are more of a sign of respect than a true indication of what will happen this season. We have a season ahead of us to pursue those predictions.”
The reigning A-Sun champions were selected to finish at the top of the conference ranks with the men receiving seven first-place votes and the women receiving eight.
"The women are strong,” Taylor said. “I think we will be stronger than last year by the end of the season. We returned most of our top girls and added some very strong newcomers.
"We are taking it careful with some of our top runners (Dani Walker and Sally Larson in particular) as they get in shape, and we won't race them until later in the season. That will give other runners on our team the chance to step up and make us an even stronger program.”
While Taylor is not counting on winning another conference championship, he feels the women are in a good position to do so.
“We have such great depth and talent, and we know how to win,” Taylor said. “The bigger goals for us are regionals and qualifying for the NCAA I National Championships.”
The women have won the conference championship three years running while the men hold the title for the first time in program history.
"The men are in an interesting place,” Taylor said. “They start the season ranked first because they won it last year, and we expect to return our top five guys. However, we lack depth going into the season.
“Of our top-five guys, we are still waiting on John Kingstedt to return and hoping he is back. Christian Freeman is recovering from an injury in track and won't race for most of the season.”
The men’s team may fight an uphill battle in retaining its championship status with several of last year’s front men gone.
"We lost three fifth-year seniors from last year that added depth up front, and more than that, led the men to the championship with their desire and accountability,” Taylor said. “They made sure the guys were focused and doing what needed to be done. We need some guys to step into that role and move the team to its goals.
"This year that depth is gone going into the season. Behind the projected top-five are some talented guys who have yet to prove themselves. We really need two to three more guys to move up to that top group to solidify our chances. They can do it, they just need to believe and commit.”
Along with the news of the teams being honored as a whole, sophomore Sally Larson was voted on by the fans as the Preseason Women’s Runner of the Year.
“Sally did something pretty extraordinary in winning the A-Sun 10-K as a freshman,” Taylor said. “That's a tough race, especially for a freshman, and an indication of her talent, heart, and desire.
“She had an incredible freshman cross country season last year, and was our top runner in about half the races. We are preparing her to be even better when she gets back this season.”
During her 2014 track and field campaign, Larson snagged four first-place finishes in events such as the 10,000 meters, the 4x800-meter relay, and the distance medley relay.
"Sally is starting the season on the bench so to speak,” Taylor said. “She had an injury in indoor track that was better during outdoor track, but was still lingering this summer.
“So she rested and rehabbed most of the summer, and we are going to bring her along slow. She might race at Boston. However we are in no hurry since our team and individual goals are for the end of the season.”
Taylor believes that Larson has all the necessary attributes to sit at the top of the A-Sun this season.
“It's funny that we have won the past three A-Sun team championships, but we have never had the A-Sun individual cross country champion,” Taylor said. “Yet, Madi Talbert is the defending A-Sun 5-K champ and is a two-time NCAA I All-American in track. Dani Walker has won everything from the 1500 meters to the 5-K in A-Sun championship track, just to mention two more who can win cross country.
“We have a number of other girls who have the opportunity to do big things and are also contenders to win the title. That all makes Sally stronger as well. And the fact that we have so many great runners really takes any pressure off. At the end of the day we are about team first. I guess that is why we have those three team championships."
A major test for the teams is the Belmont Open Friday at Vaughn’s Gap at Percy Warner Park.