Retriever Cross Country Ready for the Region
Murray Davis's squads hope to continue their improvement in 2002.
By: Conrad Haber
The 2002 season promises to be full of excitement for the UMBC cross country teams as they continue to improve their standing in the region. Last season was highlighted by the Retriever men's 15th place ranking in the final Mid-Atlantic Regional poll after finishing 15th at the NCAA Mid-Atlantic Regional meet. The women look to continue building a team in order to make a run at a Northeast Conference (NEC) Championship.
"Last season was certainly big but we hope to build on last year's successes and reach an even higher level," says UMBC head coach Murray Davis. "We have a lot of good athletes returning this year. Despite the loss of our top 3 runners on the men's side and our top runner on the women's side, I think our crop of incoming freshmen coupled with the improvement of our younger athletes should allow us to achieve our goals for the season."
The UMBC men's and women's cross country teams have undertaken some changes in the past couple of years but have finally seemed to have found a mold conducive for success. The runners have been training long and hard under head coach Davis, and this year could be the year when all the hard work will come together.
Now it is time to see what these teams can accomplish.
"Our first goal every year, for both the men and women, is to win the NEC championship," Davis says. "Even though we also want to increase our standing in the region, our main focus is still the NEC Championships race. If we can win an NEC title, our standing in the region will improve, the two go hand and hand."
"The conference meet surprised us last year," Davis says. "We did not finish to our capabilities and that has left the team with a burning desire to set things straight. "Now we are even better prepared for competition at such a high level. If we can reach out first goal of winning the NEC title, we'll know we're prepared to achieve the later goals of going to the NCAA regional meet and placing in the top 10."
In 2001, the Retrievers developed a remarkably consistent and tight pack, having one of the smallest gaps in the conference at the NEC Championship meet with a 37 second spread between their first and fifth runners. However, with three of these runners not returning, the Retrievers will have to rely on a young group of runners to get the job done. Senior Phil Knowlton is UMBC's top returning performer from a team that finished 4th at the NEC Championships last season.
"Phil is someone who has really improved at a remarkable rate from last year to this year," Davis says. "He wasn't the top runner last year but now he has a new desire to become the lead man on this team. With his talent and those kinds of aspirations, great things should be expected."
Juniors Adam Driscoll and Gregg Saylor are coming off huge track seasons. Both look poised to step up and become top runners for the Retrievers this fall. "It was great watching Driscoll and Saylor train and improve during the outdoor season. In a matter of months they transformed themselves into legitimate runners that other coaches will have to worry about. With Driscoll and Saylor in shape and working with Knowlton, we are going to have a very tough top three," Davis says. "I expect to see all of them improve throughout the season and hopefully earn All-NEC honors."
Supporting the top three runners for UMBC are a tight pack of underclassmen eager to continue the Retriever tradition of tight pack running.
"Our main strength last year was the tightness of our pack, " Davis says. "It is hard to beat a team that has only 40 seconds separating their first and fifth runners. This year we want to maintain our tight pack while running faster and being more competitive on the course."
This year's team looks poised to continue and improve on the pack mentality from last season. Leading the way for the support crew will be sophomore Jesse Stump, who last year earned the NEC Rookie of the Week honor after his 26:15, 8k performance at the Maryland State Meet. Senior Aaron Johnson, who has been recovering from several injuries over his college career, has been injury free for a year now and looks ready to produce for the Retrievers. Junior Mike Caputi and sophomore Kevin Hurley have also been plagued with injuries but appear to be ready to roll this season.
"With Johnson and Stump healthy our team should be in great shape," Davis claims. "The addition of Caputi and Hurley only helps out our chances of maintaining a tight pack. The key to pack running is depth and we have a lot of it."
The Retrievers will also receive help from a very accomplished and talented recruiting class. Leading the way for the incoming freshman will be Izudin Mehmedovic from Oakland Mills in Columbia, MD. Penned by the press as the "Bosnian Flash," Mehmedovic produced incredible times during his final track season at Oakland Mills running 1:55 for 800 meters and 4:19 for a mile.
"Izzy (Mehmedovic's nickname) is one of the top recruits we have on the team. He should be able to come out and make a direct contribution," says Davis. "I would think that he could be a top five performer on the team, putting pressure on the upperclassmen to perform."
Along with Izzy, UMBC welcomes Aaron Smith from Bel Air, MD; Ryan Cartwright from Perry Hall, MD; Chris Baumler from Hughesville, MD and John Commins from New Oxford, Pa.
"A real key for us this season will be the performance of our freshmen recruiting class," states Davis. "They can only make us better as a team."
Aaron Smith was a 4:22 miler at CM Wright in Bel Air, MD while Cartwright, an All-Metro performer at Eastern Technical, had a great outdoor season culminating with a 4:29 - 9:47 double "gold" at the Maryland State Meet.
"Cartwright has been training intelligently all summer and his strength over long distances looks incredible. He should be pushing for a spot in the top seven," Davis says. "If Smith can follow suit with Cartwright and Izzy, our team will have the kind of depth needed to attain the goals we have set." "Baumler and Commins also have come into the new season in great form and should be pushing for a spot in the top twelve."
"One of the more interesting athletes to join the team this season is UMBC sophomore, James Simms of Parkdale High School in Landover, MD.," Davis says. "Simms is historically a long sprinter / 800 meter performer who possesses superb power and motivation. With an improved aerobic capacity over the course of the new season Simms should turn some heads."
Also providing strong support for the Retrievers this season are seniors Lloyd Dodge, Lance Byrd, Pat Blair and sophomore Aaron Reuwer.
The women's squad is in a different position. After losing several runners over the past years to graduation, the Retrievers look to this season as a rebuilding year.
UMBC will have to replace their top runner from last year, all ECAC selection and Academic All- American Jen Ecker. Coach Murray Davis is confident that he will be able to fill the void left by Ecker.
Senior Hannah Benjamin, who had to sit out most of last season with an injury, looks poised to take over the number one spot on the team. A returning All-NEC performer, Benjamin had a break through outdoor season when she ran 17:35 for 5k at the Duke Invitational.
"Hannah will be a real key for our team. Her leadership along with her great speed will be necessary if our team is to be successful," Davis says. "I have no doubt she is up to the challenge. After her 17:35 performance during the outdoor season, she established herself as one of the best runners in the NEC and the Mid-Atlantic Region."
Behind the front running of Benjamin, the Retrievers will look towards sophomore Cara Wettlaufer to step up and become a top runner in the conference. Wettlaufer, who finished 23rd at the NEC Championship meet as a freshman, should be able to earn All-NEC honors at the championships meet this year.
"I was really impressed with her performance last year at the NEC Championships," Davis says. "I am confident she will build upon her success from last year and step it up another level."
To aid Benjamin and Wettluafer, head coach Davis has brought in a talented freshman class. Leading the way will be Stefanie Thomas from Springfield, PA. Having run 17:57 for 5k at a road race and an 11:12 for 3200 meters at the Pennsylvania state meet, Thomas has already established herself as a potential All-NEC candidate.
"Stefanie is the real deal. She should be able to come in and make an immediate impact on the women's team," says Davis. "With her, Benjamin and Wettlaufer our front three should be a strong force in the conference. I would not be surprised if all three earned All-NEC honors at the championship meet this November."
UMBC will also look towards seniors Ohita Asein, Sherita Baker, and Andrea Zelanko to provide leadership. Baker and Asein are coming off impressive track seasons, where both runners ran on a 4x800 relay team that set a school record, and Zelanko has returned for her final cross country season in excellent form.
"Baker and Asein just know how to get the job done and we are definitely counting on them throughout the season. When it comes time for a big performance those two are always ready," says Davis.
"Similar to the men's side the women's team also has a remarkable athlete in Yasmin Fields," Davis says. "Fields, a transfer from Hampton University, competed for UMBC during the 2002 outdoor track season and was extremely impressive in the middle distance events. Fields possesses untapped potential and will hopefully challenge for a spot in the top seven," David added.
Finally, the Retrievers are counting on freshman Jennifer Hickey from Severn, MD; U'Tonna Sherrod from Millersville, MD; and Valerie Beach from Forrest Hills, MD to provide added depth .
"After watching our freshmen at our team cross country camp I think we will be able to surprise a lot of teams in the conference and the region," says Davis. "Hickey and Sherrod appear to be in exceptional shape and should be able to place well at the NEC Championship meet. Beach is returning slowly to form after suffering an injury during the 2002 high school outdoor track season, but should be ready by NEC's."