Andy Sneddon, CMU Chippewas.com
MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. – The Central Michigan cross country program has been competitive, to a degree, in the Mid-American Conference in the recent past.
The Chippewas appear poised to kick it up a notch in 2017.
CMU opens the season on Friday (10 a.m.) with the annual Jeff Drenth Memorial at Pleasant Hills Golf Club. It is CMU’s lone home meet of the season.
Fifth-year coach Matt Kaczor has a blend of veterans and promising newcomers on both the men’s and women’s squads. The Chippewa women were picked to finish fifth in the preseason coaches poll, while the men were selected to place ninth. The Chippewa women placed fourth in the MAC Championships a year ago, the men were seventh.
On the men’s side, veterans such as Alec Omell and Joseph Emmanuel return, but the bulk of the roster will comprise underclassmen. Eleven of the 15 student-athletes on the roster are freshmen and sophomores, and a good percentage have been around awhile and paid their dues in the program.
“They’re hungry,” Kaczor said. “They saw what the team did last year and the expectations are really high for these guys. They’ve set the bar high and we’re just going to try and guide them in that direction.”
Among the top candidates to crack the lineup are sophomores Mark Beckman, Bransen Stimpfel and Luke Anderson, along with redshirt freshmen Conor Naughton and Logan Kleam, and true freshman Riad Rababeh. Rababeh, who prepped at Dearborn High School, was named Michigan’s Mr. Cross Country by the high school coaches association.
“What we’re doing is we’re going to race a little bit more than we have in the past,” Kaczor said. “The Drenth meet, and then Michigan State (Sept. 15) are going to be more controlled. I want them to get the vibe of what Division I collegiate racing is like, but I’m not going to let the reigns off of them until the Greater Louisville Classic at the end of September. That’s when I’ll let the guys race and see what they’re capable of. But right now we’ve got a tight group and that’s the nice part, how well they are working with each other.”
The Chippewa women return Second Team All-MAC performer Megan O’Neil, a junior, along with senior Kirsten Olling, who is rounding into shape after an injury-shortened track season.
Behind O’Neil and Olling, the Chippewas feature a deep lineup that includes senior Hannah Davis, Taylor Aguillon and freshmen Ana Garcia and Paula Merino, both of whom are natives of Spain. Aguillon is a senior who ran for the CMU club team in the past.
Also in the mix are freshman Alexis Grandys and junior Samantha Allmacher.
“You’ve got a tight group of probably eight to nine (runners),” Kaczor said. “It’s a lot deeper than what we’ve been the past couple of years. It’s going to be a pretty good dogfight for who’s going to be in that top five.”
The infusion of young talent along has helped to re-energize the program, and everybody in it, Kaczor said.
“It’s going to be a fun year for us with the depth that we’ve created and there’s no guarantee of who’s going to be traveling,” he said. “Where before if they had a bad day they still were going to be in the mix. Here everybody has to make sure they are performing.”