Aug. 30, 2012
EAST LANSING, MICH. - Coming off back-to-back Big Ten titles in 2010 and 2011, head coach Walt Drenth has plenty to be enthusiastic about in regards to his 2012 squad, which has seemingly rebuilt and reloaded after the graduation of a few key contributors.
“I see a lot of enthusiasm and this is really a great group of kids,” Drenth said. “All that we want them to do is to pursue their best.”
“We’ve never clouded their goals or encumbered them with this “we’ve got to win” mentality,” Drenth continued. “We’ve always talked in very matter-of-fact terms about maximizing personal performance. So we go out and do what we’re capable of and let the chips fall where they may.”
Drenth believes that this year’s team is consists of some of the most competitive athletes he’s coached. A number of runners leading his team this year have played reserve or support roles in seasons past, but have acquired the championship mentality necessary to bring another title back to East Lansing.
“These girls have competed for championships, but they’re not out there worried about defending anything or supporting what happened last year. They just want to be as good as they can be. I’d like to think we would’ve been excited about the outcome at the conference meet last year regardless of the outcome because we felt like we did as well as we could. When we look back at the conference meet, with the way we trained and ran all fall, that was us at our best,” Drenth said.
Assistant Coach Lisa Senakiewich believes the team has also made a bigger investment this year to not only improving their fitness, but taking on roles within the confines of the team to support each other and build upon the program’s glowing success.
“The thing we are starting to see, even with our top returners and our developmental runners, is more of a push to be even better,” said Senakiewich. “We’ve done really good things in the past two years. But they are starting to recognize that these two consecutive titles are not our ceiling. We like to think that we don’t have a ceiling and we are thinking about how we are going to get to that next step of being a top ten team, and from there, moving up to the podium.”
“We are seeing our women coming into the office and asking to run more in the summer and thinking about mileage and training in a different way,” she continued. “But as a whole, they want to understand what that type of commitment is going to be.”
Drenth agrees that the team is beginning to own the process and ultimately take the responsibility to become invested in their personal development.
“Instead of looking to us to say “OK, what do you want us to do?’, they are coming in and saying, “OK what CAN we do now?”, Drenth said. “We’re interacting with them more frequently and they are really giving the process some thought.”
Although the Spartans have lost leaders like Carlie Green and Rebekah Smeltzer to graduation, Drenth says the 2012 squad has seen leadership not from individuals, but from multiple sources.
“We see a variety of people saying “OK, here we go, this is ours now”, and that’s really important for the growth of this team.”
Drenth hopes to see strong performances this year from the likes of Sara Kroll (Westland, Mich./Livonia Churchill), Rachel McFarlane (Livonia, Mich./Livonia Churchill), Julia Otwell (Traverse City, Mich./Central), Katie Haines (Rockford, Mich./Rockford), and Leah O’Connor (Croswell, Mich./Croswell-Lexington), each of whom have experienced competing at the regional and national level.
Otwell, a junior, looks to build upon her success from last year when she earned First Team All-Big Ten Honors. She led the Spartans at the Big Ten Championships with a sixth place finish (6K, 20:30) and a forty eighth-place finish at the NCAA Championships (6K, 20:48)
Kroll also heads into her junior year of cross country after being a regional qualifier in track and winning a bronze medal at the Big Ten Outdoor Championships in the 5000 meters this past spring. Last season, Kroll had placed sixth at the Spartan Invitational (6K, 20:53) and was the team’s top finisher at the NCAA Great Lakes Regional (4th, 20:37).
“I believe Sara is one of the top five runners in the conference, if not better. Julia has had some struggles with sickness and difficulties with her breathing but really seems to be coming around,” said Drenth.
Redshirt senior Rachel McFarlane will bring her experience and reliability into the 2012 season after competing in eight of ten meets last season. McFarlane won the season opener last year at the Jeff Drenth Memorial with a 5K time of 18:23. She also had a strong performance at the Big Ten Championships, running 20:48 for seventeenth place.
Leah O’Connor begins her redshirt sophomore year riding the momentum of her track season in which she earned a gold medal in the steeplechase at the Big Ten Outdoor Championships. Like McFarlane, O’Connor competed in eight meets last season and had her best day at the Big Ten Championships running a time of 21:00.
“Rachel has done a nice job for us. Leah O’Connor – who wasn’t even in our top 5 last year – is someone we expect near the front. She (O’Connor) hasn’t been a frontrunner for us in cross country. I don’t think that she should be burdened by that expectation. She’s just got to come in and improve.”
Rounding out the group of top returnees is senior Katie Haines. Haines returned to form in the latter stages of 2011, finally breaking the 21-minute barrier at the NCAA Great Lakes Regional (20:59).
“Katie Haines was not as good last year as she was the year before, but she seems to have remedied that this summer and I expect her to do really well,” said Drenth. “This is her last go-around and I’m sure she’ll go out in great style.”
Redshirt juniors Olivia Sydow (Grand Rapids, Mich./West Catholic) and Veronica Wilson (Sterling Heights, Mich./Sterling Heights) will look to make contributions this year after posting respectable times last fall. Sydow earned Big Ten Runner Of The Week Honors for her personal-best, fourth-place performance at the Michigan Intercollegiate Championships with a 5K time of 18:29. At the EMU Classic, Wilson had her season-best performance earning ninth with a time of 18:27.
Drenth is optimistic about a pair of young women that he hasn’t put in uniform yet. Katie Landwehr (Tipp City, Ohio/Tippecanoe ) and Lindsey Clark (West Bloomfield, Mich./Walled Lake Western) were both redshirted last year and both ran personal bests by the end of the fall. Clark posted the team’s best 5K overall time, taking home the victory at the EMU Classic in 17:52, while Landwehr ran 18:27 for eighth place.
“They have made a lot of progress on the track, and honestly, they can fill in roles that will surprise some people,” said Drenth of Clark and Landwehr.
The team will also look to groom runners Emma Drenth (Williamston, Mich./Williamston), Devan John (Allendale, Mich./Allendale), Melanie Brender (Sterling Heights, Mich./Utica Stevenson), and Meggan Freeland (Albion, Mich./Western) in hopes that they become major contributors to the program this year and into the future.
“This group is exciting to us,” said Drenth. “They can be difference makers and they really embrace that opportunity. Those girls are wildcards right now and in another year we could just be thrilled with them and they could become leaders. Melanie, Megan, Emma and Devan have had good summers and a number of them have run exceptionally faster than they’ve ever run on the roads in local races. They’ve kind of owned what we’ve been going for.”
Leading into the season, Drenth is just looking for improvement. While impressive times may or may not come in early season meets, he’s more concerned with getting the most out of his athletes later in the schedule.
“Bottom line, we want to get better,” continued Drenth. “Does that mean winning another championship? It may. But I believe we’re better this year. When will this show up? It might be at the nationals, it might be before that, but I think that this is the cool thing about this group too - they just want it just as much as I do.”
“And we’re trying to give them the confidence. They give four trophies at the NCAA championships and there is no reason why they can’t claim one of those at some point in their careers.”