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Sept. 24, 1997

1997 Women's Cross Country Outlook

The Michigan State University women's cross country team faces a season of change and challenge in 1997 as it looks for a mixture of youth and experience to make continued strides in the competitive Big Ten.

The challenge comes with the loss of four seniors from last year's squad, including 1996 All-American and two-time All-Big Ten performer Stephanie Dueringer, who led MSU in every race for the past two seasons. Along with that comes the change, as a host of returnees look to take over the leadership reins from last year's fourth-place Big Ten squad, MSU's best finish since head coach Karen Lutzke ran for the 1981 Big Ten championship team.

"This will be a rebuilding year because we are losing four of our top nine finishers, three of whom were consistently in the top five," said Lutzke, entering her eighth season at the helm. "We'll miss the leadership from our senior captains, and no one can replace Stephanie Dueringer, but that doesn't mean someone can't step up and improve to take the lead on this team."

This year's top pack of runners promises to be in sharp contrast to last year's senior-dominated group, as two of the top three returnees for Lutzke are sophomores. Second-year performer Leah Nilsson will co-captain the team along with senior Lara Esko, while soph Rita Arndt rounds out the trio expected to guide MSU's harriers this fall.

"We are expecting leadership from the experienced co-captains this year, with the pair displaying improvement and hard work this summer in their training and conditioning," Lutzke said.

Nilsson placed fifth at the Spartan Invitational and seventh in last year's season-opener vs. Michigan, and was the second Spartan finisher in every race except two during her rookie campaign. Esko saw action in seven of nine meets last fall, her best finish 12th at the Spartan Invitational. Arndt, meanwhile, has big-race experience after participating in the Pre-NCAA Invitational, Big Ten, and District Championships as a freshman.

"Leah was chosen as co-captain after just one season, which shows what a great competitor she is and the type of respect her peers have for her as a leader," Lutzke said. "Lara is a tough competitor who has worked through injuries and really has made a commitment to cross country. It's nice to have a leader who has worked so hard. Rita started slowly last year, but really took off during the track season. She ran aggressively in track, and we expect that to carry over into this fall."

That trio will be pushed by as many as six returning veterans and some talented newcomers, providing Lutzke with a healthy competitiveness entering the season. Back in the fold for MSU are seniors Becky Caldwell and Karlene Kurtz , junior Karyn Duba, and sophomores Sarah Parbel, Jenny Denkins and Nicole McMillan, all with a chance to make an impact on this year's team.

"We could have a different leader in every race, and that's alright because they know they're going to have to race each week," Lutzke said. "We have a team of hard-working individuals who are prepared to push each other to reach our potential as a team. They all want to be the top runner."

Another runner who could make an immediate contribution is freshman Veronica Quackenbush, a state champion at Ogema Heights High School last fall.

"Veronica is another runner who works hard, and that trait will fit in well with this team," Lutzke said.

The Spartans' challenging season begins at the University of Michigan Open, Sept. 6, before returning home to host the Spartan Invitational two weeks later. The 1997 Big Ten Championship will take place at Ohio State on Nov. 1, while Indiana University is the location of the NCAA Regionals. The NCAA Nationals will be hosted by Furman University.

"Our goal this season is to finish as high as last year," said Lutzke. "It will be tough to break into the top three teams in the Big Ten." However, the team does not disregard this as a possibility in 1997. "The group of six will have to move up front to crack the top three teams, everyone will have to move up to the next group of runners."

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