NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Florida State’s cross country teams hoped to come away from Friday’s Joe Piane Notre Dame Invitational with a few wins over nationally-ranked competition in the first of four major regular season meets on the 2016 schedule. Aside from a handful of encouraging individual performances, the Seminole women and men came away with a better understanding that there is still much work to be done before the championship portion of the season begins in late October.
Sophomore Carmela Cardama Baez finished 17th and freshman Megan Mooney used a lifetime-best 5000-meter cross country performance to edge junior Bridget Blake for the number two spot on the squad, placing 72nd and 74th, respectively.
The Seminoles finished 14th in the field of 24 with 396 points – well off coach Kelly Phillips’ target – but still managed to defeat two-time NCAA South Region champion Vanderbilt (18th, 429), which is ranked 24th nationally and first in the region.
Ranked sixth in the South Region, the Noles edged No. 4 Alabama (15th, 402). Ole Miss, the No. 3 team in the South, led all region teams with a seventh-place finish (187). Providence, ranked No. 1 in the nation, edged No. 5 NC State for the team title.
“While it’s always great to beat two of the top regional teams and North Carolina, that beat us two weeks ago, I was really disappointed in how we performed,” Phillips said. “They didn’t get out and that cost them a good team finish.
“We are much better than that and now we have two weeks to put our heads down, train hard and prepare for Wisconsin.”
On the week where the FSU men cracked the nationally rankings for the first time this season, the No. 30 Noles staggered home in 15th-place with a whopping 400 points.
Harry Mulenga continued his strong senior season, finishing 13th in the five-mile race (24:00.4). Graduate transfer Brandon Shemonia, who was sixth for the Seminoles at the Adidas XC Challenge two weeks ago, was the second FSU runner across the line in 59th-place (24:35.5).
Ole Miss, the Seminoles’ chief rival in the South Region, ran away with the team title. Led by race winner Sean Tobin (23:31.9) the 20th-ranked Rebels scored 83 points to edge No. 18 UTEP (99). Ninth-ranked Eastern Kentucky was a distant third (168).
“We’re a tired and banged up team right now, but I know we’ll get better as the season progresses,” FSU men’s coach Bob Braman said. “Losing out No. 3 man [Ibrahim Ahmed} to an Achilles injury spread us thin, but then we were really behind the eight-ball when Steven Cross fell.”
With things falling apart in mid-race the Noles were left to count scoring performances from Cross (102nd, 24:56.6), Michael Callegari (111th, 25:01.7) and Grant Nykaza (131st, 25:15.9) toward the team total.
“I liked our fight,” Braman said. “It would’ve been easy to pack it in and make excuses but we kept fighting and that’s a good sign. It’s a tough sport. No one’s going to feel sorry for you on tough days.”
For the third consecutive race, Cardama Baez led the Seminoles. Despite not getting out quickly on the fast Burke Golf Course track, she finished in 16:45.3. Mooney shaved roughly 10 seconds off her previous 5000-meter best (17:23.3) and edged Blake (17:24.8) in the closing few meters.
Like the men, the women were forced to count some high sticks in the field of 184 finishers. Catherine Blaney (99th, 17:43.9) and Hailey Hendry (148th, 18:14.5) rounded out the Seminole scorers.
Phillips is confident the Noles – which counted seven first- or second-year athletes among nine in the traveling group – merely need more experience.
“I’m not concerned about their fitness,” she said. “They are working hard and will be ready when it matters. They just have to get better at racing and that’s just more experience. They will get there.”
The Seminoles will return to action in some capacity at Friday’s FSU Invitational, with the men’s 8000-meter race set for 7:40 a.m. and the women to follow at 8:20 a.m. The meet will serve as an interlude before the high-stakes Wisconsin Invitational in two weeks.