Cross Country ‘Noles Prepared For ACC Title Defenses

(Photo by Marcus Snowden/FSU Sports Information)

Cross Country ‘Noles Prepared For ACC Title Defenses: 
FSU women, men considered favorites on testy, new Clemson course.          

CLEMSON, S.C. – After savoring a sweep of the Atlantic Coast Conference men’s and women’s cross country titles in 2010, Florida State is in line for a second-helping.
The Seminoles enter Saturday morning’s ACC Championship races at Musser Farms as clear-cut favorites on the women’s side and serious contenders among the men. It’s a good place to be as coach’s Karen Harvey and Bob Braman, respectively, prepare their teams for the 2011 season stretch run.
Harvey’s women are clearly the hunted, carrying a No. 1 national ranking and three consecutive ACC titles into the race. Despite being heavy favorites, four other ranked ACC teams – No. 17 Virginia, No. 21 NC State, No. 22 North Carolina and No. 24 Boston College - would like nothing more than to bring down the Seminoles’ burgeoning dynasty.
Braman’s men, ranked among the top 10 much of the preseason, are currently ranked 18th after an injury-married, sub-standard performance at Pre-Nationals two weeks ago. Out to defend their first ACC championship in 19 years of league membership, the Seminoles will be pushed by No. 19 NC State and No. 30 North Carolina.
Don’t expect either team to back down from the challenge. In fact, Harvey has dangled some sizeable carrots in front of her talented squad, whose top five runners were separated by just 19 seconds at their runaway Pre-Nationals victory.
“We need to challenge ourselves really hard,” Harvey said. “We’ve got to improve on that pack; the pack is either closer together or total time faster than we were at Pre-Nats. Even on a very technical and difficult course, I think we can do that. I’d like to see six people be way closer than we were at Pre-Nats, and potentially seven. The back end of that top group, I really want to see improve.
“At the same time, for probably our top four kids - for them to really be challenged - I want them to go to win the individual title. There are some very good people in the ACC, so that’s really going to be difficult.”
Junior co-captain Amanda Winslow has been the Seminoles’ top finisher in each of the last two major meets and figures to be in the discussion for top individual honors, along with teammates Violah Lagat, Hannah Brooks and fellow co-captain Jessica Parry. Of course, if FSU can put that many runners into individual contention simultaneously, it will be well-positioned for a successful title defense.
“It definitely helps to have a strong pack at a race like ACC’s,” Winslow said. “You have to have your top five close to the front to win. We’ve done that every year and this year, since we have a tighter pack than we’ve had in the past, it’s really exciting. We should be up there, but you’ve got to do it on that day.”
Harvey expects her ‘Noles to have company up front, with North Carolina’s Kendra Schaaf and Virginia’s Morgane Gay individual contenders as well.
Braman is just happy to have his squad moving back toward complete health. Junior co-captain Wes Rickman sat our Pre-Nationals while 2010 ACC Rookie of the Year Jakub Zivec was less than full strength. The ‘Noles will need to be healthy to stave off a serious threat from NC State.
“We’re in a good spot,” Braman said. “We’re in as good a shape physically; we’re as strong as we can be. The only really question is can we get in that really, really high level, high intensity, backyard brawl, conference championship, lay it all on the line type situation.
“My presumption is that NC State has pretty much locked in for that national championship meet. My suspicion is that they’re doing what we’re doing – training for the end of the year, not the end of the week…
“I think the two most experienced, the two best resumes in terms of what they’ve accomplished this year, is pretty much [Florida State] head-to-head with NC State. That being said, I’m not in any way overlooking North Carolina and Virginia.”
Don’t misconstrue Braman’s intentions. Sure, FSU’s ultimate goal is following up last season’s NCAA runner-up finish with a comparable performance, but after settling for ACC runner-up honors on four occasions, he very much want the Seminoles back atop the podium for a second consecutive season.
“The four years we were second, one of those was a one-point loss,” Braman explained. “We always consoled ourselves and said, ‘We weren’t really focusing on this race, we were focusing on nationals.’ But it always hurt.”
A poor showing at Pre-Nationals – the ‘Noles were fourth out of 35 teams – could serve a larger purpose.
“Every time we get a little comfortable, we get shown how vulnerable we are,” Braman added. “I think Pre-Nationals was a really good lesson for us, that if you’re off a little bit, you’re not as good as you think you are. … I think that has our attention.”
There should be plenty of attention aimed in the direction of Seminole senior co-captain Mike Fout, who along with NC State’s Ryan Hill, are the pre-race favorites. Oddly enough, the ACC hasn’t been the kindest stage for either All-American.
“Historically this meet hasn’t, for whatever reason, fallen into my training plan,” Fout said. “The motivation is very, very high, especially going back to a rivalry, so to speak, in Ryan Hill of NC State, who is definitely an amazing runner and been around since my senior year in high school. The motivation (to win) is very high.
“I know that traditionally that the No. 1 man on the team is the least important in terms of how the team succeeds and how well they do. For me, I’m putting a lot of importance on this race because it hasn’t been the best in the past. I’m looking to get right to the front and hopefully stay there. It will be fun.”
Beyond Fout and Hill, Florida State junior David Forrester, the Seminoles’ top finisher at Pre-Nationals, could have a say in who is first across the finish line.
“Mike and Dave won’t be teammates in the last half-mile, whether they’re winning the race or fighting for second,” Braman said of his top two charges. “They’ll race each other as if they’re wearing different jerseys. Until then they’ll help each other try to beat Hill, and hopefully one of them can get it. It won’t be a NASCAR deal. Nobody’s going to give up their race to give the other a shot.
“Ryan Hill has the collegiate pedigree, but he’s like Fout. Their big albatross is not running well at ACC Cross.”
Ultimately, having a strong group at the front – the FSU men placed five in the top 12 last season– is the object from a team perspective. And with NCAA Regional and Championship races next on the docket, that’s where the focus remains.
“It kind of set the tone last year, winning ACC’s,” Fout said. “Being the first one, it definitely set the tone to bigger and better things at nationals. It helps boost your confidence. There’s always highly nationally ranked teams in the ACC, so if you can knock those teams off you know you’re right there and in the mix to do good things.”
Harvey and Braman will have one distinct edge over the other serious title contenders. They got a preview of the new Musser Farms Course, which is both hilly, narrow in spots and has some dicey footing. The FSU teams took part in the Clemson Invitational back in September, using the race as a training run and a strategy session.
“Of those four contenders, we’re the only ones who have went out to the course,” Braman said. “I think that’s an advantage. It was an advantage for us last year at Boston College. This year I think it’s an advantage for us, particularly because of the difficulty of this course. … We wouldn’t have gone if we didn’t think it was valuable.”