BLACKSBURG, Va. – In its truest form, cross country racing tests the physical and mental toughness of its competitors, often under less than ideal conditions.
That’s precisely the challenge the nationally-ranked Florida State men and women will encounter Friday morning when they contend for ACC Championship titles on the rolling, muddy, wind-swept Buford Meredith Cross Country Course, while coping with temperatures in the 30s.
The 21st-ranked Seminole men – one of six ranked teams in the field – bring their strongest squad to the meet since their third-place finish in 2012, when they finished seven points behind the host champion Virginia Tech Hokies. Their 8,000-meter race is set for 10 a.m. and will be streamed live on ACC Network Extra.
“I think it is our best since ’12,” said FSU coach Bob Braman, whose team is hunting its second ACC men’s cross country title in his 20 years at the helm. “We had a region champion team in 2015, but we performed really well on that day…
“We’re going to go in there without a lot of stress or expectation and just try and chase the front. The worst thing that can happen is we’ll still be what we’ve been the last two meets, which is a very competitive team.”
Defending champion and No. 20 Notre Dame is among six teams that figure to be in the mix for the title, along with NC State and Virginia (tied for No. 23 nationally), No. 26 Virginia Tech and No. 28 Syracuse.
A year ago coach Kelly Phillips’ women finished fourth – improving from seventh in 2017 – but her fifth Noles squad enters Friday’s 11 a.m., 6,000-meter race ranked No. 10 in the country, trailing only three-time defending champion NC State at No. 6.
It is without question the strongest team since the Noles hoisted their seventh consecutive title in 2013; one capable of winning it all. They were third at the Joe Piane Notre Dame Invitational, where they beat both NC State and Notre Dame, and were fifth two weeks ago at the Pre-National Invitational.
“The mindset has been really good,” Phillips said. “The workouts have been exceptional. They have been better than I thought they would have been this year. I think some of that is because of the depth. And they’ve been really supportive of each other.”
In addition to the Wolfpack, No. 17 Notre Dame, No. 22 Virginia Tech and No. 27 Boston College round out the five ranked teams who figure to be battling for top honors, as well as Georgia Tech and Syracuse, who are receiving votes in the national poll.
“I don’t think anyone has to be spectacular,” Phillips said, when asked what her team would need to do to win. “I think if they run as a pack and build off each other, seeing the front at all times, they’ll be in a good situation, because there’s a lot of them.”
The two FSU squads will go about the business of contending a bit differently. Graduate transfer Kasey Knevelbaard enters the meet as one of the individual race favorites. He could join Andrew Lemoncello, who won back-to-back titles (2004-05) as just the second Seminole champion.
“Not only does he give you that low stick, which is an obvious advantage, but we’ve got guys who train with him every day and they [think], ‘I’m not far off of that and I can get there, whether it’s this year or next year,’” Braman said. “It gives them a lot of confidence. That’s a true, low-stick, track All-American and soon-to-be cross country All-American and potential individual champion. That gives you a bounce when you’re competing because it’s like, ‘We’re scoring four guys instead of five, plus one point.’”
The four guys immediately behind Knevelbaard are coming off their best collective effort of the season, finishing within six seconds of one another to key the strong Pre-National meet finish. Senior Steven Cross, competing in his fourth ACC Championship meet, and 2018 All-ACC performer Caleb Pottorff – who was 11th last year – lead the group, which includes junior transfer Silas Griffith and sophomore Paul Stafford.
Redshirt sophomore Tyler Dau, sophomore Matthew Newland and redshirt freshman Jacob Holmes have all demonstrated the ability to contribute.
“I think we’re in the best place we have been in my four years here, to go out and compete and hopefully come back with a title,” said Cross, who like Pottorff, is rounding into form after missing the entire 2019 track season due to injury. “Distance running, I’ve come to realize, it’s all about opportunity. You never know when it’s going to come.
“You’re hoping everything lines up, that you’re with the right people, doing the right training, sleeping enough, eating enough…That seems to have been the trend for this season. I’m feeling good, feeling healthy. The guys around me are awesome. I think we’re in a special spot to do something, and myself, I’m feeling the best that I have and I’m ready to show what I’m made of.”
There is no distinct pecking order on the women’s team. Three different athletes – Lauren Ryan, Maudie Skyring and Elizabeth Funderburk – have finished in the top spot this season. In all, eight different Noles have been top-five scorers at some point through three meets.
It is, without question, the deepest FSU squad in history. Senior Megan Mooney, junior Jodie Judd, redshirt sophomore Addi Coggins and sophomore Erin Phelps are all running at the highest levels of their careers. They’re backed by a trio of freshmen – Rebecca Clark, Ava Peeples and Yasmine Abbes – who have shown consistent improvement throughout the season.
“I honestly don’t who will be our No. 1,” Phillips said. “It could be three or four, or anybody. What makes it exciting is if we have somebody go down, whether it’s sickness or injury, you’re not in panic mode thinking, ‘Oh my, gosh, now what do we do? We don’t have a six or seven.’ You only need five and we have 10. We’re in a good situation as long as people don’t take it for granted.”
Funderburk, who was 15th as a freshman last season and is the team’s lone returning All-ACC performer, is confident she and her teammates are ready to make some noise.
“I feel like this year we’ll be disappointed with anything worse than runner-up,” she said. “Our goal is to win it and I think we have a good chance to do that if we perform to our capabilities…
“It’s exciting to see how we’re going to stack up at ACCs; who is going to be one through five. If we all have a good day, I really feel like we can do something special.”