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Highly ranked harriers target NCAA Championship success

No. 20 men's, No. 10 women's impressive seasons conclude this Saturday

As the 15-week fall cross country season comes to a close, both the No. 22 men’s team and the No. 10 women’s team’s efforts will culminate against the nation’s best at Saturday’s NCAA Championships in Terre Haute, Ind.

Led by graduate student Zach Gates, the Virginia men finished 14th when they last attended the meet in 2012. Now, Sophomore Kyle King leads the charge for a squad planning to field three runners with no national championship experience.

“Last year was kind of intimidating,” King said. “I was on the starting line having never raced in a national meet. This year, I know how to react to certain situations throughout the meet. Having one under the belt is a huge calming factor.”

Last weekend, the men’s team completed a 10-kilometer race at Southeast Regionals. King and senior Thomas Porter worked well together in that meet — a quick start from Porter allowed him a ninth-place finish, and King crossed the line in 28:53.7 to earn fifth.

“[King and Porter] have completely different running styles,” men’s coach Pete Watson said. “When they look around and see each other, they know they are doing well. They feed off of each other.”

On the women side, the team returns to NCAAs as a group after failing to do so in 2012. Senior Barbara Strehler established herself as Virginia’s lead runner at the outset of the season and has spearheaded a team campaign which claimed first place at the Southeast Regional last week. Now, Strehler looks to complete her cross country career with a strong showing in Terre Haute.

“[Strehler] has always shown she has talent, and she steps up when it’s time to go,” women’s coach Todd Morgan said. “For her, it has been the ability to follow a consistent training pattern, and it is paying off.”

Morgan, the Southeast Regional women’s coach of the year, will, like Watson, be challenged by the inexperience of his squad. Strehler and junior Kathleen Stevens are the only runners with a history at the NCAA Championships. Rounding out the Cavaliers’ top seven are freshmen Maria Hauger, Sarah Fakler and Sara Sargent, redshirt freshman Cleo Boyd and Education graduate student Vicky Fouhy.

The women, however, raced on the Terre Haute course at Pre-Nationals earlier in the year, so familiarity should work to calm the team’s nerves.

“Knowing we’ve been to this hotel and this course before makes you less nervous,” Hauger said. “Being familiar with a course is really helpful in cross country. You know where to expect the hills and the turns, and it helped us out at Regionals.”

Although the two Virginia teams hold similar expectations for this weekend, the two coaches frame their visions differently. As the consensus 10th-best team in the nation, the women’s team exudes a palpable aura of optimism. With Morgan’s preseason goal of reaching the national meet guaranteed by the season’s midpoint, he now holds a new, simpler goal: be successful.

“Our goal at the beginning of the season was to improve,” Morgan said. “Now, we want to go there and do something. We are not content just to be at the meet.”

Watson hopes to guide the men’s team to a top-10 finish.

“The season isn’t done,” Watson said. “They accomplished what they needed to accomplish last week in order to go out and chase that goal.”

The gun fires at noon Saturday for the men’s race. The women’s race will follow around 1:15 p.m.


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