September 29, 2011 - by
Christmas In September

Sept. 29, 2011

By Bob Thomas,

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Consider Friday’s Notre Dame Cross Country Invitational to be a bit like Christmas in late-September.

Florida State coaches Bob Braman and Karen Harvey are a bit giddy with the prospect of tearing the wrapping paper off their respective squads, who will race all-out against one of the finest collegiate fields of the regular season.

As an added bonus, the weather figures to be seasonably cool in South Bend, Ind.; certainly more ideal for the flat and fast course conditions at the Notre Dame Golf Course, as opposed to still-sweltering Florida.

Up until this point, the Seminoles have focused solely on their training, even to the point of using a couple early-season events as practice sessions as opposed to races. Now it’s time to see where the FSU men and women – coming off NCAA runner-up finishes last November – are in their quest to get back on the National Championship podium in 2011.

“I don’t know that we’re ready to be what we’re going to be,” said Braman. “We’ve literally done zero interval workouts. … For the group we’ve got going up there, we’ve trained really hard and are right where we want to be. We’re probably not ready to sprint and race the way we hope to be by ACC’s, or even two weeks from now (at Pre-Nationals).

“It doesn’t change the expectation. We still want to get in there and try to win (and) see how good we are.”

Braman’s FSU men will send five runners from last year’s NCAA runner-up squad into action, led by All-American and Indiana native Mike Fout, as well as veterans Wes Rickman, Seth Proctor, David Forrester and Jakub Zivec. Four Seminoles will get their first taste of big-time, collegiate cross country, including senior transfer and Irish junior national standout Breanden O’Neill, as well as heralded freshman AJ del Valle.

Harvey’s Seminole women, who have finished no worse than third nationally since she took over the program, are a bit more of a mystery. Junior co-captains Jessica Parry and Amanda Winslow, and graduate student Hannah Brooks each earned All-American honors in either cross country or track last season.

So did junior transfer Violah Lagat, who was third at the NJCAA National Cross Country Championships for Central Arizona. Collectively, the group provides a formidable foursome.

“I think this is interesting because every year going into Notre Dame we’ve been really jacked,” said Harvey, noting that several of her previous teams have bordered on over-confident entering the meet.

That’s not the case this season.

“This year we’re not overconfident,” Harvey said. “I think we’re going in (saying), `Let’s really see if we can really do what we do in practice, in the race.’ Can we stay together, somewhat, in the race like practice? That’s the only thing I’m going to challenge them with – no times. Yeah, we’ll look at New Mexico and we have to look at Princeton, but can we maintain some kind of pack in that race.

“Can we attack it together and play off each other and push each other.”

While Parry and Winslow are proven commodities in cross country at the Division I level, Brooks and Lagat have more established pedigrees on the track in middle distance events, like the 800 and 1,500. Each possesses the physical tools to help the `Noles contend for a national title, but they simply have not proven it yet in cross country.

“Hannah is out for revenge for last fall,” Harvey said of her Bristish-born, 1,500-meter All-American, who labored during the 2010 cross country season. “I don’t even know who that person is anymore. It’s strange to think that’s the same person who was All-American outdoors and one of the top middle distance runners in the country. I can feel her sense of urgency every day in practice and I can feel it escalating building up to Notre Dame.”

Lagat, who participated in track for the `Noles in the spring, has added a significant strength through her training. That could translate to big things as Harvey tries to find replacements for graduated All-Americans Pilar McShine and Pasca Cheruiyot from the 2010 squad.

Violah Lagat is, once again, very inexperienced but has so much talent and she has three other All-Americans around her to play off of,” Harvey said. “If she just runs and does what she does, I’m excited to see what she can do, too.”

The bigger question for the FSU women is who will emerge as the all-important No. 5 runner. Junior transfer Kayleigh Tyerman, who was the No. 1 runner at Cal Poly last fall, seems to be a likely candidate., based on her experience and practice performance. Freshmen Colleen Quigley and Aubree Worden could also contend for that spot, along with redshirt freshman Chelsi Woodruff.

“I think we have all pieces of the puzzle, so let’s try to throw it together on Friday and see what happens,” Harvey said.

Both the men and women will have plenty competition to measure their early-season training progress against.

The Florida State men enter the race ranked No. 1 in the South Region and No. 10 nationally in this week’s USTFCCCA polls. The Seminoles are among 23 or 26 teams in the field who are ranked regionally or nationally. Princeton (No. 1 Mid-Atlantic/No. 12 nationally) and BYU (No. 2 Mountain/No. 14 nationally) appear to be the most formidable opponents for the Seminoles, who placed third at Notre Dame last season. New Mexico, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Eastern Kentucky all bring Top 30 national rankings into the meet.

“We expect to have a good performance,” Braman said. “Last year we were third to New Mexico and Oregon. … There a lot of top-four region-ranked teams in there. This time of year, I look a lot more at the region rankings than the national rankings.

“It would be nice to stay in the first 10 (nationally) because I think that becomes a little bit of a habit. We may not be at the top of our game, but we’ve got to act like a Top-10 team and compete our rear-ends off. I think we’ll do that. From what I’ve seen in practice, I think we’re ready to do that.”

The key will be the Seminoles’ ability to settle into race after what is traditionally a blistering first mile over a course Braman describes as a “track on grass.”

Fout, who has historically run well in his home state – he was ninth last year in the race – could be improve on that mark.

“He ran really good at Notre Dame,” Braman said of Fout. “It was almost like a breakout. … He was in the mix. He was way up there in a really good field. Mike does a good job back home and he’s got a lot of family up there.”

The women’s field is equally impressive, providing a challenge for the FSU women who are No. 1 in the South Region and No. 7 nationally. Of the 28 teams in the field, 26 are ranked either regionally or nationally. The nationally-ranked contenders include No. 2 New Mexico, No. 18 Arkansas, No. 22 Princeton, No. 28 Penn State and No. 29 BYU.

“It’s just our first test,” Harvey said.

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