BOSTON, Mass. – New faces abound, which isn’t always the recipe for success come the postseason, which is especially true when it comes to the historically deep competition at the ACC Cross Country Championships.
That doesn’t mean the Florida State cross country teams are writing off the ACC Championships in advance of Friday’s races at Franklin Park. Quite the contrary, actually. Coaches Kelly Phillips and Bob Braman are still learning about their teams, and the stout competition they’ll face will be revealing.
Neither Phillips’ women, ranked No. 29 nationally, nor Braman’s men – No. 5 in the NCAA South Region – are expected to win ACC titles, even though that would make for a great storyline. The Noles swept the women’s and men’s titles in 2010 – the last time the ACC Championships were contested on the century-old Boston course – and finished that year as NCAA runner-ups.
Given the youth of the respective squads they’ll send to the starting line, solid showings could well provide a springboard as they turn their focus to the Nov. 9 NCAA South Region Championships, which will be contested on FSU’s Apalachee Regional Park course. There the top two teams will advance to the NCAA Championships.
FSU’s women haven’t qualified as a team for the NCAA Championships since 2014, while the men are seeking their first trip back since 2015.
“At most conferences you can kind of pick out the top three right off the bat,” Phillips said. “That’s what I think is interesting about our conference…NC State is good. Notre Dame is good. Syracuse is good. Georgia Tech is supposed to be one of the best in the country.
“The goal coming in, even though it doesn’t sound as sexy as it should, is to be top-five. Deep down I want to be between 3-4, which is a pretty lofty goal. In our conference, top-five probably still means you’re ranked nationally. It’s a pretty good conference. It’s hard… It’s probably one of the few conferences you’ll go to where it’s definitely going to be harder than your region.”
The FSU women are led by returning All-ACC performer Militsa Mircheva, a senior who was sixth last season and projects to improve on that finish. Her supporting cast includes freshman Elizabeth Funderburk and redshirt freshmen Kayla Easterly and Ellie Wallace. In all, four of the nine Noles toeing the starting line will be competing at the ACC Championships for the first time.
Sophomores Maudie Skyring and Jodie Judd, and junior Megan Mooney, have consistently provided top-five scoring performances behind Mircheva and Funderburk.
Two-time defending champion NC State enters the meet at No. 12 in the national rankings, followed by No. 18 Notre Dame, No. 22 Georgia Tech and No. 25 Syracuse.
The challengers on the men’s side are equally obvious. Tenth-ranked Syracuse has won five consecutive ACC titles since joining the conference, while No. 14 Virginia and No. 15 Notre Dame are seen as the most likely threats to the throne. From that point in the 15-team field, there are a half-dozen or more schools expected to battle for the next spots in the pecking order.
The men’s 8,000-meter race is set to begin at 11 a.m.
“We have a lot of questions as to how good we think our team can be,” said Braman, now in his 19th season as the men’s coach. “We haven’t had Toby [Hardwick] since week 1 and he comes back. We’re starting to see, in the last meet and in practice, Isty [Szogi] coming around. That’s our two seniors and they’re a big part of it. If those two guys are on the move at the conference meet, then maybe you’re in the top five like we were last year.
“Finishing fifth in that race last year was the highlight of our season. That’s what we’re hoping for. We’re hoping for our best race – somewhere between fourth and eighth is where we skew out – but I think the conference is that way. In some people’s eyes, that pack of 4-8 is more like 4-10. I think it’s one of the most jumbled middle pack finishes you’ll ever see.”
Seniors aside, the Noles’ hopes for a high finish are inextricably linked to a group of youngsters. Redshirt freshman Caleb Pottorff has been FSU’s No. 1 runner in all four meets and owns a pair of wins. Freshmen Paul Stafford and Matthew Newland have been scoring contributors as well.
With four ACC Championship first-timers in the seven-man lineup (Hardwick, a transfer, is also making his conference championship debut), the Noles will need strong efforts from their youth movement, as well as junior Steven Cross and redshirt junior Tyson Murray.
“We’ve raced well,” said Braman, whose team has won three of four meets this season. “We haven’t race perfect, but we’ve raced hard.”
Which is what the coaches expect from both of their teams as the postseason begins.
“I think you can gain that from this meet,” Braman said. “We can walk out of here and go, ‘We are absolutely a top-two region contending team.’ We don’t know that right now. We’d like to think we’re there.”
Phillips, who has her best team in four years at the helm of the FSU women, likes where her women are entering the day.
“Each week they continue to get stronger and better,” she said. “Everyone is healthy right now…It will be nice to actually see them going for it in a championship-type race. It’s a different feel. The numbers are lower. They’ve been really good in smaller fields.
“I think they’re ready and they like this course. They had a really good experience the last time we were here and the weather is going to be cooperative.”
Both championship races will be streamed live on ACC Network Extra.
Women’s 6k (10 a.m.) http://www.espn.com/watch/_/id/3451742/acc-womens–cross-country-championships
Men’s 8k (11 a.m.) http://www.espn.com/watch/_/id/3451841/acc-mens-cross-country-championships
Live results are available http://flashresults.com/2019_Meets/xc/ACC/index.htm and updates throughout and following the competition will be posted via Twitter @FSUXC.