SALISBURY, Md. – When the Salisbury University men's and women's cross country teams begin the 2016 season on Saturday morning, hosting the Salisbury University Fall Classic at Winter Place Park, it will be with one of the youngest rosters in program history.
The men's team features just two seniors, but the pair is expected to lead a talented group of young faces into a competitive season.
On the women's side, there are no seniors and only two juniors, but the program is trending in the right direction with strength among its young runners, many of which got a great deal of experience in 2015 and during this past spring's track & field season.
"It will start with them, especially on the leadership side," 18th year Head Coach Jim Jones said. "It's not always the athletic ability, but what they can do behind the scenes and I think Matt and Connor did a good job last year. Connor feels a lot more comfortable in that leadership role and Matt is coming into that and I'm expecting those two men to lead us. They've done a great job this preseason keeping everyone focused and working toward our goal at the end of the season."
Hesselbirg was Salisbury's top finisher in all but one event last season, finishing in the top 10 twice in three regular-season meets and placing eighth at the CAC championship.
"He's really made some huge leaps since high school, growing physically as a person, but also the workload he's able to put on his body," Jones said. "We figured out after that first year that he's a person that really needs to put in some good miles to be successful and he's helped with the other guys that are sophomores and juniors to go that route, as well."
Junior Malcolm Milton came on strong at the end of the 2015 season to be Salisbury's top finisher at the CAC championship, placing seventh to earn first-team All-CAC honors, along with Hesselbirg.
"He looks great, he's very focused and he understands what it takes to be at this level," Jones said of Milton. "I'm excited for him and what he can do this year."
Sophomores Emmanuel Porquin and Billy Kirk will anchor a strong contingent of young runners. Kirk placed 12th at the CAC championships to claim the league's Rookie of the Year award, edging out classmate Conner Masteran, who finished in 23rd.
Porquin missed the season opener a year ago and dealt with injuries throughout the year, but is healthy heading into the new season.
Branson Oduor is one of the many rookies on the team who look to make an impact and Oduor turned heads during the team's two-mile time trial during the preseason training sessions finishing in less than 10 minutes – a feat rarely achieved by a freshman.
Setting the team up for great success in the 2016 season, Oduor was one of six runners to finish the time trial in less than 10 minutes – one year after no runner broke 10 minutes heading into the 2015 season.
"It shows that we have potential, now what we do between now and the end of the season – who knows?" Jones said. "But I think we're in pretty good position right now."
The young women's roster is setting the foundation for the future of the program, getting the right individuals in place.
"I think we've found the right people," Jones said. "In trying to build the team, we got some numbers there that didn't really fit who we are, and now we've found three classes that are really buying into who we are and how hard we have to work."
That group starts with junior Jessica Lane, who was among Salisbury's top finishers throughout the year in 2015 and is coming off a strong outdoor track season.
Junior Alison Schwartz is coming into the season as one of the most improved.
"She has really made some huge leaps and I think she'll really provide some good leadership and an example of how you work and can become great," Jones said.
Jones also will look for local product Kate Nichols to excel in cross country and then into the distance races in track & field.
The Sea Gulls open with their first of two home meets this Saturday, hosting the Salisbury University Fall Classic at Winter Place Park, beginning at 9:45 a.m. After traveling to Glassboro, New Jersey for the Bill Fritz/Charlie Way Invitational on September 17, the Sea Gulls return home for the Don Cathcart Invitational on Homecoming Weekend, on October 1.
A pair of road meets prepare the teams for the CAC championships, hosted by Penn State University-Harrisburg on October 29 and the NCAA Mideast Regional championships in Center Valley, Pennsylvania on November 12.