NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Lipscomb men’s cross country team looks to rebound from a rocky season and defend its Atlantic Sun Championship title on Saturday morning in DeBary, Florida.
"The men are really good, but they haven't raced like it,” Taylor said. “I'm not being mean and we aren't mad, it's just a fact. Our team finishes are not even close to what we are capable of. Every single guy has a lot of room to improve.
"So that is kind of a good news, bad news situation. I've been voting us third in the A-Sun polls for weeks. I haven't seen us race better than that. We could finish third or fourth. In fact, if we race like we have been racing, we are likely to finish third or fourth.”
Taylor feels the rumors regarding the demise of the men’s team may be premature.
"We have four of our top-six guys back from last year’s dominant A-Sun Championship team,” Taylor said. “We have other talented guys who have the ability to step up.
“It's all there and it just takes doing it right, doing it fully and doing it for each other on that one day. They will be hard to stop if they do. Whether they do or not is ultimately their choice.”
The Bisons slipped to 13th in the USTFCCCA South Regional poll after securing the 8th-place slot earlier in the season. North Florida is the top ranking team in the A-Sun resting at sixth in the south region.
"The men's race as a whole is very wide open,” Taylor said. “North Florida has clearly been the best team this season. Northern Kentucky has a big advantage with JJ Webber up front getting that low point.
“I think there are other teams that could step up too. It should make for a very exciting men's race that could fall any direction.”
Returning to the championship race for the men is last year’s All-Conference selection and one of the top 8-K runners in the A-Sun Daniel Gardner.
"Daniel has been up there for us this year, just not up where he really shoud be,” Taylor said. “I'm not trying to be mean to Daniel, but he is a tentative runner. He says he believes he can be elite, but he doesn't show it with his actions. Unfortunately that also affects the team. Daniel can be an incredible runner. He has to show a new level of courage, be willing to take intelligent chances and set his goals higher than personal records.
“He has to ignore mile splits and such, and just go race. At the end of the day, cross country is about one guy versus another. It isn't about splits or times. It's about straight up racing. I really hope he throws everything he has at this race from the start, through the finish line. If he does, it will be very good for him and the men's team.”
Sophomore Juan Gonzalez will be competing this weekend as well. He ranks fourth, behind Gardner, in the top 8-K runners in the conference.
"Juan has been a bit tentative this season,” Taylor said. “Last season he was more bold, which is odd for a freshman. Usually the freshman is tentative, then the sophomore gets more bold.
“I know he's been working through some things, but it is time for him to step it up to the level he is capable of. He knows it and I believe he is ready and committed to do just that.”
Gonzalez snagged second place in last year’s championship race while Gardner picked up fifth.
Christian Freeman missed action for most of the season due to injury, but is primed and ready to record another top finish at the conference championships.
"The return of Christian certainly makes us stronger,” Taylor said. “It's hard to know what that will look like. He's been behind in training most of the season, yet he has looked terrific in practices the past few weeks, and ran a great 5-K debut.
“It is really about the mind for Christian. Does he believe in himself, and what is he willing to endure to get success this weekend? He is incredibly talented and can be a big asset in this race.”
Freeman placed third in last year’s championship race with a time of 25:12.65.
Jared Wingerter also collected All-Conference honors for last year’s race after finishing 12th overall crossing the line in 25:51.26.
"Jared Wingerter is a gamer,” Taylor said. “I don't know what that will look like Saturday, but he usually brings his best for himself and the team when we need him most.
“His practices have improved a ton, and I feel he is ready to go. It's going to be his choice every step of the way that decides.”
The men have struggled to find their No. 5 runner all season and Taylor is hoping one of the guys will step up and fill that void.
"After those four we have a lot of question marks,” Taylor said. “A team cannot win without a number five. Who will our five be, and will they win it for us, or not? If these guys look to each other and hope someone else steps up, then we are probably third.
“If each of these guys see's themselves as the answer, as the guy that the team can count on, then we have a good chance. What are they willing to do for the team? That will be answered by the team result on Saturday morning.”
Taylor and the coaching staff are excited to see what decisions the men will make to ensure another victorious conference championship.
“They know what it feels like and what it takes to win,” Taylor said. “They experienced that last year. I am interested to see what team shows up and what show they put on."
The men’s race begins at 8:30 a.m. in the "Sunshine State."