Aug. 12, 2014
With an abundance of optimism, excitement and experience, the Vanderbilt cross country teams are ready to embark on what could be one of the most memorable seasons in the program's history.
The journey officially begins this week when the Commodores travel to Pickett State Park in Jamestown, Tenn., for team camp. The Vanderbilt squads then compete in their first meet of the season -- the Belmont Opener -- on Aug. 29 at Percy Warner Park in Nashville.
Head coach Steve Keith, who has returned to his post after missing most of last season while battling cancer, and assistant coach Rhonda Riley both believe the talent-rich Commodores have the potential to do some special things this season.
"We have all the pieces," said Riley. "It's just a matter of coming together and getting it done. And we believe we have a group that is very committed to working together at a very high, successful level."
Cohesiveness seems to be a key ingredient for the Commodores, as many of the runners have been now been teammates for multiple seasons and have formed a tight bond.
"There's nothing better than running a championship-type competition with your best friends," Keith said. "This team is close, and they really do enjoy each other."
The Commodores have a combined total of 15 upperclassmen on the two rosters.
"That's huge," said Riley. "Experience is invaluable, and we will have plenty of it. ... In my opinion, experience and leadership are the two main elements that will make us successful this season."
Hannah Jumper, Lily Williams and John Ewing are just a few of the key returnees on the two rosters, and all three are primed for huge seasons in 2014. The Commodores are also expected to get a big boost from the freshman who formed last year's outstanding recruiting class.
"Every year, because of recruiting, the quality and the depth of our team gets better," said Keith. "And now it's just a matter of how each team defines itself each year, and how each team finds that ability to run together."
The "coming together" process will begin in earnest this week at camp, where the Commodores will have plenty of team-bonding opportunities along with the conditioning challenges.
"Camp is always one of the biggest highlights of the season," said Riley. "It's a great chance for us to grow as a team, and it's also a chance for the freshmen to see what it's all about. Camp really kicks off the excitement for the coming season."
Here's a closer look at the Commodores:
Last Season: The Commodores capped another highly-successful campaign by advancing to the NCAA Championships for the third straight season. Vanderbilt finished fifth at the SEC Championships, second at the NCAA Regional and 27th at the NCAA Championships.
Key Returnees: This list is long for the Commodores, who have arguably the deepest team in the program's history. The returnees (listed by class) include: seniors Claire Benjamin, Rebecca Chandler, Amira Joseph, and Grace Orders; juniors Sara Barron, Katherine Delaney, Hannah Jumper and Vanessa Valentine; and sophomores Reagan Anderson, Carmen Carlos and Lily Williams.
Key Losses: Liz Anderson, who finished a team-best fifth at the SEC Championships last year and was one of Vanderbilt's most highly-decorated runners in program history.
Quoting the coaches:
Riley on the seniors: "Our group of seniors are extremely motivated. They know what it is like to represent Vanderbilt at this level, and they are also ready to put their stamp on this program."
Keith on the team's hunger for the season: "There is some motivation for this team. Quite frankly, we did not have a very good conference meet at all. But two weeks later, they rallied and got the second automatic spot for nationals and ran like they should have. I know I am going to use that as a motivation when we get together and start setting individual and team goals."
Riley on the team's possible sleepers: "Each year, there are a couple of surprises in terms of surpassing expectations. I am looking forward to seeing who that is this year."
Keith on replacing Liz Anderson: "In the past, Liz has been a (perennial) low number for us. But this year, unless someone really jumps out, that low number is going to be our aggregate time of our splits, the one-to-five gap. ... For me, the goal of our team will be, can we get five (runners) within 10 or 15 seconds of one another and be a much more effective team that way."
Keith on the team's depth: "We could have a kid on the team that is eighth or ninth one day, and then be top two or three the next time. They are just going to have to be happy with the fact that they are all contributing and realize that the most effective way for our team to perform well is through that one-to-five or one-to-seven gap."
Last Season: The Commodores took 13th at the SEC Championships, and finished 21st at the NCAA Regional.
Key Returnees: Experience will be play a big role for Vanderbilt, with these returnees (listed by class) expected to make big contributions: seniors Andrew Bachman, Matthew Cleveland and John Ewing; juniors Andrew Fix and Nick French; and sophomore Jake Van Geffen.
Key Losses: None
Key Newcomers: Sam DeFabrizio.
Quoting the coaches:
Riley on the team's schedule: "It's a very challenging schedule -- as challenging as it ever has been."
Keith on the team's experience: "The core of that team has run together for what will now be their fourth year. We hope to take advantage of that. ... I think the chance for (the upperclassmen) to go out a high note is very important to them."
Keith on the team's leadership: "John Ewing has been a real leader for us every since he was a freshman. And everyone else is putting in some good work, too, and hopefully we can be defined more as a team as less as individuals."