Cross country looks to build on 2013 success

No. 14 men, No. 10 women return considerable depth


Though the 2013 season was one of the strongest in the history of Virginia cross country, it was only a piece of a larger puzzle. This season, both the men’s and women’s cross country teams return deeper and more experienced — and appear poised for another successful year.

Last season was a banner year for the cross country program. The Cavalier men, under the direction of Pete Watson, finished fourth in the ACC, second in the Southeast Region, and 13th at NCAAs. Following that success, they begin the 2014 campaign ranked 14th in the nation and second in the Southeast Region.

This season’s edition of the men’s team largely avoided roster turnover. Virginia lost only one key contributor in Thomas Porter — a model of reliability who consistently finished behind only junior Kyle King.

“We have goals to improve on last year,” Watson said. “We have the talent and potential, but it’s only August. Right now, I really like what I see.”

But the Cavalier men will also receive an instant shot in the arm with the return of sophomore Connor Rog. Rog, the 2012 ACC Freshman of the Year in cross country, sat out last season, but should make an immediate impact on the course.

“Connor is a gamer and loves cross country,” Watson said. “If he can stay healthy, he can do great things. He is a crucial part to us achieving our top-end goal.”

The previous year further solidified King’s status as Virginia’s top runner. King earned All-American honors in cross country, and his 18th-place national finish is the highest in men’s program history. King was also a second-team All-American during the outdoor track season in the 3,000-meter steeplechase.

“King is a highly talented individual,” Watson said. “He was fantastic in cross country last year and had a good outdoor track season as well, but the goals for him are even bigger than that.”

Women’s coach Todd Morgan and his team are not resting on the unexpected success they found in 2013, when they finished ninth at the NCAA Championship after many preseason prognosticators slated them for mediocrity.

“Last year was a big first step, but we still have a ways to go,” Morgan said. “We’re still hungry, and we’re eager to prove ourselves.”

Morgan’s greatest challenge comes in thanks to an inevitability of collegiate athletics: graduation. Barbara Strehler, a 2013 All-America selection for cross country, is no longer with the program, and she leaves tremendous running shoes to fill.

“You cannot replace Barbara,” said Morgan. “She was a great leader. In sports, when you lose someone, there is always the opportunity for someone to step up.”

Aside from Strehler, the core of the Cavaliers will remain intact. Graduate student Kathleen Stevens returns for another season, and sophomores Maria Hauger, Sarah Fakler and Sara Sargent are all a year older and a year stronger.

“No doubt [Hauger, Fakler and Sargent] had great first years,” Morgan said. “They continued to improve past the fall and they want to exceed what they did in the fall.”

Two incoming transfers — graduate students Morgan Kelly and Iona Lake — will also bolster the depth of the Virginia women’s team. At Harvard, Kelly was a 2013 All-Ivy honoree in cross country and a team captain. Lake joins the Cavaliers from the University of Birmingham in England, where she was a steeplechase champion in the spring.

Fans of the program have three opportunities to witness Virginia cross country race at Panorama Farms in Earlysville, Virginia. The home schedule culminates with the ACC Championships held on Oct. 31. Last season, the Cavaliers responded positively to their home fans in the big race setting of the Southeast Regional.

A challenge will await Virginia at ACCs this year as well. Besides the Cavalier men, four ACC teams are currently ranked in the nation’s top 30, and early conference favorite Syracuse sits at No. 8. Five ACC women’s programs sit in the top 30 as well, and perennial powerhouse Florida State is ranked third.

“I don’t think any conference is as deep as the ACC,” Watson said. “There are seven or eight teams that could win other conferences across the country. It’s going to be fun, and we are ready for the challenge.”

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