By David Dawson
Perhaps more so than ever before, the Vanderbilt cross country teams will focus on "pack-running" this season -- and the VU coaches want that theme to start developing immediately.
So when the Commodores participate in their first meet, the Belmont Opener, on Friday at Percy Warner Park, it is expected that the runners with the Star-Vs on their jerseys will be tightly-bunched.
"Running together is going to be a key for us because we don't have that one low number, on either the men's or the women's team, right now," said head coach Steve Keith. "We don't want to have stragglers all over the course on Friday. We want everyone to finish with a teammate."
The No. 23-ranked Vanderbilt women -- who have qualified for the NCAA Championships in each of the past three seasons -- will compete in the 5K race at 5:30 p.m., and the VU men will run the 5K course at 6 p.m. The Commodores will run against Purdue, Kentucky, Lipscomb, Belmont and roughly eight other schools.
Vanderbilt assistant coach Rhonda Riley said she wants the race to set the tone for the season for the Commodores in terms of establishing their pattern.
"We'll be looking to see how well the group can pack up together -- that's the main objective on Friday," she said. "That's going to be so vital to our success this season, and this race is a chance for us to simulate how we will do that for the rest of the season."
Scheduled to run for the Vanderbilt women are seniors Claire Benjamin, Rebecca Chandler, Katherine Delaney and Amira Joseph; juniors Sara Barron and Vanessa Valentine; sophomores Reagan Anderson, Carmen Carlos, and Lily Williams; and freshmen Emma Abrahamson, Maddie Criscione and Megan Huebner.
Scheduled to participate for the VU men are: seniors Andrew Bachman, Matthew Cleveland, John Ewing and Dan Henderson; juniors Andrew Fix and Nick French; sophomores Nikolaos Gkotsis, and Jake Van Geffen; and freshman Sam DeFabrizio.
Although Friday's race will officially signify the transition from the preseason to the regular season, Keith said it will actually be a gradual process.
"Yes, it's time for us to flip the switch," he said, "but we're kind of like those light bulbs that take a while to warm up."
Keith and Riley each said the Opener will be a measuring stick, although the results won't be enormously significant.
"This will give us a chance to define what we need to work on for the coming weeks," said Riley.
Added Keith: "It's hard to really hard to call it a race, because we have barely touched on our race-pace. So this race is basically a hard run that's added on to our training routine for the week. It will have the energy and atmosphere of a race, obviously, but we'll use it to get our feet wet and see where we are."
The Vanderbilt women were picked by the SEC coaches to finish second in the conference, and they will carry a No. 2 South Regional ranking into the opener. Riley believes the comradery among the Commodores is one of the team's strengths.
"The chemistry on this team is the best I have seen it," said Riley.
Temperatures are expected to be in the low to mid-90s for the race, and Keith said the team "will have to be cautious about that." He also said he is glad his team has a chance to open the season without having to leave the city limits. "It's nice that they don't have to get out of their routine in terms of being a normal student," he said.
After Friday's race, the Commodores' next event will come on Sept. 13, when they host the Commodore Classic at Percy Warner.
"We'll run Friday's race, and two weeks after that, we'll turn it up a notch," said Keith, "and then two weeks after that, we'll turn it up one more notch. ... The focus for us is to be looking ahead to October. So we'll use Friday's race as a chance to stretch out and see where we are."