LOOKOUT MOUNTAIN -- Coming off another successful season in 2014, the Covenant cross country programs are looking to continue the run of excellence this year. Head coach Katie Stanford is entering her fifth year at the helm of both programs and has seen her men's team win back-to-back USA South titles with the women finishing second each of the last two years.
The men are the preseason favorites to once again claim the USA South championship, while the women were selected second in their preseason poll.
The teams open the 2015 season on Friday evening by hosting the fourth annual Mountaintop Invitational. The women's two-mile race begins at 6 p.m. with the men's 5k following.
Despite losing four key runners after last year's USA South championship, the Scots look to be strong once again on the men's side. Covenant was picked as the preseason favorite in the USA South for a second straight year.
Junior Graham Massot leads the way after winning the USA South Individual championship last year and placing 35th at the NCAA South/Southeast Region meet to earn All-Region honors. Massot burst on the scene in his first year at Covenant after transferring from Wheaton (Ill.) as he was a two-time runner of the week in the conference along with his championship and regional performances.
"I look for Graham to get stronger and have the same type of season as last year," Stanford said of her top returner. "He raced well all last year, but especially towards the end of the season."
Stanford gains senior Hunter Rasmussen and hopes he can pick up where he left off two years ago. Rasmussen, the lone senior on the men's side, did not run in 2014 as he recovered from an injury but has healed and looking for a strong showing in his final year. Rasmussen was a valuable member of the 2013 USA South championship team.
"Hunter is healthy again and should be in the mix for one of our top five finishers throughout the year," added Stanford. "He wants to have a good year and finish his career well."
Juniors Phil Moore and Eliot Gardner could also factor into Covenant's team scoring this year along with sophomore Zach Atchison. Junior Charles Taylor rounds out the returners for the Scots this season.
Stanford collected a recruiting class that she believes will make an immediate impact. Freshmen Micah Sneller, Nathan Bierema, Josh Humpherys and Reed Vaughn all provide the Scots with depth and look to help lead the Scots back to another championship.
"All four will do well this year," Stanford said of her recruiting class. "Vaughn, Humphreys and Bierema are experienced runners. Sneller did not run cross country until his senior year of high school, but has looked good so far."
For Stanford, the question mark entering the season is who will fill the top five. With four key members of the team gone from last year's squad, Stanford is looking for others to step up and fill the void.
"We're just working out who can fill out those other spots in the top five," noted Stanford. "We have some returners who could do it and we'll need some of the freshmen to fill those slots also."
Covenant has finished second the last two years at the USA South championships and that's where the Lady Scots are in the preseason poll entering 2015. Beth Burgess graduated, but Stanford returns Ruthie Cargill and Esther Anderson along with other key contributors from last year and gained Spookie Eaves and Melanie White.
Cargill is the top returner from 2014. The senior had a breakout year as she earned USA South All-Conference second team honors and broke personal records in almost each event a season ago. Also returning is fellow senior Esther Anderson. Anderson was an All-USA South performer in 2013 and will be looking to get back to that point again this season.
"Ruthie had a great year last season and I think she will do well again this year," Stanford said. "Together, Ruthie and Esther are team captains and will do a great job of showing the younger runners what our team is about and how to lead. It's great to have that kind of leadership and they will be a big reason for the success of the team."
Eaves and White return to the program after some time away. Eaves earned first team All-USA South honors as a sophomore in 2013 and has shown the ability to be the top runner. White's only season of competition came as a freshman in 2012 when she was a Great South All-Freshmen team honoree.
Also returning is sophomore Margaret Fitch who had a tremendous start to her rookie campaign last season as she was a four-time recipient of the USA South Rookie Runner of the Week award. "Margaret got healthy over the summer, so I'm looking for her to get back to where she was at the start of last year," Stanford added.
Getting over the hump in the USA South is a tough task as two-time defeding champion Meredith looks to be strong once again. Stanford's focus for the season is closing the gap between the top five runners and finishing higher in the region meet.
"The big goal is to keep moving up in the region because it will help us and the conference," Stanford said. "But we also want to focus on the upperclassmen leading the way and keeping everyone healthy."
The season starts tonight with the Mountaintop Invitational. Both teams have won their respective events in each of the last three seasons. Maryville will be the other team competing in the Invitational this year.
"We are going for the win on both sides," Stanford said. "I want the women to be able to run with Emily (Guillaume) from Maryville. On the men's side, Sean Hagstrom (Maryville) will be their top runner."
The women's event starts at 6 p.m. with a two-mile race, while the men's 5k is set to start around 6:30. The start and finish will be at Shadowlands Field.
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