Oct. 3, 2013
SOUTH BEND, Ind.- The preliminary races are over for the Florida State cross country teams as the point-gathering season begins in earnest Friday afternoon at the 58th Annual Notre Dame Invitational.
Though unbeaten and nationally ranked - the women are No. 2 and the men No. 26 - in this week's USTFCCCA Coaches Poll, the Seminoles have not been tested the way they will be as they wind through Notre Dame's nine-hole, on campus golf course. That is the primary reason coaches Bob Braman and Karen Harvey have made the meet a must on the schedule for the better part of a decade.
What makes the meet even more interesting this season is the number of new faces in the lineup for both teams. It's quite possible that Braman will only put two men on the starting line - Josh Gracia and Will Bridges - that were non-scoring members of last season's fourth-place finish at the meet.
"With so many new faces we need to learn how to work together in large, major races like this one," Braman said. "By season's end we'll need to have that dynamic to be successful. I hope we can take that important first step this weekend."
At least five first-year Seminoles, including true freshmen Grant Nykaza and Avery Lopez, will be in the lineup. Nykaza, a two-time Foot Locker national finalist, and Lopez, a former star for Florida high school power Belen Jesuit, will be making their Florida State debuts.
"It's quite unusual for freshmen to make our top seven, but those two young men earned the opportunity," Braman said. "We'll need them to not run like freshmen, rather like the high school stars that they were."
Harvey's team is facing similar questions, with four of eight runners in her lineup racing at Notre Dame for the first time in their careers. The primary difference between the FSU men and women at this point is that the Seminole women have won the last two Notre Dame Invitational titles (and three of the last five) and include the defending race champion Colleen Quigley. As a sophomore, Quigley rolled to victory over the 5000m course in 16:29 last year.
This year she won't be followed across the finish line by teammates Violah Lagat, Kayleigh Tyerman, Amanda Winslow and Jessica Parry, who helped the `Noles to a miniscule winning score of 28 points, but have since graduated.
That doesn't mean Harvey is any less excited to see what is in store for her rebuilt lineup.
"It's time to get the season started and we are once again excited to race at Notre Dame," Harvey said. "The meet is going to quite deep team-wise so it's going to be a hard test for us. We are prepared as we need to be this early and I am excited to see what we do and learn."
Both squads will face outstanding fields. Seven nationally-ranked teams and 15 others with regional rankings make up the 25-team field of women's teams and Harvey expects plenty of competition from ACC rivals, No. 4 Duke and No. 19 Notre Dame, as well as No. 15 New Mexico, No. 24 San Francisco, No. 28 BYU and No. 30 Princeton. Junior Linden Hall and sophomore Georgia Peel and Carly Thomas will try and apply what they learned a year ago at Notre Dame and improve their finishes.
"It's going to be a difficult team title to win this year, but honestly, we need to be challenged every time we race to get better," said Harvey, whose last two FSU teams have launched unbeaten regular seasons with Notre Dame wins but settled for fourth-place NCAA Championship finishes.
Braman's FSU men are among eight teams entering the meet ranked among the top 30 nationally. Tulsa (No. 7) and Princeton (9), who finished 1-2 here a year ago, are the top ranked teams in the field along with Colorado State (16) and New Mexico (21). Among the ACC teams ranked in front of the `Noles are No. 22 Notre Dame and No. 24 Virginia.
Beyond eight-ranked teams, 18 others in the field boast regional rankings, which should provide ample opportunity to pull some potential NCAA at-large berth points.
"If we can knock off a few ranked teams, that would be a huge performance for us this early in the year," Braman said. "We'll need to run our top three at the front for us to achieve that."
You can follow the Seminoles' cross country progress via Twitter @FSU_XCountry and find all of the race results and coverage at www.seminoles.com