SU cross country prepares for biggest meet of the season

After struggling with the loss of many of last year's top runners, the men's and women's cross country team think they can rebound in 2013, starting with the Wisconsin Adidas Invitational.

Alexandra Clinton hasn’t sat still over the course of six questions. She shifts her weight, adjusts her legs, glances around the room with an unmistakable defiance. But then the subject shifts to the future, to this year and this team, and suddenly she’s at ease.

“I’m a senior, so I might not be around to see it, but this group of girls will be special,” Clinton said. “We’re mature, we know how to race now.”

The women’s cross country team is at a crossroads of sorts, caught in between who they were last year and who they hope they can become this fall. But coaches and players say that 2013 has a chance to be much, much different — and is set up for the long haul, this season and beyond.

Head coach Chris Fox admits that last year was a “struggle,” and judging by the grimaces that follow even a passing mention of last fall, that’s probably an understatement. The Orange lost five of their top seven runners from 2011, and the growing pains of a very young team were obvious. After mediocre finishes at major meets in Toledo and Wisconsin, Syracuse limped to sixth place at both the Big East Conference and Northeast Regional races, failing to qualify for Nationals for the first time in five years.

“Just about everything that could go wrong, did go wrong that season,” Fox said. “We just had a lot of freshmen and girls without experience who had to figure some things out on the fly."

But as tough as last year was, that adversity is in the past, and the Orange believe it has come out the other side stronger. Now those freshmen are sophomores. Already thrown into the fire once before, they’ve finally started to scratch the surface of how good they can be as a group.

“[That experience] definitely helps, because there are so many situations,” junior Jessie Petersen said. “You can get a race plan and nothing can go to plan within the race, so you have to know how to adapt to the race itself. All those situations happened last year, so we’re much more ready to go than years past.”

Junior Margo Malone, who struggled with adjusting in her first year on campus, has broken out so far in 2013. She won the Harry Lang Invitational to open the season, finished 7th at the Dartmouth Invitational the following week and led all Syracuse runners with a 22nd place finish at the Roy Griak Invitational last Saturday. In a matter of months, she’s transformed herself into arguably the Orange’s top runner, filling the void left by the graduation of three-time all-Big East selection Sarah Pagano.  

This year’s team is brimming with potential — still so young, Syracuse has already built itself into a top-20 team again. But they realize that that doesn’t guarantee much of anything. Potential doesn’t register on a stopwatch or cross a finish line; It’s a promise that needs to be kept, built toward. Malone and Petersen are among a handful of girls expected to lead the way but Fox is determined to remind them that they aren’t quite there yet.

“Margo is running really well right now but I think she can run better. Jessie’s kind of our veteran and I expect a little bit more out of her. She’s running well but I know she can run better,” Fox said.

Despite all the flashes of greatness and the promise of a young season, there are still constant reminders of how much work is left to be done.

“We need to learn how to race smarter,” Fox said. “We ran a little too slow this weekend [at the Roy Griak Invitational] and it probably cost us a place. They need to realize that we can’t let that happen.”

Those mistakes will have to be corrected in a hurry, because October is when the real season begins. The Orange has impressed in tune-up races, but teams can’t earn points toward qualifying for Nationals until this weekend’s Wisconsin Adidas Invitational — a much bigger and much tougher field of runners.

“Those early races help with thinking smart and preparing smart for these races,” Petersen said. “It’s all about the learning process and learning how to race. So, once Wisconsin comes around this is where the season really gets rough.”

At least for this year, Syracuse is probably a tier below new conference foe Florida State, who Fox describes as, “head and shoulders above everybody.” But a spot at Nationals is certainly there for the taking, provided the Orange's core continues to improve and understand what it takes to succeed at this level. It’s not just the races and the strategy, but the nutrition, the weights and the discipline. At the Roy Griak Invitational, SU finished ahead of North Carolina State, another ranked ACC squad, and that will hopefully be just the beginning.

There’s something else that gets lost in all the talk of experience gained and race plans, something far more basic: there is a confidence to this team, a group that was disheartened at this time last year. They’ve struggled and survived, and now they’re beginning to believe.

“Coaches say we look like a top-20 team, and I believe that,” Petersen said. “We’re young, but if everything goes to plan, we can do some things.”

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