Cross Country Opens at UGA on Saturday
MACON, Ga. – Mercer University's cross country teams will step off the 2011 season on Saturday morning at the University of Georgia Invitational. The race is run at the UGA Equestrian Center in Bishop, Ga., beginning at 9 a.m.
MU also opened the 2010 season at the UGA Invitational, with the women finishing fifth and the men fourth. Then-freshman Lena Hamvas led the MU women's squad at UGA last season, while current junior Andrew Weems had a break-out performance in pacing the men's team.
Both of head coach Ryan Bailey's teams welcome back a strong cache of talent as the Bears look to make a strong impression out of the blocks for 2011.
Bailey feels that the MU men's team is going to be far and away the strongest ever – which is saying something considering the team has been getting incrementally faster for the past five years. The 2010 squad improved by 00:1:57.0 over the 2009 team average for an 8K race and has improved by nearly three minutes since 2006.
"I think this year's squad will gain another 30-45 seconds over last year's performance," said Bailey. "All of our scorers from last year are returning and they are, by all accounts, in superb shape coming into the season. Our first time-trial will tell the tale, but I think it's going to be another year of repeatedly broken records for the men's team."
Among the team's returnees are seniors Andrew Jones (redshirt), Marc Kushinka and Geremy Skeen, the junior trio of Jacob Law, Chris Svidesskis and Weems, along with sophomores Kasib Abdullah and Sony Prosper.
Mercer had a major loss when Linda Batna, last year's freshman standout, decided to stay in Latvia and run professionally. Batna's absence has changed the outlook a bit for Bailey, but the good news is that the women's team will have more depth than in past years.
Junior Kacie Niemann, among others, is expected to return in top form and is expected to post some sub-18 minute 5K races early on. Niemann already owns the top three 5K times in Mercer history – including a school-record 18:21.03 set at the A-Sun championships in 2010 - as well as the school record in the 6K race.
"I've raised my expectations for all the girls and I think they will come through for me," said Bailey. "I really emphasized the importance of the summer base training before they left last spring and I think they took what I said to heart. My girls are still really young, but think their eyes were opened to their real potential last year.
"Several of them broke down their mental barriers during the spring season. They have proved to themselves that they can run those low 19-minute and sub-18 minute races. So now, when I throw out figures like that, it's real to them instead of theoretical. I think the all-important mental aspect is there; maybe for the first time. We could have multiple girls running under 18 minutes and I think we could improve last year's team average of 19 minutes by a dozen seconds or more."