Sept. 2, 2009
NACOGDOCHES, Texas -
At this time a year ago, Lou Snelling knew he had a talented group of young runners on his hands. Leading into Stephen F. Austin's 2008 season, Snelling said, "We're definitely better right now than we were last year. It's just a question of how much better can we get this fall." His athletes responded to that challenge, with a strong, steady improvement that pushed through the fall and into a very successful spring semester.
Now, as he readies for his seventh season in charge of the SFA cross country program, Snelling knows not only that he has a group with tremendous potential, but also that his squads are willing to pay the price to make sure they reach that potential.
"Our freshmen did a great job last year with focus and lifestyle and training," Snelling said. "From Day 1, they just knocked it out. That makes the team environment just awesome. I'm happy with where it's at right now. When you see true freshmen doing the things they did last year, it's because they stayed focused and worked hard right from the start."
Both the Lumberjacks and Ladyjacks return all five of their top runners from a year ago, in addition to some quality depth on the back end. And this from a pair of squads that, arguably, were each only an injury away from putting themselves in position to win a Southland Conference championship last year. Both teams finished second at the conference meet in 2008, despite the absence of one top five runner in each race. The focus in 2009 is on taking that next step up on the awards podium.
"Our whole goal this fall is all about two days -- conference and regionals," Snelling said. "That's how our success is going to be judged. Returning everybody is exciting. We're still relatively young, but we have more fitness and experience than we had at this time last year."
And the experience gained last year was more than just run-of-the-mill. The SFA harriers enjoyed a very successful 2008-09 campaign, overall, and Snelling is looking for that success to continue on into the cross country season.
"We had a lot of good things happen last year," the coach said. "On an individual level, we had a lot of different people step up at different times and do some impressive things. Then, you throw two women's titles in track on top of that, and it just adds to the momentum."
The Ladyjacks return the key components of their 2008 squad entirely intact. Those components include some veteran leadership and, arguably, the top young talent in the Southland Conference. Three of SFA's top four runners -- Stephanie Ganter, Brittainy Robertson and Brette Fleming-Wood -- a year ago were true freshmen. Fourth-year junior Amy Shackelford returns after consistently finishing among the top three in 2008.
"It makes my job a little bit easier, having everyone back," Snelling said. "I have a whole year with this group of girls now, so I know them a lot better than I did at this time last year. At the same time, they're more experienced, so they know what to expect in terms of training and competition."
That experience starts with Shackelford. After overcoming respiratory difficulties late in the fall semester, she made steady progress throughout the spring that culminated with titles in both the 5,000 and 10,000 meters at the SLC Outdoor Championships and a trip to the NCAA Regional Championships.
"Shack had a breakthrough outdoor season," Snelling said. "She had some asthma trouble at the end of cross country that kind of bled over into the indoor season. But things really started to come together for her in the outdoor season. She ran nearly a 40-second PR in the 5k. Shack just got on a roll, and it was a little better every time she went out."
While Shackelford had the best outdoor season on the team, Stephanie Ganter is coming off one of the top rookie campaigns in the history of the Southland Conference. After leading the Ladyjacks in four of five races during the cross country season, Ganter registered four top-two finishes combined in the two SLC Championship meets during the spring. She took first in the 5,000 and second in the 3,000 at the indoor meet, then took second in both the 5,000 and 10,000 at the outdoor meet. In all, Ganter earned five All-SLC honors last year and was named the SLC Freshman of the Year in cross country, indoor track and field and outdoor track, marking the first time in Southland history for one athlete to take all three awards. She also qualified for the NCAA Regionals with a time of 16:45.75 in the 5k at the Mt. SAC Relays.
"Stephanie is coming off a freshman year where she ran the second-fastest 5k time in school history," Snelling said. "Some of the girls who have come before her, like Anna Rodriguez and Ashley Monteau, never ran that fast so young."
Fleming-Wood established herself as a contributor early last fall but saved her best performance for the SLC Championships. She finished ninth with a season-best time of 22:36 to earn all-conference honors.
Robertson pushed Ganter early on, finishing just behind her in the first race of the year and actually taking top billing on the team at the Auburn Tiger Invitational. She missed the last three races of the season with injuries, but got back on track for the indoor season. Robertson turned in a scoring performance with her seventh-place finish in the 3,000 meters at the SLC Indoors. Then, on the anchor leg of the distance medley relay, she took the Ladyjacks from sixth to third for an all-conference showing.
Behind the lead pack, a trio of juniors -- Meredith Blocker, Marie Flores and Megan Jenkins -- will vie for the chance to step up into SFA's top five and give the team some quality depth. The three finished fifth, sixth and seventh, in one order or another, in the first four races of the season with each cracking the top five at least once. Blocker even supplanted Fleming-Wood as the third Ladyjack across the line at the NCAA Regionals with a season-best time of 22:44.8.
Snelling also expects a contribution from true freshman Haley Parsons. The Dallas Christian High School product medaled in multiple events at four straight TAPPS Class 5A State Championships.
"Haley had a lot of high school success, despite running just one season of cross country," Snelling said. "She has a huge upside and should be in the mix for our top five."
Just like the women's squad, every Lumberjack who toed the line at the 2008 SLC meet is back for the 2009 season. With a talented lead pack of junior Dennis Yeats, fifth-year senior Keith Mahipala and sophomore Mitch Ownbey, the only question for Snelling is, who will step up to fill out the top five?
"Our top three on the men's side are as good as any three in the conference," the coach said. "For us, it's a question of who our four and five are going to be. We have some decent young talent to plug in there for those spots, and there are multiple guys who stepped up at various times during the season."
Yeats paced the 'Jacks in each of the first four races last season before giving way to Mahipala at the front of the pack in the NCAA Regional Championships. He took seventh at the SLC Championships, earning all-conference honors.
Mahipala finished in the top three at all five cross country races then won the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the SLC Outdoor Championships, qualifying for the NCAA regionals in that event along the way.
"Keith had a solid fall," Snelling said. "But he really stepped up as we moved to track, and he won his first conference title in the steeple. This is it for him, his last go-'round. Hopefully that adds a little motivation going into this season."
Ownbey had a break-out campaign that started with a ninth-place finish at the SLC cross country meet and culminated with a gold and silver at the SLC Outdoors and a trip to the NCAA Regional Championships. Ownbey took SLC Freshman of the Year honors in both cross country and outdoor track and field.
"Mitch started strong with all-conference in cross country, and, from there, steadily got better," Snelling said. "He set a school record in the 5k indoor. He took a huge step outdoors with a new personal record at Mt. SAC, and a big school record. Mitch got some great experience at regionals. That was huge for him, and I think it will translate well. He gained some huge confidence and knows what to do to compete at that level."
Redshirt freshman Adam Saloom, along with sophomores Xavier Rodriguez, Harmon McClanahan and Logan Smart, will compete to round out SFA's group of scorers. Rodriguez ran in the last three races of the season and cracked the top five each time. McClanahan broke into the top five three times, including the No. 4 slot at the regional championships. Smart scored in each of the first three races and was SFA's No. 3 runner at the Auburn Tiger Invitational, but an injury prevented him from running at the SLC Championships.
"The group is young, but they got a lot of experience last year," Snelling said. "It's not like we're relying on true freshmen at those positions."
SFA will open the 2009 season Friday, when the teams compete at the Islander Opener in Corpus Christi, Texas. The meet will feature the same course as the SLC Championships, hosted by Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.
-- SFA --