BALTIMORE – A year ago, the UMBC cross country squads both made noticeable strides from the year before. Despite losing two scorers from the 2011 America East Championships, the men's team jumped five spots and finished in third place at the 2012 meet, the squad's best finish since winning the league in 2005. The women, meanwhile, were able to establish a core group of scorers, all of whom return again this fall.
This experience bodes well for the Retrievers, especially considering head coach Matt Gittermann has brought in a talented class of runners to help put his teams over the top. The sixth-year head man likes the make-up of his team and their chances to accomplish something special this season.
"I think that there is a lot to get excited about with both teams this year," said Gittermann. "For the men, they are going to be competing for a conference title for the first time in a while, and the women are probably putting their best team out there in recent history, if not school history.
"Individually we have four to five men who could legitimately be top-ten in the conference along with a couple of women we hope can finish in the top-15."
Although the men's last championship came in 2005, this group looks poised for a breakout with 2012 All-Conference runner Brandan McGee (Hiram, Ohio/Crestwood) leading the way. After qualifying for the NCAA East Regionals in the 3,000m steeplechase during his sophomore outdoor track season, the senior led UMBC throughout the 2012 cross country schedule, pacing the squad a team-high five times, including his seventh-place finish at the conference race. As a junior, McGee broke the school record at the 5k (15:17.20) and 6k (24:45.65) distances and sits second all-time for the 10k (31:29.35).
McGee is not alone, however, as all four of the Retrievers' other scorers from the America East race also return. Senior Tom Eldridge (Rocky River, Ohio/Rocky River), a 15th-place finisher at the conference meet, who scored a total of four times last season, returns for a final season, along with classmate Jake Albino (Hampton, N.Y./Minisink Valley) who sits just behind McGee with his top 5k-time (15:31.80) and also holds a spot in the top-ten for the 8k and 10k distances. Sixteenth-place finisher Eric Schuler (Columbia, Md./Reservoir) looks to continue his progression after scoring four times and leading the Black and Gold at the Mason Invitational.
In addition, sophomore Hassan Omar (Frederick, Md./Thomas Johnson), the America East champion in the outdoor 10,000m and 20th-place finisher at the XC meet, is back along with Redatu Semeon (Waldorf, Md./Thomas Stone), who placed second in the steeplechase at the outdoor track conference meet.
But while the third-place finish was a step up for the Retrievers in 2012, Gittermann believes his squad is ready for a bigger challenge.
"I think the big thing for us is that I didn't have to tell the team that although our finish was great last year, we didn't really accomplish anything," Gittermann reflected. "They know there is more out there for them and they need to work harder to get it because no team is going to hand it to them."
To aid the push to the top of the conference standings, the Retrievers have added a class of seven athletes who look to challenge the incumbents. Freshmen Patrick Duboyce (New Market, Md./Linganore) and Jon Luckin (Parkton, Md./Hereford) both bring state championship experience to the already deep Retriever lineup.
"Semeon should be a top-three runner for us after probably being the fastest runner to not make the conference in school history," Gittermann said. "Pat Duboyce and Jon Luckin are freshmen who could make a huge impact on the team."
The UMBC women's team takes on a similar make-up as the men, having graduated no runners from last year's conference scoring squad, and returning a strong core of scorers. Senior captain Cody Mezebish (Westminster, Md./South Carroll) led the Retrievers at four competitions last season and recorded the sixth-fastest time at the 5k distance with her run of 18:21.16 at the conference championships. Fellow senior Kirsten McGovern (Sykesville, Md./Century) is also back after pacing the squad for the first time in her career at the Towson Invitational and recording the seventh-fastest 5k school time of 18:38.43 at New Hampshire.
After a cross country season in which she was the only UMBC runner to score in every race, Nicole Dawson (Jessup, Md./Hammond) continued her success into the track season where she, along with classmate Harmony Roche (Millersville, Md./Severn School), both qualified for the ECAC 10k event. Established veterans Julie Gessler (Ellicott City, Md./Institute of Notre Dame), UMBC's top runner at the NCAA Mid-Atlantic Regionals, Sarah Daly (Lake Orion, Mich./Lake Orion), and co-captain Mary Katherine Kulp (Vestal, N.Y./Vestal) return to provide leadership for the Retrievers.
"The women's team could develop into one of the best teams in school history," Gittermann said. "The returners are looking to raise the level of their training and thus their finish by changing their own personal definitions of what they believe fast is."
A group of seven newcomers also joins the fray and hopes to boost the Retrievers up from last year's eighth-place finish. The group includes freshman Sarah Zielinski (Boonsboro, Md./Boonsboro) who led her high school to a sweep of the cross country and track and field state championships in 2012-13.
"Add into our team a solid group of freshmen who could and should make a big impact and this is the deepest team that we have put on the line," said Gittermann. "While the base of the team is the same… I think they have changed so much in between last year and now that this is almost a completely different set of athletes."
For a large team, it is important to have strong captains and leadership. With two of the four captains returning to their role from last year in Vinny DiSalvo (Washingtonville, N.Y./Washingtonville) and Mezebish, in addition to veterans such as Eldridge, senior Andrew Smith (Chadds Ford, Pa./Garnet Valley) and Kulp, Gittermann believes that the teams will gel. Add in another set of leaders and the head man is confident his team can produce good results this year and in the future.
"The captains are valuable because they understand what we, as a team, are trying to accomplish competitively, but also the team culture as well," Gittermann said. "All of them are good at holding all members of the team accountable for their actions, preparations, and performances.
"But what really makes this team special is a secondary group of leaders who were not designated captains, but are equally good at leading. I think this has given us not only a strong leadership group, but hopefully some continuity as our more veteran captains move on after this year."
The UMBC cross country teams open their 2013 season with the America East Pre-Conference Meet at Binghamton on Saturday, Sept. 7.