Nov. 20, 2011
By Bob Thomas, Seminoles.com
TERRE HAUTE, Ind. - A year ago, at this very venue, the Florida State cross country teams established an unprecedented standard of excellence with NCAA Championship runner-up finishes. As rewarding as those performances were, the Seminoles have spent the last 364 days preparing for improvement.
That time has arrived. The Seminoles toe the starting line Monday at the LaVern Gibson Championship Course in search of something greater.
Karen Harvey's FSU women enter the 2011 NCAA Championship as the No. 1 team in the nation; one of the co-favorites to deliver the school its first NCAA women's national championship in any sport since 1985. Bob Braman's men, ranked No. 11 nationally, are optimistically chasing another Top 10 finish, which would solidify their standing as one of the nation's best programs.
"I've been on a lot of successful teams, in high school and the last two years [at FSU], but there's definitely something special about this team," said FSU junior co-captain Amanda Winslow. "You can see it in practice; you can see it in the race. We've got girls from all different backgrounds, with different strengths ... and some of them that have different racing strategies, but yet we've all been so close in the race and pretty much together in all of the workouts.
"I feel like there's some sort of factor that's different here. There's not the drama, the pettiness, that you see on some girls teams. We get along great. We're really close. And we all went the same things; we have the same high goals. I think that's what makes us really special."
Winslow, the NCAA South Region champion, has been the Seminoles' top runner throughout the season, if only incrementally. Therein lies the reason FSU will battle two-time defending champion Villanova, Georgetown and Colorado for the team title.
Teammates Hannah Brooks, Violah Lagat, Jessica Parry, Colleen Quigley and Kayleigh Tyerman provide the `Noles with a tightly-knit pack on the course; four or five of whom could realistically race away with All-American honors for top 40 finishes.
Harvey, whose team has authored back-to-back runner-up NCAA finishes, initially thought her 2011 squad would be rebuilding. After all, only three of the seven runners FSU will send to the starting line were on last season's team. Harvey, however, readjusted her expectations after the `Noles continued to turn out winning performances at the Notre Dame Invitational and Pre-National meets.
"I think after Notre Dame I started thinking, `Oh yeah, we can get back on the podium,'" Harvey said. "Then around Pre-Nats and a bunch of workouts, I was like, `Whoa, this team has a lot of talent.' That's when it started thinking the physical part is there for them to potentially win nationals."
Beyond runaway team victories at Notre Dame, Pre-Nationals, the ACC Championship and the NCAA South Region - some of which came with the team strategically holding back - the Seminoles were proving themselves as worthy contenders by consistently handling what Harvey calls her, `Big Girl' workouts.
Four-time FSU All-American Susan Kuijken set the standard of measure for those "Big Girl' workouts during her career.
"The only one they haven't beaten [based on times] in the `Big Girl' workout is Susan Kuijken, but Amanda got really close," Harvey said. "That's pretty exciting."
"In the past we would kind of watch Susan and be amazed," said Winslow, who was a freshman on FSU's 2009 third-place team during Kuijken's senior season. "This year we don't have someone like that on the team and I think it's kind of forced us to kind of say, `Why not? Why not me?' ... Then you finish the workout and look at the times and you realize, `Wow', we pretty much hit times that Susan, Pilar [McShine] and Pasca [Cheruiyot]."
McShine and Cheruiyot were All-American's last season, along with Parry.
"This year is just so exciting because we know if we give everything, it's going to be a pretty special outcome for the team," Winslow said.
Braman's men have "special" aspirations as well, including a second consecutive podium finish in their ninth straight NCAA Championship appearance. Unlike the women, the men have two distinct packs which will hold the key to attaining those goals.
Senior co-captain Mike Fout, an Indiana native whose career collegiate highlights have come on home soil, earned All-American honors last season with his 28th-place finish. In his last go-round, the La Porte native has his sights set on a bigger finish.
"If you look at the results, each and every year I've run a little bit better, a little bit better," Fout said. "This year, with the way the training is going and how I've been healthy for a couple years now, I'd like to see that nice big jump, just as anyone would at the NCAA championships. I'm going to start myself near the front and run the race that I think I can and just hope to see a continued progression."
Fout will have company. Junior David Forrester, who won the NCAA South Region title, has been his training partner from the first day of practice. They have swapped top finishes for the Seminoles throughout the season.
Even more encouraging, senior Breandan O Neill has joined the fray over the past few weeks. The trio went 1-2-4 in leading the `Noles to the South Region team title and will be instrumental if they are to get back on the podium.
"If Breandan runs with Mike and Dave, that gap [between the first and second pack] might be big and we might still be good," Braman said. "For us to be successful at the national meet, we've got to have solid performances. We can't put a card in the score that's way back."
While the women enter the race healthy and optimistic, the men will start with a few uncertainties. Junior co-captain Wes Rickman has been limited by a calf problem that kept him out of the regional meet. Freshman AJ del Valle has never raced all-out for 10 kilometers.
"If you look at last year, we had a lot of questions," Braman said. "We had a lot of things going on and you always will in our sport. There's a fine line between being in the shape of your life and being injured or pushed over the edge and a shell of yourself. The key is for us to get rest, get sharp; to go in and compete well, as we did for most of the year."
There are many variables that won't play out until the men charge from the starting line at 12:08 p.m. Monday, with the women set to follow at 12:58. (Both races will be streamed live at NCAA.com). The rolling and open LaVern Gibson Championship Course is prone to windy conditions this time of year, and Sunday's rain could leave the footing less that favorable.
"It's a very unpredictable race; a very unpredictable sport," said Fout, who is excited about the potential for another strong performance by the FSU men. "It's almost kind of mimicking my high school career," he added. "We were kind of a bottom of the barrel team and rose up and got second at the state meet my senior year. To go do that in college, you know how big the jump in talent and diversity at NCAA, is really something special. To do that with this group of guys has been awesome because just as I've matured, I've seen them mature, too. We're a close-knit group. We support each other in practice; in the race."
"You hold each other accountable for what everybody does. We've done a very good job of keeping a close-knit group and maturing together."