Cross country retreats to Lubrecht Forest to open season
Aug. 24, 2012
The final weekend prior to the opening of class at the University of Montana signifies a rebirth on campus. It also means the Griz cross country teams will be off to Lubrecht Forest outside of Missoula to kick off the 2012 season with their annual weekend training camp.
The Montana women's team was picked third this week in the Big Sky Conference preseason coaches' poll, the men sixth in coach Courtney Babcock's fifth year, but, of course, those are only guesses.
Over the next two months -- starting this weekend and leading up to the Big Sky championship, which will be held Saturday, Oct. 27, at Flagstaff, Ariz. -- both programs will attempt to train and race their way to surprising seasons.
The women's team, which finished fifth last year at the conference championship, is thin on numbers but not on talent and not on experience at the top of the lineup.
The men, fourth last year, just the third time in the last 20 years they've finished higher than the women, have plenty of numbers, but they enter the season suffering from an acute case of inexperience-itis. Only three athletes on this year's roster have raced in a Montana uniform, and together those three have just 13 combined races to their credit.
2012 women's preview
Babcock, whether she planned it or not, is taking the approach of quality over quantity with the women's team in 2012. Her top five is good enough that the Big Sky coaches picked Montana third, not far behind second-place Northern Arizona, but that's on paper. And paper-thin is the team's margin for error with numbers this small.
"I think it's a strong group of girls," Babcock said. "They are all in the mid-17-minute range (for a five-kilometer cross country course), and once you get a group like that, you have a chance to be pretty strong.
"Similar to last year, what we don't have is a lot of depth, so we'll really need to focus on keeping the girls healthy and able to compete. That's always the key in cross country."
The team will be led by a strong threesome of junior Keli Dennehy and sophomores Allie Parks and Carly Wilczynski.
Dennehy finished fourth overall at the Big Sky cross country championship as a true freshman on Montana's title team in 2010. She started strong in 2011, leading the Grizzlies at the team's first three races, but had a late-season drop-off that contributed to the team's fifth-place finish at conference, its lowest since 2008.
Dennehy placed second to Parks at the Big Sky meet, 24th overall, and dropped all the way down to UM's No. 4 runner at regionals last November, displaying the telltale signs of being overtrained.
Parks, a two-time Colorado Class 4A state cross country champion, was as solid as expected in her debut season for the Griz. She was Montana's top finisher at both the Big Sky and NCAA Mountain Region championships and was an NCAA regional qualifier during the outdoor track season in the steeplechase.
Wilczynski placed in Montana's top three at four of five races last fall and came in second on the team, just eight seconds behind Parks, at regionals.
"We'll have great leadership from our returners this fall, and the rest of the girls will be able to feed off that," Babcock said.
"Keli is enthusiastic and loves to run. Allie is a bit more quiet, but she has that confidence when she's racing that she knows she can be there. Having that type of maturity at her age is amazing."
Hastings, a graduate of Crater High, had prep track bests of 4:39.22 in the 1,500 meters and 10:06.47 in the 3,000 meters. She placed fourth at Oregon's Class 6A cross country championship last fall.
Wate, a graduate of White River High, didn't match Hastings' prep times, but an eight-second drop in her mile time as a senior indicated to Babcock that Wate's best times are still ahead of her.
"Sarah and Lauryn are both going to come in and have an impact on the team, similar to what Allie and Carly did last fall," Babcock said.
"Sarah is coming in with a (three-kilometer) time similar to what Keli (Dennehy) had when she came in as a freshman, and Sarah has a faster mile time than Keli had, so that's where I expect her to fit in.
"Lauryn did not have a lot of training in high school, so her potential for growth is huge. Most important, both girls want to be here and do well and get better and have a strong team. That's why they came here."
Mariah Meyer, a redshirt freshman from Pocatello, Idaho, should be an every-race runner as well.
Weber State topped this year's women's poll by a wide margin, collecting all 11 first-place votes. The Wildcats won the Big Sky title last fall and finished a surprising third at regionals to advance to nationals, where they finished 29th.
Rounding out the top five in the poll were Northern Arizona, Montana, Idaho State and Montana State.
2012 Big Sky Conference women's cross country poll
2012 men's preview
The 2012 season will start a new era for the men's cross country team. Gone is Lynn Reynolds, who was the Grizzlies' top finisher at every race he ran in a Montana uniform during his career. Also graduating out of the program was the experience of Max Hardy, Cody Lund and Casey Weinman.
That leaves only junior Jordan Collison and sophomores David Norris and Sam Willis as members of this year's team with race experience. It's the loss of Reynolds plus the inexperience of nearly everyone else that has the Grizzlies sitting sixth in the preseason coaches' poll.
When asked to produce a team depth list the day before the team left for Lubrecht, Babcock puts Collison, who made his debut for the Grizzlies last fall after transferring from the University of Windsor, at the top, but not by a Reynolds-like margin ahead of his teammates.
The only other upperclassman on the roster is junior Caleb Deitz, a Spokane native who made NAIA cross country nationals as a sophomore at Carroll in the fall of 2010. He did not attend either school last year.
Of the other six runners Babcock puts on the list, four are redshirt or true freshmen. The other two are Norris and Willis, who had solid freshman seasons despite being 800-meter (Norris) and mile (Willis) racers during the track season.
Willis was Montana's No. 2 runner at conference last October, and Norris finished among the team's top five at three of five races. Norris scored for Montana at the Big Sky indoor and outdoor track and field championships. Willis got his mile time down to 4:10.65 during the indoor season before missing the outdoor season to illness.
Barker is a graduate of Helena High and was the Class AA state champion in the 3,200 meters as a junior and 2009 state cross country champion. Curtis was a three-time Idaho Class 5A state champion in the 1,600 and 3,200 meters at Coeur d'Alene High. And Raymer needs little introduction to anyone living in western Montana. He was one of the state's top runners, regardless of school size, at Darby High.
"We're a very young team, but part of our team was here with Lynn and learned about the work you need to put in to be successful," Babcock said.
"We have a strong group of sophomores, some middle-distance guys who really stepped up last year, and some newcomers who I think have the potential to be really good. Hopefully the momentum from training with Lynn wore off on the guys who were here and they can keep it going."
In the Big Sky men's poll, Northern Arizona, which won its record fifth straight title last fall, was a unanimous pick at the top. The Lumberjacks were followed by Weber State, Montana State, Sacramento State and Southern Utah.
Montana will open its season Friday, Sept. 7, at the Carroll Invitational.
2012 Big Sky Conference men's cross country poll
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