BALTIMORE – Looking to improve upon its eighth-place finishes in both the men's and women's races at the 2011 America East Championships, the UMBC cross country program has made a noticeable improvement this season. While the men's squad now has 18 members, compared to 17 athletes who competed in 2011, the women's team has more than doubled in size, increasing from seven runners to 15.
While the number of runners does not guarantee success on the course, fifth-year head coach Matt Gittermann likes the help that the newcomers are already providing in the preseason.
"The men look to be what I expected, but there have been a few surprises here and there, especially with the depth which I was not expecting," said Gittermann. "The women look like they are going to be a solid group with the base being the five returners, but a bunch of newcomers should factor in right away."
In addition to the increased size of the team, Gittermann has expanded his coaching ranks as well, bringing in recent UMBC graduate Keri Wilson to assist the squad.
Wilson, the top Retriever performer in all six meets last year, currently holds the sixth and seventh fastest times in the 6k and 5k, respectively, in UMBC history, in addition to numerous top-ten spots in the indoor and outdoor track record book.
"With the addition of ten new faces and a doubling in size of the women's team I felt that it was important to have a formal, female coach who could make a connection with them," Gittermann said. "With Keri being a recent alum, it allows her to have a level of trust from day one that a new coach would have to develop and foster the entire year."
And with Wilson, the only senior on last year's women's team, still aiding the squad, the Retrievers retain plenty of experience, beginning with their four captains, two from each squad. Juniors Kirsten McGovern (Sykesville, Md./Century) and Cody Mezebish (Westminster, Md./South Carroll) will be called upon to lead the expanded roster which does not have a single senior listed on it. Both athletes competed in all six of the Retrievers' meets in 2011, each scoring three times for the Black and Gold.
On the men's side, senior TJ Cowing (Severna Park, Md./Severna Park) competed in all six meets last year, scoring in three of them, and was the top UMBC finisher at the Princeton Invitational. His fellow captain, junior Vinny DiSalvo (Washingtonville, N.Y./Wasingtonville) ran in three races a year ago and recorded a top-50 finish at the 2010 America East Championships.
"These athletes were chosen as captains because they can all be vocal leaders," said Gittermann. "They all have a great understanding of what we are trying to establish with this team. This group will allow us to instill values and expectations, and to seamlessly transition and build upon next year without a shift in leadership."
In addition, junior Brandan McGee (Hiram, Ohio/Crestwood) returns for the Retriever men while sophomores Julie Gessler (Ellicott City, Md./Institute of Notre Dame) and Alyse Gibson (Columbia, Md./Reservoir) come back for the women. Last year, McGee was UMBC's top finisher three times during the cross country season before winning the 3,000m steeplechase at the America East Outdoor Championships in a school-record time. Meanwhile, Gessler and Gibson both scored four times for UMBC in their rookie campaigns.
With the new team in place, Gittermann is hoping that a slight change in preparation will help the Retrievers continue to make strides in the standings. It should also help UMBC that there has been a large turnover among its America East rivals. With Boston University unable to compete at the conference meet due to its departure from the America East, and other schools losing key athletes, the Retrievers look to jump up in the scoring column.
"With the loss of BU and the graduation of main competitors, the men's side is wide open," Gittermann said. "We are going to work on a couple of things by tweaking the training and racing early in the season. This is definitely going to impact things initially at our races, but should come together in time for the conference meet."
The Retrievers open their 2012 slate with the Spider Alumni Open, hosted by the University of Richmond, on Sept. 1 at Pole Green Park in Mechanicsville, Va. UMBC then competes in four other local competitions before heading to Durham, N.H., home of the University of New Hampshire Wildcats, on Oct. 27 for the 2012 America East Championships.