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Marquette Cross-Country: Future laid out for returning runners

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Upperclassmen had their eyes set on an NCAA Championship berth, but they fell short of their goal as their season ended after the NCAA Great Lakes Regional last Friday. The men placed 15th and the women came in 14th.

Running hundreds of miles will get a person far from their starting point. If the final destination was mapped out to be the NCAA Cross-Country Championship, Marquette’s cross-country team did not get too far in its journey. But the most important part of the 2012 trip was the map laid out for the future by freshmen sometimes at the front of the pack.

Injuries plagued the men’s team all season, with senior Patrick Maag missing the first meet of the year and junior Jack Senefeld out for the first two meets. Things were already difficult enough trying to fill the shoes of graduated Blake Johnson and Peter Bolgert, who finished 37th and 38th, respectively, at the 2011 NCAA Great Lakes Regional.

Seniors Connor Callahan and Jack Hackett used their experience to hold the team together early on and keep the team out of panic mode without true standouts. Callahan was the team’s top runner in the first three meets, while Hackett shifted into another gear for the last three first place finishes.

Hackett ended his cross-country career with a 10,000-meter personal best by one second at the NCAA Regional Championship. Callahan holds high standards for himself, and he may have not hit a personal best, but it was enough for his teammates to see his grit in the sport.

“Seeing the senior class put it together at the right time of the year was really cool for me to see,” Senefeld said. “Those are the guys I came in with, so it was cool to be with them in their last cross-country race.”

The pressure was on freshmen Cody Haberkorn and William Hennessy to consistently run with the team’s varsity pack behind Callahan and Hackett.

Coach Mike Nelson saw a lot of similarities between the 2009 freshman class and this year’s freshmen in their work ethic and focus every week.

“I think it was a combination of recruiting plus the fact these are some really hard-nosed guys who are very mature,” Nelson said. “They get the job done not just in athletics but academics as well.”

Under Nelson, freshmen often get off to a hot start and contribute to the team as the year progresses. He saw that this year and reiterated the goal for all runners to drop their personal bests. An increase in maturity was also evident with time.

Freshman Molly Hanson came into Marquette never having raced a 5,000-meter or longer race. By the end of the season, she was the best runner on the women’s side, finishing first in five of six meets. She believes she is ready for a larger role as a leader next year.

“(This year’s seniors) were good leaders,” Hanson said. “They knew where we were going during runs and how to calm us down before races. This year’s freshman class will have to learn how to get everyone ready for races and do the drills correctly (for next year).”

The women’s team will lose two seniors this year. Captains Christina Sliepka and Melissa Budelier put in their best seasons with personal bests in the 5,000-meter and 6,000-meter races. Four of the top five finishers from regionals were freshmen, so they will be back for the 2013 season.

The men’s side loses four of its seven runners from the regional championship, with Callahan, AJ Gedwill, Hackett and Maag graduating. Most of those runners were in the top five for the majority of their Marquette careers. Senefeld, Haberkorn and Hennessy will be looking for company to fill their shoes.

Junior Spencer Agnew saw limited action this season due to his injury-plagued summer, but at full health he could have scored for the team in some of the later meets. Looking ahead, he is one of the early candidates to fill a senior leadership role. Other juniors include Mitch Lacy and Evan Ross, who gained fitness and improved in 2012.

“I want to see a bunch of guys running together next year near the front of races and having fun” Senefeld said. “We may not have a true standout, but I think we can have a great pack.”

The teams that Marquette will run against will also be changing with Big East conference realignment taking place.

Syracuse, the 2012 men’s Big East cross-country champion, will join the Atlantic Coast Conference. The addition of the Southern Methodist women’s cross-country team, which has won four of the last five Conference-USA cross-country titles, will shake things up by entering in 2013.

“For a team like us that’s been in the middle, we’re going to have competition,” Nelson said. “It all depends on how we do (the day of the conference championship). Next year is going to be a little bit more exciting.”

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