LOOKOUT MOUNTAIN -- For a fifth straight year the Covenant cross country teams will open the season at home as the program hosts the Mountaintop Invitational on Friday. The women's two-mile race begins at 6 p.m., followed by the men's 5k event at 6:30. The start and finish lines are located at Shadowlands Field.
"We are always excited to host the event and have the support from the campus community," said head coach Katie Stanford, who is entering her sixth year. "It is usually the only chance people get to see us run and we love having that support."
Covenant will be one of three teams in the events this year. Fellow USA South member Maryville will make its annual trek to Lookout Mountain, while Sewanee will make its first appearance at the Invitational. Both Covenant teams have won the Mountaintop Invitational in each of the first four years.
"Sewanee is always strong and Maryville has improved," Stanford said. "So it should be two good races and good competition for all the teams involved."
Stanford's teams both placed second at the USA South Championships last season and both feature young rosters heading into 2016. The men return six letterwinners from a season ago, while the women bring back four from 2015.
The key returner on the men's side is sophomore Micah Sneller. Sneller was the USA South's Rookie of the Year last season and took the individual title at the conference meet. Senior Phil Moore and sophomore Nathan Bierema also return after earning All-USA South honors last year.
"We're looking for Micah and Nathan to lead the team this year as our top returners and Phil should be a major contributor as well," Stanford said.
Junior Zach Atchison also looks to make a move into the top five for the Scots. Atchison, who is suffering from an injury and won't be able to compete for a few weeks, had a tremendous showing during the spring season. "I'm hoping that Zach gets healthy and that we get him strong by the end of the year," added Stanford.
Also returning for the men are seniors Eliot Gardner and Charles Taylor. Senior Caleb McKillop will run cross country for the first time since his sophomore year. Sophomore Matthew Tueller joins the squad for the first time.
Stanford brought in a pair of freshmen that could play a role in the success of the team. Caleb Keitt (McDonough, Ga./Ola) and Phil Carrenard (Douglasville, Ga./Harvester Christian Academy) comprise the freshman class.
"Those two will help us," Stanford said. "Caleb Keitt is looking really strong right now and might compete to be one of our top three or four finishers during the year."
A year after losing four seniors, Stanford will look to a pair of sophomores to lead the women's team in 2016 as Lilly Smith and Hannah Samuels are two of the top returning runners. Smith was an All-USA South performer last season, while Samuels was a consistent runner for Stanford's team.
"We have two great sophomores in Lilly and Hannah," Stanford said. "They both ran well last year and then had fast spring seasons."
With zero seniors on the team, it is junior Margaret Fitch who has the most collegiate experience. Fitch has shown the ability to be a top runner through her first two years and Stanford looks for her to continue to improve in 2016. Sophomore Juliette Henry rounds out the returning runners, while sophomores McKinzie Hummel and Hannah Cotton join the team for the first time.
Stanford's recruiting class netted three runners, including Anna Danek (Blairsville, Ga./Union County), Abbs Kern (Lexington, Ky./Trinity Christian Academy) and Caroline Pepper (Kennesaw, Ga./Harrison).
"I'm pleased with the freshman group," Stanford said. "Caroline and Anna could really make an impact and be top five runners for us this year."
After hosting the Mountaintop Invitational on Friday, the teams will compete in the UTC Powerade Invitational on Friday, Sept. 9 at Moccasin Bend in Chattanooga. The teams will then get into the meat of the schedule with trips to Maryville, Berry and Piedmont in October.
The USA South Championships are set for Oct. 31 in Tallulah Falls, Ga. The USA South looks to be strong on both men's and women's sides this year with Piedmont topping the men's preseason poll, while Meredith was picked to repeat as league champions.
"Piedmont should be strong again on the men's side," Stanford added. "Meredith is tough on the women's side while Methodist and Piedmont have improved. The women's side of the conference will be the strongest it's ever been in the past."
The NCAA regional meet will be hosted by Berry and will take place on Saturday, Nov. 12 in Rome, Ga.
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