2017 Preview: Cross Country Aims for Return to Nationals

Grace’s cross country team will rely on a solid core of returners to lead a young squad in the 2017 season.

The Lancers, led by head coach Jeff Raymond, will strive to improve on a historic 2016 season. Last year both the men’s and women’s team finished fifth at the NCCAA National Championships, resulting in the best men’s finish since 2002 and the women’s best since 1985.

On the women’s team, Raymond expects the Lady Lancers to be marked by energy and competition. “This will be a fun team to coach. I don’t foresee us having a ‘superstar’, but I believe we have at least eight runners who could finish less than a minute from each other. That kind of pack will provide a challenging workout environment and give us some great depth on race day,” Raymond said.

The women’s team will lean on the leadership of its returning upperclassmen. “Emma Mitchell was our number three runner last year, and McCalah Mast was our number four runner. Juniors Liz Fox and Karla Singer were regularly in our top seven. All four will play key roles both in team leadership and in reaching our potential in competition,” Raymond explained.

Raymond also expects contributions from his experienced sophomores. Brigit Nemitz was the team’s No. 2 runner for most of the 2016 season, and Jesse Zvers made great improvements during the track season and has the potential to challenge for the front of Grace’s pack.

The Lady Lancers welcome two incoming freshmen to this year’s team. Aubrey Breininger, from Fairfield, reached regional status in cross country and track as a senior. Suzanne Sickafoose graduated from Whitko and rejoins Nemitz after teaming up in high school. Raymond thinks the freshmen have potential to make an immediate impact in the upcoming season.

Grace’s men’s team will look for new leaders to emerge after losing three of last year’s top-four runners. Even though they are young, Raymond sees the potential for success.

“We lost some great upperclassman leadership. Nevertheless, I still think we have the chance to be a pretty good team by the end of the year,” Raymond said.

NCCAA All-American and NAIA National Championship participant Ben Rankin returns for his sophomore season. “He set a high standard as a freshman and will need to continue to work hard and improve to move forward,” Raymond said, “Our conference is extremely competitive, so he will need to ‘earn his stripes’ every year; no one is going to make it easy for him.”

Other incoming returners are expected to step up to lead the young team. Tim Drew, Daniel Zawlocki, Brendan Hamilton and Sam Hall give Raymond a strong core of upperclassmen. “I’m counting on this group [of returners] to assume the leadership roles and play a big part in our team’s cohesiveness and daily work ethic,” Raymond said.

Raymond wants to see a breakout season from Hall after a strong track performance in the spring. Hall helped the 4×800-meter relay team to a first-place finish at the Crossroads League Championships on his way to competing at the NAIA National Outdoor Championships.

The men’s team added six exciting newcomers to this year’s team. Carter Meyer was an All-State runner for Carroll, helping his team to the state championship. Elijah Brooks from Columbus North competed in the Indiana State Cross Country Championships for the past two years. Jonathan Balda ran track for state powerhouse Carmel and ran on the 4×800 state championship squad this spring. Other newcomers include Matt Halbakken from Big Walnut, Drew Jones from Manchester and sophomore Blake Kirkham from New Prairie.

Due to their youth and a few injuries to start the year, Grace will look to gradually improve throughout the season. The Lancers are aiming to reach their peak performance in postseason play.

Grace’s cross country team will start its season on Sept. 8 at the IWU Invitational.

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