SALISBURY, Md. – The Salisbury University men's and women's cross country teams are set to run into action beginning on Saturday, September 5 and both teams are looking to turn some heads in the 2015 season, with the men looking to repeat as Capital Athletic Conference champions and the women attempting to improve upon their fourth-place CAC finish from a year ago.
"We're young, but I think we have some good leadership," Head Coach Jim Jones said. "It's exciting; we have some talented freshmen on both the men's and women's side that could lead to kind of a surprise season."
With four All-CAC performers last season, and three graduating, the Salisbury men won't be rebuilding, they'll be reloading. Senior George Martinez will lead a young, talented group, that's been selected to finish second in the league by the CAC coaches. The preseason coaches' poll puts Salisbury near the top, as a number of the top runners in the league graduated, but Salisbury also ended up bringing in a number of freshmen who were being recruited throughout the conference.
"With the freshman men, this is probably one of the best recruiting classes I've had in a long time," Jones said.
Martinez will begin slow in his final season of eligibility, nursing an early injury, though he is expected to run in the team's opening meet this Saturday at Winter Place Park.
"He's an awfully talented athlete," Jones said. "We're hoping he can contribute like he did last year, when he finished third in the conference, once he gets healthy."
Martinez is one of a handful of Sea Gulls with minor physical problems as the 2015 season begins, but Jones says it's nothing to worry about.
"The little injuries, they're just little things," Jones said. "We're being cautious about them early on so we'll be healthy later in the season."
Junior Matt Hoerr is the other upper classman on the roster, and he is looking strong heading into the opening meet. While the returners, outside of Martinez and Hoerr, are all sophomores, they are seasoned, and are expected to make a big impact this year.
Connor Hesselbirg led the recent two-mile time trial, while Ben Meister finished the spring strong during the outdoor season, placing third in the 5,000-meter run, leading the race with 800 meters to go.
"He's going to be one of those guys that the other coaches in the conference see that you've lost some guys, but you have a stable of runners that can step up," Jones said.
"Malcom has been a nice surprise in the preseason," Jones said. "He's really learned, in just one year, how to be a good collegiate athlete. He put the time and effort in, so I think Malcom can step up and surprise a lot of people."
Last season, the women's program saw a number of new faces and was establishing itself as a contender in the CAC for the upcoming years, and 2015 will offer the young returners a chance to build upon that.
"Last year was a rebuilding year, but I think we're past that now," Jones said. "Two years ago, we were sixth in the CAC, last year we were fourth, and our goal is to be in the top two and put ourselves in position to possibly win the championship. I think this team, being so young, they're going to surprise a lot of people.
"There's a lot of talent on the women's side, and if they can work together, cohesively, they'll put themselves in position to do some great things this year."
A pair of seniors, Laura Hartman and Taylor Nantz will lead the Sea Gulls into the new season. Hartman missed the first half of her junior year due to injury before returning to make her impact late in the year, while Nantz is a senior in the classroom, but will be running just her second season of cross country.
"I'm expecting those two to really show some good leadership," Jones said. "Laura is healthy this year, but she sees there's a very, very talented group of freshmen. And I think Taylor Nantz is doing a fabulous job. She was a resident advisor last year, and that maturity that she has is very helpful."
Those talented freshmen may be chasing sophomore Jessica Lane for the top finishing spot on the team. Lane was one of the team's top finishers throughout the 2014 season, and led the way in the two-mile time trial following a strong track & field season where she was competitive through indoor and outdoor events.
But directly behind her in the time trial was freshman Jill Ciritella, and Jones feels that could be a dangerous one-two punch for the Gulls this year.
Makiah Green is one of eight freshmen listed on the roster, but has added experience as an 800-meter runner in track & field. The coaching staff discussed the possibility of Green running cross country to build a base for her track & field seasons, and hopes it pays off similar to Thomas Burke, who made the same move a few years ago on the men's side, and won the CAC cross country championship last fall.
Along with Green, Ciritella and Fiona Halloran are the freshmen that have shown to be strong competitors in the preseason and will help lead the program into the future.
The way the calendar has fallen, the Salisbury coaching staff has opted to take one race off the schedule for this season, running just four regular-season meets before the CAC championships.
Salisbury will run twice on their home course, with the Fall Classic this week, and the Don Cathcart Invitational on October 3. The Sea Gulls also get two shots in St. Mary's City, Maryland, running in the Seahawk Invitational on September 19, where the CAC championships will be contested on October 31 before heading to NCAA postseason championships.