Nov. 8, 2012
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - When your annual goal is a top-10 NCAA Championships finish, it only makes sense that qualifying for that event if of the utmost importance.
That's the backdrop for the Bob Braman-coached Florida State men's cross country team, which heads into Friday's NCAA South Region as the highest ranked team in the field, which will break from the starting line at the Apalachee Regional Park course when the gun sounds at 9:15 a.m.
"It all comes down to these two meets in how you judge your season," Braman said. The Seminoles, who are ranked No. 1 in the region and No. 23 nationally in the USTFCCCA Coaches Poll, are looking to step up their game as they face the challenge of racing the 10-kilometer championship distance for the first time this season.
Fortunately, they will do that on a course that serves as the programs' home, despite the fact that no one on FSU's roster has ever participated in a 10k race over the testy trails in eastern Leon County.
A top-two finish will guarantee the Seminoles a spot at next week's NCAA Championships in Louisville, Ky., and extend their streak to 10 consecutive appearances.
Florida State will lean heavily on its collective championship experience as it attempts to defend last year's South Region title. Senior David Forrester, who has battled injury and illness throughout his final campaign, is the defending race champion and one of four returning `Noles who earned All-Region honors last season. Breandan O Neill, who was fourth in 2011, Jakub Zivec (15th) and Seth Proctor (18th) form the competitive core of the seven-man lineup, along with senior Wes Rickman.
Among the `Noles on the starting line, only Paul Lagno, a first-year graduate student, and freshman Zak Seddon, have not worn an FSU uniform at a regional race before. Neither has redshirt freshman Will Bridges, who will be the alternate runner.
Braman said the Seminoles remain confident, despite a third-place finish at the ACC Championships two weeks ago, which sent them tumbling down the national polls. FSU came up seven points shy of the team title and a point out of second place.
"We choose to look at the ACC Championship as the regular season, because anytime you get a little too focused on the ACC meet, which is three weeks before the national meet, it's really hard to hold that fine tune," Braman said. "You've got to pick your poison. ... You've got to be 100 percent for those last two races and the real trick of the whole thing is not to be able to run one 10k, but you've got to be able to run two of them in eight days."
The Seminoles weren't quite as sharp as they needed to be at the ACC meet in terms of health, but Braman said Wednesday, "we're in the best shape we've been health-wise all year."
That is important as they attempt to defend their title against a field which includes runners from 33 schools in the five-state region, including 28 full squads. Two of those teams - No. 26 Georgia and rival Florida, which is ranked third in the region - stand in FSU's path to a title.
"We can't limp our way into the national meet," said Braman, who would rather not count on its strong at-large resume to get into the NCAA field. "We need a good performance to build up some momentum. ...
"We feel like we've got enough wins at Notre Dame and Pre-Nationals [to get an at-large berth] and we've got two wins over Eastern Kentucky, who is the No. 1 team in the Southeast Region, which might be huge if it goes to an at-large. We've got two dangerous teams in Georgia and Florida, neither of which are in as good a position as we are for at-large wins. Their coaches are probably telling them, `If we're not top-two, we're out.'"
Georgia, a veteran squad much like FSU, earned an at-large berth to the 2011 NCAA Championships after finishing third at the South Region behind the Seminoles and Gators. The Bulldogs enter Friday's race off a runner-up finish at the SEC Championships. Florida is unranked nationally and will be gunning for a big performance after a fifth-place SEC finish.
Friday's racing action at Apalachee Region Park begins with the women at 8:30 a.m. There is no admission charge.
You can follow the action live via Twitter @FSU_XCountry or check back at www.seminoles.com for complete race coverage, which will be complemented by photo galleries and stories on the program's official Facebook page - Florida State Seminoles Cross Country.