Junior Emily Eickholt and teammates race at 9:40 a.m. Saturday
Sept. 15, 2011
The University of Montana cross country teams will open their 2011 season Saturday when the Grizzlies compete at the Bozeman Running Company Montana State Invitational at the Bridger Creek Golf Course. The men's five-mile race starts at 9 a.m., the women's three-mile race begins at 9:40 a.m.
The meet will include the Grizzlies and Bobcats, plus Weber State, Utah State, Utah Valley, MSU Billings, Central Washington, Carroll, Rocky Mountain and Dickinson State.
The Griz men's team will have a squad of 10 competing, spread nicely between classes: Seniors Brian Burke and Lynn Reynolds, juniors Max Hardy, Cody Lund and Casey Weinman, sophomores Chase Anderson, Jordan Collison and Connor Williams and freshmen David Norris and Sam Willis.
The women will have seven athletes competing, heavy on the underclassmen: Senior Kesslee Payne, junior Emily Eickholt, sophomores Keli Dennehy and Annie Moore and freshmen Allie Parks, Autumn Taniguchi and Carly Wilczynski.
An early-season test: The Montana women's team won the 2010 Big Sky Conference championship last October at Cheney, Wash., edging out Weber State for the program's first conference championship since 1984.
The Wildcats return a loaded team in 2011 and were picked last month by the Big Sky coaches to win their first Big Sky title since 2006.
The two teams will go head to head Saturday morning in an early-season preview of things to come.
The meet will also be a measuring stick for the Griz men's team. Montana finished a disappointing eighth last October and was picked for a sixth-place finish this fall by the Big Sky's coaches.
Montana State and Weber State, second and third at last fall's Big Sky meet, were picked second and third in this year's poll behind unanimous No. 1 Northern Arizona.
How Montana fares head to head Saturday against two of the Big Sky's heavyweights should give an early indication of the Grizzlies' prospects for the rest of the fall.
Early rankings: In this week's USTFCCCA region rankings, the Weber State women sit sixth in the Mountain Region behind some of the nation's top teams: New Mexico, Colorado, BYU, Texas Tech and Colorado State.
Northern Arizona, picked third in the Big Sky coaches' poll, is ranked ninth, Idaho State, fourth in the coaches' poll, 10th and Montana 11th.
In the men's Mountain Region rankings, Northern Arizona is second behind Colorado, Montana State is 12th and Weber State is 13th.
Montana is not ranked in the poll, which goes 15 deep.
If Montana is going to do better than sixth at next month's Big Sky Conference championship at Pocatello, Idaho, it won't be the top of the lineup that needs to do better but the trailing pack.
Senior Lynn Reynolds has back-to-back fifth-place individual finishes to his credit, but cross country is a team sport.
At last year's championship, Reynolds showed once again he's one of the Big Sky's top runners. And while Northern Arizona was placing its top five in the top 10 overall and runner-up Montana State its top five in the top 17, the Grizzlies' No. 2 runner, Collin Fehr, crossed the line in 39th.
Montana's fifth and final counter, Will Rial, came across in 55th. For comparison, NAU's total team scored 27 points, MSU 56.
That's the divide that needs to be made up, and at least early on fourth-year coach Courtney Babcock is encouraged by what she sees.
"Last year we lost some of our team unity for various reasons. This year the team atmosphere is a lot better. Everyone is working together," she explained.
"Lynn is still a little bit ahead, but generally the whole pack is right there, which is great to see.
"After last season, they have a desire to do well. In any kind of racing you not only have to have the ability to do well but also that want, and I think they have it."
While Reynolds should be the first Griz to cross the line Saturday, who follows in what order and how far they are behind Reynolds is what should be watched.
Burke, Hardy, Lund and Weinman all have Big Sky championship experience but none has finished higher than 45th overall.
That leaves plenty of openings for one of the team's newcomers to lead the pack. Collison and Williams are both transfers, Collison from the University of Windsor and Williams, who was 46th at last year's Big Sky meet for the Eagles, from Eastern Washington.
And don't discount Norris and Willis, true freshmen from Hayden, Idaho, and Canyon Country, Calif., respectively.
"I wasn't sure what to expect out of David and Sam, because they are more 800 meter and mile guys, but they've both been really impressive. They have good careers ahead of them," Babcock said.
Women's Outlook With the personnel and experience on last year's team, the Montana women were bound to do something special, and they did with their first conference championship in over two decades.
Gone from that team are Drennen, who finished sixth, third, third and second at the Big Sky championship in her four cross country seasons, plus DeWalt and Andrus, who had eight top-20 Big Sky championship finishes between them over their careers.
The good news for Babcock is that she is strong at the top of her lineup, with Payne and Dennehy. Payne was seventh overall at the Big Sky meet as a sophomore, 12th last year, and Dennehy was fourth in 2010 as a true freshman.
Eickholt is a junior, but the 800-meter runner has yet to compete at a Big Sky cross country championship, which leaves it to the freshmen to shoulder some of the expectations.
"We obviously lost a lot of seniors last year, strong people both athletically and vocally," Babcock said. "So we'll be young this fall, but it's still a really strong team.
"We still have two of the top runners in the conference in Kesslee and Keli, and Annie was just outside the top 20 (at her first Big Sky championship last fall), so it's not like we don't have anyone with proven experience."
Those without experience but who will be counted upon are, in particular, Parks and Wilczynski.
Parks, from Greeley, Colo., was the 2009 and 2010 Colorado Class 4A state cross country champion, and Wilczynski, from South Hill, Wash., made her prep mark in track, where she was a 5:03.04 1,600 meters runner as a senior.
"I've been very impressed at practice how the freshmen aren't afraid to step up and run with Keli and Kesslee. Carly and Allie are both stepping right in," Babcock said.
Without Ani Haas, a former member of the U.S. Freestyle Ski Team, who may or may not race this year depending on the eventual status she's given by the NCAA Eligibility Center, that leaves six names just mentioned.
"The thing we don't have this year is a lot of depth, so there isn't a lot of room for error or injury," Babcock said.
As with the men, the season's first steps start Saturday.
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