TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Third-year Florida State women’s cross country coach Kelly Phillips has absolutely no idea who her top five runners will be by the time the Noles arrive at the postseason portion of the 2017 schedule.
That’s not a bad thing.
Phillips couldn’t be any more excited about the season at hand, which begins to unfold today when the FSU women report for the start of preseason practice. Of the 16 runners checking in for the start of camp, eight have never pulled on an FSU jersey for a cross country meet.
“If I went by the excitement alone I would say it’s going an amazing year because the excitement from all the newbies and returnees is just absolutely incredible,” Phillips said. “I can’t wait for everything to start.”
There’s no shortage of reasons for Phillips’ optimism. Sure, the Noles must replace their top three runners from a year ago, most notably NCAA qualifier and All-ACC standout Carmela Cardama Baez, who has transferred to defending national champion Oregon. Catherine Blaney (eligibility expired) and Bridget Blake (grad transfer to Michigan State) have also moved on.
Stepping in to fill those shoes are a trio of seasoned veterans competing as first-time Noles in cross country, a pair of international newcomers and three stateside freshmen with significant upsides. Mix in five returnees from the 2016 ACC Championships lineup, led by rising sophomores Megan Mooney and Hailey Hendry, juniors Fatema Jaffer and Sarah Candiano and redshirt junior Madison Harris, and you begin to understand Phillips’ emotions.
The Seminoles open camp with unprecedented depth challenging for spots on the 10-woman ACC and seven-woman NCAA South Region squads.
“If you ask me for my top five, I absolutely have no idea,” Phillips said. “It’s going to be exciting.”
That excitement stems from the arrival and cross country eligibility of veteran newcomers Mackenzie Landa, Militsa Mircheva and Emily Edwards; all of whom competed on the track for the Noles during the most recent indoor and outdoor seasons.
Landa, a January arrival from Fresno State, posted the 11th-best 10,000-meter time by a Nole on the track in the spring; one of five new collegiate-best marks authored since coming to FSU. Mircheva, who represented Bulgaria in the marathon at the 2016 Rio Olympics, competed unattached in cross country last fall, then made strides late in the outdoor season capped by her season-best 16:42.46 5k. Edwards, a January junior transfer from Alabama, posted five new collegiate-best marks as a Nole over the course of the indoor and outdoor seasons.
“I know what those two [Landa and Mircheva] are made of and they should both be really strong in cross country,” Phillips said. “Then you have Emily Edwards who typically isn’t a cross country runner, but after seeing her train this summer, I fully expect her to be up there.”
And beyond the obvious improvements made by Landa and Edwards on the track, Phillips raved about what the two January arrivals brought to the team in terms of chemistry.
“it’s hard for anybody who comes in January, and both of them could not have stepped in and gelled better,” she said. “They just fit so well with our program. They’ve been a Godsend. They’ve changed the chemistry of the team to a much more team-oriented group. Especially since they’re both a little older, they can help some of the young ones. If I didn’t have those two I would have absolutely no veterans.”
The leadership and experience of the veterans will be instrumental as the Noles welcome five talented newcomers, comprised of a pair of international 1500-meter standouts – Great Britain’s Jodie Judd and Australia’s Maudie Skyring – and three incoming freshmen with solid credentials. Florida high school products Kayla Easterly (North Fort Myers) and Jennifer Lima (East Lake) are joined by Tennessee standout Addi Coggins (Independence).
“With the newbies, while there is not a lot of cross country experience, there is a lot of fast track experience with both Maudie and Jodie running 4:22-4:24 in the 1500,” Phillips said. “They are both very under-mileaged and under-trained for cross country at this point, but they’re super talented. If they stick their nose in it, they should do a nice job in cross.
“Addi Coggins and Kayla Easterly, they’re both really good in cross country, and then there’s Jennifer Lima, who is just tough.”
And unlike the men, who must transition from 5,000 meters to 10,000 meters between high school and college in cross country, the women’s collegiate championship distance of 6,000 meters is much more manageable.
Navigating that modest jump in distance is often more evident among second-year college runners. That’s one reason Phillips believes Mooney and Hendry have the potential to emerge as sophomores after enduring the normal ups and downs of a full freshman season in the lineup.
“Both of them are a year older, they know what it takes; they know the expectations,” Phillips said. “They both had really good summers of training. I expect them to be looking at Landa and Militsa as the two front runners, but I expect that they will be right behind them, with the newbies filling in.”
“I expect Megan to come in strong and keep getting stronger. If she was up there with Mackenzie and Militsa it would not shock me.”
The teams’ familiarity with Phillips also figures to be a plus. For the first time, the top end of the third-year coach’s roster will be comprised entirely of athletes she has recruited. The absence of a clear-cut pecking order also figures to sharpen the competitive environment from within.
“It will be very much a team effort as opposed to an individual with a bunch of people trying to chase her down,” Phillips said. “I think it’s going to be like Vanderbilt has done in past years, where they have a really good pack. I think that’s going to be more our style this fall…
“Now everybody is going to be fighting for 1-7. It will always change. I don’t think it will be consistent from meet-to-meet. I think that will keep everybody hungry, because no one is guaranteed a spot on the plane and I think it will also keep everybody pretty excited knowing, ‘Hey, today could be my day where I’m No. 1.’ They’ve been super supportive of each other over the summer. This group is a little bit more about, ‘Let’s do this together.’”