SALISBURY, Md. – The Salisbury University cross country teams will open up on their home course this Saturday, and when they do, they'll be looking to see who comes to the front of the field.
Both the men's and women's team will begin 2012 without a number of their top runners from a season ago, but with a solid core of returners on both sides, the teams will be looking to remain one of the powers in the Capital Athletic Conference.
The women's team will be searching for their fifth consecutive CAC title, and ninth overall, this season, while the men will be looking for their 10th CAC crown.
The women's team will look to replace a trio of seniors who never lost a CAC championship, but with young faces climbing the ranks, the Sea Gulls will attempt to keep that run going.
"We're going to miss our seniors from last year, that was a fantastic group which won four conference championships in a row, but I think this is the next generation," Head Coach Jim Jones said.
Sophomores Hailey Spinapont and Kira Polimeni are two runners who factored in the scoring at nearly every meet last season, with Spinapont placing fifth at the CAC championship, and will look to be a driving factor in 2012.
"I told them that they need to continue and not take a lot of time off," Jones said. "You need to take some time, but you need to start in June, start building their mileage up, which they did. I think they followed a good, regimented schedule. Also, they understood that there were some good freshmen that were going to come in and push them."
Also expected to lead the team are senior Jessie Early and junior Emma Bahneman. Bahneman came on strong in the later parts of the cross-country season and into track & field last year, as she was crowned the conference champion in the 5,000-meter run during the indoor season. Early is a senior who has developed throughout her career.
"I think Jessie has grown a lot as a person and athletically," Jones said. "She's learned from each year, whether it be coming back from injury or learning how to train better over the summer and winter break. Last year was probably her best year, I know she put in a lot of work. She's ready to go and has become one of our leaders."
Junior Claire Lawrence, who is running her last year as she will graduate in the spring, will look to close out her career strong, and Jones expects her to be a leader on this younger team along with Jessie Early.
The men's team has seen a newcomer run to the front of the pack in early training with freshman Kyle Tockman taking the lead. Tockman was recruited by Jones coming out of high school but opted to go to Towson University last year, which does not have a cross country team. After the year away, the desire to run competitively has brought Tockman to Salisbury.
"He's come in and really done some good work," Jones said. "He's going to come in and be one of our top guys, if not the top guy, Saturday and throughout the year. He's in very good condition."
Behind Tockman a handful of Sea Gulls will most likely be working in a pack for the best scoring opportunities. Of Salisbury's nine returners, each scored in a handful of meets last year and the group is thriving on working together in early training sessions.
"I think we realize we have talent, but we're not going achieve success on just one or two runners' talent," Jones said. "We've got to really work as a group to be affective. That fifth man, that seventh man is going to be just as important as the first man this year on the men's side."
"The men really want to redeem themselves, because that was the worst finish in my tenure here at the conference meet. We've never been third," Jones said. "And they've taken the challenge that we want to get back to the top, where we traditionally are in the top-two teams, and possibly winning the conference. That's a challenge for us and they've accepted that."
"They have all really done some tremendous work and have gotten themselves in shape," Jones said. "They're not only going to help us athletically, but their leadership is going to be a key for us in this campaign."
Salisbury opens the season in a comfort zone, running on its home course at Winter Place Park for the Sea Gull Opener this Saturday. The meet kicks off with the men's race at 9:45 a.m., followed by the women.
"I think this is going to be a good competition weekend," Jones said. "There are some good teams running this weekend. It's going to be a challenge, but it's nice to open up at home. Running here at home, it's always an advantage for us because we know the course."
Salisbury will compare those times to their second home event, four weeks later when hosting the Don Cathcart Invitational (Sept. 29).
The ultimate goal is always the Capital Athletic Conference championships, which will be hosted by Frostburg State University on Oct. 27. The Sea Gulls will get a preview look at that course and the experience when they run in the Frostburg State University Invitational on Sept. 22.
"I think for conference championships, it will be an advantage for us," Jones said. "I know a lot of the other conference schools are going to do the same thing we are. But having a feel for the course, where the turns are; and away from the course, we're going to stay in the same hotel for the invitational as well as the conference meet, we'll get to know where we're going to eat and those things. So that takes the level of anxiety down for the student-athletes and they're able to better focus on the task at hand."