MADISON, Wisc. – The Florida State cross country teams will be facing their biggest tests of the season Friday at the Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational, with 19 nationally-ranked men’s team – 18 on the women’s side – making up the 31-team fields racing at the Thomas Zimmer Championship Course. It is far and away the largest gathering of nationally ranked teams in any one meet, short of the NCAA Championships, and a tremendous measuring tool for the Seminole men and women two weeks shy of the ACC Championships.
In addition to the gathering of a host of national powers, Flotrack will be providing live race coverage. The women’s 6000-meter race is set for 1:30 p.m. (ET), with the men’s 8000-meter race set for 2:20 p.m. Live results, including splits and in-race team scoring, are also available.
“All I know is this may be better than the NCAA Championships when all is said and done,” Florida State men’s coach Bob Braman said.
Returning to the Zimmer Course for the third consecutive year, the Seminoles are gunning from better finishes than their trip to Notre Dame two weeks ago, where the women were 14th and the men 15th against solid fields.
A better gauge of progress may be whether Kelly Phillips’ women and Braman’s men better last season’s 23rd- and 18th-place finishes against similarly strong fields over the rolling, grassy track.
Though the lineups for both teams feature four new runners from a year ago, they share a few similarities.
Harry Mulenga was 66th (24:16.2) in his FSU debut at Wisconsin last season, but has since emerged as one of the better runners in the southeast, if not nationally.
“At this moment, the only thing I’m thinking about is to give my best tomorrow,” Mulenga said after Thursday’s pre-meet workout at the course. “I remember last year when I crossed the line, I was sitting down there and I was crying. Coach [Braman] said, ‘Don’t expect everything to be good. You still have a chance.’ Today we are here to see if that can happen and I can make a difference from last year.
“I’m really excited to be here. At the same time this will kind of be our test for the ACC, which is two weeks from now, to see where we’re at. I feel like I’ll do better than I did last year.”
Turning back the clock a year, Carmela Cardama Baez’s Wisconsin performance was the launching point for a strong finish to her freshman campaign, including All-ACC and All-South Region honors, after finishing first among Seminoles and 62nd overall (20:36.5).
“Last year was like a big shock,” Baez said Thursday, reflecting on the first 6000-meter race of her career. “Although we had run before in Boston in a big race, we were still in the top 10 or top 20 [as a team]. Coming to Wisconsin was my first time in such a big race…I tried to keep myself calm but I definitely didn’t know how to handle that.”
Adjusting to running in large packs takes time and a sophomore from Spain is confident that she will handle the moment a bit better this time around.
“I feel like I’ll be more comfortable and confident toward the race,” she said. “I don’t see myself in the front, but I’m definitely looking forward to trying to get closer – 30, 20 or 10 places – and definitely improve what I got last year quite a lot, because I do think I can be there.”
Junior teammate Bridget Blake, the reigning ACC Performer of the Week, will be making her third start at Wisconsin. After placing 107th as a freshman (21:16) in 2014, she was 33 seconds faster and 74th (20:43.5) last season; which might be a good measuring stick for progress for Cardama Baez and fellow sophomore Fatema Jaffer, who will also be making her second start at this meet.
Senior transfer Catherine Blaney, junior Tara Rooney and freshmen Megan Mooney and Hailey Hendry will all be racing at the venue for the first time. It is also the first 6000-meter race – the championship season distance – of the season.
“I hope we have some time today to speak as a team and tell them what is going happen, so they are not as confused as I was last year,” Cardama Baez said. “I think that will be helpful. I think some of them are kind of scared because it’s going to be the first 6k. One [kilometer] makes a difference, but it’s how you see that 1k…that it’s to keep hunting people and winning positions. It’s just how you face it, so hopefully we get positive toward that. I think they’re going to be surprised at how they do; that 1k is going to make them better.”
And showing improvement at this stage of the season is important for both teams. The Seminole women, No. 4 in the USTFCCCA South Region rankings, can make a significant move with a strong showing. They will also be getting a measure on the ACC competition with No. 3 NC State, No. 20 Syracuse and No. 28 Notre Dame in the race, along with Boston College and North Carolina.
Mulenga and the men are hunting similar improvement after a disastrous effort at Notre Dame knocked them from No. 30 in the national rankings after a one-week appearance.
“If you look at what happened two weeks ago, everyone was disappointed,” Mulenga said. “Our expectation was very high but our outcome wasn’t what we expected and everybody was kind of disappointed; everybody was so sad…
“We’re just focusing on doing our best and giving what we can, because this race will be determining what our performance is in two weeks. We want to do everything we can as a team to make it happen so that we know what we’re missing and we can put the missing pieces together and drive through the end of the season.”
Three-time defending ACC champion and No. 2 Syracuse leads a small contingent from the conference, which also includes NC State and North Carolina. Still, with five top-10 teams – 16 of the top 25 – on hand there will be plenty of targets for the Noles to chase.
Junior Michael Hall will be making his third Wisconsin start as the most experienced Seminole in the field and will try and duplicate the 26-second improvement he made on the course between 2014-2015. Senior Grant Nykaza is the only other returnee from last year’s meet.
Whether the Noles can break through and gain some valuable NCAA at-large points will likely hinge on the performances of transfers Michael Callegari, Ibrahim Ahmed – who was forced to drop out at Notre Dame – and Brandon Shemonia, as well the continued success of three-time ACC Freshman of the Week Steven Cross.
Noles Also Racing At Crimson Tide
Valuable positions for the ACC Championship lineups could be on the line Friday morning in Tuscaloosa, Ala. when another group of Seminole men and women compete in the Crimson Tide Classic.
With 10 racing positions availabe for the conference meet the Noles will have something to short for in the 8000-meter men’s race and 6000-meter women’s race, set for 10 a.m. (ET) and 10:45, respectively.
Abin Fator, Tyson Murray and Will Simons will lead the FSU men into action, while Madison Harris, Marianne Aguilar, Jessica Lonas and Sarah Candiano are expected to pace the women against largely regional fields.
Live results from the race will also be available.