LOOKOUT MOUNTAIN -- For a third consecutive year, the Covenant cross country teams will open their seasons at home. The teams will once again host the Mountaintop Invitational on Friday evening. The women's event begins at 6 p.m., while the men go at 6:30 p.m.
Coming off last year's success, both teams have high expectations heading into the 2014 campaign.
The men's team became the first program in Covenant history to claim an official conference title at the NCAA Division III level when they took the USA South crown last November. With key returners coming back this season, the Scots have been picked as the favorite to capture the conference once again.
"The guys want to repeat and that is their top priority," said fourth-year head coach Katie Stanford. "Our goal is winning the conference. The new guys are talking about repeating as much as the seniors. We know that we can do it."
Leading the charge on the men's side are seniors Stephen Dillon and Jack Williams. Dillon had four top five finishes a year ago and placed second at the USA South Championships meet, while earning first team All-USA South honors. A USA South All-Conference second teamer, Williams had his best season in 2013 and looks to continue that in his senior year.
Stanford boosted the team with a strong recruiting class that brought in three freshmen and a transfer. The freshman class includes Zach Atchison (Troutman, N.C.), Eliot Kaufmann (New York, N.Y.) and John Weaks (Perry, Ga.) along with Wheaton (Ill.) transfer Graham Massot (Rochester, Minn.). Sophomore Phil Moore (Hershey, Pa.) also joins the team this fall.
"We have a great recruiting class this year," noted Stanford. "I am excited to see them compete."
The women will be led by senior Beth Burgess. Burgess earned numerous accolades last year but her crowning achievements were winning the USA South Individual title and setting a program record time in the 6k at the NCAA South Regional.
"Beth looks strong and ready to go this year," added Stanford. "She wants to lead our team to a successful season and also build upon her performance from last season."
As a team, the Covenant women finished second in last year's USA South meet and is picked to finish as the runner-up this year. Meredith was selected to repeat as USA South champions and is ranked ninth in the preseason USTFCCCA South/Southeast region poll.
"The girls know that it will be tough to beat Meredith this season, but we believe we can compete with them," said Stanford. "We want to be at a level where we can compete with the top team in the conference."
Stanford's recruiting class on the women's side has five freshmen. Margaret Fitch (San Antonio, Texas), Jordan Francis (Villa Rica, Ga.), Sarah Jo Griffith (Nashville, Tenn.), Abby Irwin (Issaquah, Wash.) and Julia Price (Nashville, Tenn.) make up the 2014 freshman class.
"This recruiting class can step in right away and start contributing," noted Stanford.
The 2014 year also marks the first full graduating class for Stanford as Dillon, Williams and Burgess have competed all four years with Stanford as their head coach.
"I have been with these three the whole four years. It has been fun to see them grow as athletes and people," said Stanford of her senior class. "They have learned to be leaders by example and it is good for the younger athletes to see that. They have been committed to the program and have gotten consistently better every year."
The Mountaintop Invitational will be the largest of the three season opening events held on campus. Four teams - Covenant, Maryville, Truett-McConnell and Reinhardt - will complete the field. The women's race is a two-mile run, while the men will face a 5k.
"This is a good way to kickoff our season on our own trail," remarked Stanford. "It is a measuring stick to see where our runners are and where they need to be. We are excited about having three teams joining us this year, as opposed to one the previous years."
Covenant has won the past two season opening meets it has hosted.