New Course, Home Meets Highlight 2008 Cross Country Season

Sept. 2, 2008

ORLANDO, Fla. (www.ucfathletics.com) - Entering her second season as head coach of the cross country and track and field teams at UCF, Caryl Smith Gilbert is excited about the progress of the program and the upcoming season. The Knights open their season on Friday, hosting the Knight Attack Challenge at 4:30 p.m.

With time to recruit the best class in the program's history, two new coaches who will add experience, the opening of a new on-campus course and a challenging schedule which includes two home meets, Smith Gilbert has reasons to be excited.

"This is going to be a very exciting cross country season," said Smith Gilbert. "We are looking to set as many personal bests as possible each week. We are competing in some of the best meets in the state as well as some of the best meets in the country and region."

To help her achieve those goals, Smith Gilbert welcomes two accomplished assistant coaches in Tyangela Sanders and Dennis Kozub. Both have experience in distance running at high levels, and the program's head coach welcomes the additions.

"I am very excited about the new coaches on our staff," said Smith Gilbert. "Tyangela comes to us from Knoxville, Tenn., where she has had success coaching every event area. She has an inside track because of her experience as a female student-athlete that can help our runners. Her speed background will help the distance runners because it helps our runners finish strong on the last stretch."

"Kozub has a wealth of experience around the country," she continued. "The athletes really like him a lot. He has a wealth of knowledge and believes in some of the same things I believe in as far as running a program. He thinks of the well-being of the student-athletes. The cross country complex he developed has added a new dimension to our program."

The new course will get the season off to an exciting start, with the Knights hosting their first two meets on the brand new 5K course, something that has excited everyone involved.

"We are looking to have some of the best talent come to the complex, allowing us to showcase our program and our university," said Smith Gilbert. "For the runners here, it gives an opportunity to have real courses to train on. It will allow high schools to come to our university and view our facilities and see our program."

Kozub fully expects the new facility to give the 2008 team extra motivation and also benefit their ability to perform well on other courses.

"It is their home so it will help build that team concept," said Kozub. "They will want to run on it and run well. It will also help keep them injury-free because they will be able to train on grass. Having courses gives the program more visibility in the community and on campus. When you have a course, it is not just a bunch of kids running; it is a team competing in a sport."

The Knights had a strong first season under Smith Gilbert, recording four top-five finishes in seven meets. UCF placed third out of 19 at the season-opening Mountain Dew Invitational.

The following weekend, a strong performance in Nashville, Tenn., left the Knights fifth at the Vanderbilt Commodore Classic. Senior Karen Kozub led the way with a seventh-place finish.

The second weekend of October, top-10 finishes from Jamie Rzepecki and Elizabeth Miller propelled the Knights to third place at the Stetson Invitational.

UCF concluded the season with two appearances in the postseason, placing seventh in the Conference USA Championships and 15th at the NCAA South Regional.

This season, the squad gets a lift with the return of senior Allison Palmer. The runner had to sit out last season with an injury, but will be counted on for both production and leadership in 2008.

"She really came around well in the spring after sitting out last cross country season with an injury so we are looking for big things from her," said Smith Gilbert. "She is a great person and leader on our team. We think she will be a very successful person in the near future."

Seniors Kelly McNeill and Rzepecki should also be consistently in the top five for the Knights. McNeill did not run for the Knights until the fourth race of last season, but led the team with an 11th-place finish at the FLRunners.com Invitational.

Rzepecki had her best performance in the opener, placing 11th in the Mountain Dew Invitational, one of the four times she led the Knights.

Other upperclassmen expected to contribute are senior Shantile Blackburn and juniors Carly Dart, Jaclyn Johnson, Shannon Kelly and Erica Weitz. Sanders points to Blackburn as a runner who could have a breakout season for the Knights.

"Shantile (Blackburn) is someone who has not run a lot of cross country in the past, but we are looking for her to step up her game," said Sanders. "She is a very talented young lady. If she can get some more confidence and toughness to compete, she will have a strong season."

Two freshmen will be added to the mix with twin sisters Kathia and Katrina Skinner from Tampa, Fla. Both are talented runners with great success in both track and cross country in high school, and the coaching staff looks to both to make an immediate impact.

"We are looking for big things this year from the Skinner twins," added Sanders. "They have a lot of talent, and they will kind of push the upperclassmen as well."

With a talented mix of veterans and freshmen, the Knights hope to accomplish a lot this season.

"Our goal is to be in the top four in the conference," said Smith Gilbert. "We have two great home meets on our new 5K cross country course. The conference championships will be at Memphis and we are going to have one of our best showings of the year. The regional meet in Knoxville, Tenn., will cap everything where we will try to have some of our runners qualify for the NCAA Championships."

For the latest news on the Knights, log on to www.UCFAthletics.com - the official site for UCF varsity sports. The site, which also contains ticket and Golden Knights Club donor information, is also the home of UCF's new online apparel store. Also visit www.UCFPhotos.com, the exclusive fan source for UCF action sports pictures.