2009 UCF Cross Country Season Preview

Sept. 7, 2009

By Andrew Gavin

ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - With a deep team and five seniors on the roster, the UCF cross country team expects to continue the strides from the past two seasons under the new coaching regime. Head cross country and track and field coach Caryl Smith Gilbert and cross country coach Tyangela Sanders are happy with the progress the runners have made since the end of last season, and early in preseason practice has already seen the team's hard work pay off.

"Since last season, the whole team has stepped up considerably," Sanders stated. "If I had to pick the two people on the team who have made the biggest strides then it would be Ocean Cohen and Erica Weitz. But as I said before, they are not alone because the whole team has stepped up and improved."

Looking back to 2008, UCF had an exciting year with two meet victories and the opening of a brand-new on-campus course which benefitted the team immensely and allowed the Knights to host two meets.

The first meet victory came at one of those home meets, the Black & Gold Invitational. UCF also dominated the FLRunners.com Invitational Oct. 4 as five of the team's runners set new personal bests at the meet, and three Knights finished in the top five as UCF claimed the title.

"I thought the team's performance overall was okay," said Sanders of her team, which finished eighth in the Conference USA Championships. "All of our runners ran personal best times, which I was pleased about. We had some great meets last season, but I also think we had some others where we did not reach their full potential. Becoming more consistent is definitely something we will aim to do in 2009."

Despite needing to replace graduated runners Allison Palmer and Shantile Blackburn, both of whom won an individual meet title last season, Sanders believes the Knights will have some depth and show improvement throughout the lineup.

"I am very impressed with the team as a whole. They have performed great thus far with workouts since returning from the summer," Sanders said. "I can tell that they did all their workouts over the summer, and they are ready to compete this year."

The team begins with the core group of seniors, who will be looked for to contribute both results and leadership. Two of the seniors - Jaclyn Johnson and Jamie Rzepecki - return after missing last season with injury while the other three - Carley Dart, Shannon Kelly and Erica Weitz - all posted personal bests as juniors.

"Jamie is doing great in her workouts," Sanders said. "I think last years injury has only made her hungrier to do better. Since she is running cross country this year she will have a more solid season across the board.

"I expect those seniors to step up their leadership skills," Sanders stated. "I have told them to lead by example, and they have been working really hard to do just that. If these seniors strive to lead by example they will they will carry the whole team to perform better. I expect us to have three team leaders this year with Rzepecki, Weitz and junior Ocean Cohen."

Cohen really emerged as one of the Knight's top runners as a sophomore after only running in two meets in 2007. Last season, Cohen was one of only two runners to score in each of the team's meets.

"Erica and Ocean have worked really hard in the offseason. They have been in touch with me throughout the whole summer about their workouts and how they are running," Sanders raved. Sophomores Kathia and Katrina Skinner are back after up-and-down rookie campaigns. Both showed sparks as freshmen, with each competing in at least six of the Knights' meets and posting at least one top-10 finish.

The Knights depth is increased by four newcomers joining the roster this fall. One of those newcomers is sophomore Aisha-Maree Frazier, who went to regionals as a freshman in track and field as a hurdler. Freshman Eva Pierce will join Frazier to give the team two middle distance runners also competing in cross country.

Two other freshmen - Mason Gardberg and Alyssa Franks - are more experienced distance who should have a chance to break into the top five at certain times this season.

"I expect Eva and Aisha to do their best in cross country because their performance in cross country will benefit them in the track and field season," Sanders said. "I expect Alyssa and Mason to contribute to the team this year and help push the team. Alyssa has impressed me the most. She has been ranking among the top six runners on the team so far."

The schedule will again be highlighted by two home meets at the UCF Cross Country Complex. The Knights will open the season on campus with the Black & Gold Invitational on Sept. 12 while also hosting the Knight Attack Challenge two weeks later on Sept. 26.

Smith Gilbert and Sanders really stress the benefits that their program has seen because of the on-campus course.

"The course has been a tremendous asset to our program both financially and competitively. We are able to host our own meets, and the student-athletes are able to compete in front of their fellow teammates and peers," said Smith Gilbert, in her third season at the helm of the UCF program. "Since we host the meets we are able to put money back into the program."

"The course has also been an asset to the team because we are able to workout on the course and not have to run on the roads all the time, which cause injuries," said Sanders. "The course creates a competition environment. The team loves the home meets because it gives them a chance to perform in front of their friends who may not be able to travel to the other meets."

While the home meets provide exciting highlights to the first month of the season, the Knights will be working throughout the six-meet regular season to ensure they peak at the right time. UCF competed in both the C-USA Championships and the NCAA South Regional in 2008, but the goal will be to improve its finishes in both postseason events.

"We want to all improve and set personal bests from week to week and make sure we are at our best heading into the conference meet in Houston," Smith Gilbert said. "Individually, each runner will aim to run to post a time of 18:30 or below this season. With our depth and talent, we are striving to finish in the top-four spots in C-USA and run a competitive race at regionals to finish considerably higher that last season."