Ready to run


Photo courtesy of Kent State University Athletics.

Richie Mulhall

After a long summer of training, tempo runs and time-consuming long-distance runs, the Kent State cross country team will finally participate in its first meet Thursday evening at the Firestone Metro Park in Akron.

The team hasn’t exactly had a plethora of opportunities to compete over the summer, so now that fall has finally arrived, all the runners are raring to go.

“We don’t really have any races during the summer, it’s just been a lot of miles and tempo runs,” fifth-year senior Matt Kahl said.

The Flashes will compete in the annual Tommy Evans Invitational, a four-way meet featuring Kent State, Youngstown State and the Flashes’ longtime rival, the Akron Zips.

Kent State head coach Mark Croghan said that although the first meet only comprises four teams, it will be extremely beneficial to his team. Facing Akron in the first meet of the season will give the younger runners an initial taste and sneak peak of what MAC competition will be like.

“It’s a good low-key meet to start with, so you’ll certainly have some good individuals there, but how we run versus Akron will be more useful information to draw from (Thursday),” Croghan said.

The Tommy Evans Invitational will serve as a benchmark for the rookies who are new to the whole collegiate cross country experience. The meet will prepare them for the rest of the season and show them how well they match up to tough competition.

“From my standpoint, Akron I think is going to be one of the better teams in the conference, so I’m interested to see where we’re at in relation to them,” Croghan said. “It gives us a pretty good idea of where we’re starting and what we have to do.”

This year’s cross country team is really young, with only four returning seniors to lead the way. The men’s squad will be under Kahl and senior Joey Kinkelaar’s leadership. The rest of the men’s side is made up of mostly sophomores and one lone freshman.

Seniors Kelsey McAlpine and Tabitha Jacofsky will lead the girls’ team composed of four juniors, six sophomores and eight freshmen.

Croghan said Kahl and McAlpine, the number-one performers on each side in Croghan’s mind, will lead by example and seniority and guide their younger teammates through the acclimation process.

“I think those two will set the tone for the rest of the team,” Croghan said.

The girls only lost one senior to graduation last year and return 12 runners from last season, but the Flashes also welcome eight freshmen.

Despite the team’s age gap and lack of experience, McAlpine’s outlook on a fresh start for the program is nothing but optimistic.

“I’m really excited because we have a lot of freshmen coming in, but they’ve all been so awesome and friendly,” McAlpine said. “I think we have a strong friendship among our whole team, so I think it’s going to help us excel, especially toward the MAC meet.”

Croghan said he has formed his own suspicions during practice this summer about how he believes the team will perform this season, but it’s difficult to confirm those hunches until the season gets underway. Only time will tell, and come meet day, it’s anyone’s race.

First race jitters?

Anyone who has ever run cross country before know that the mindset going into the first race of the season varies from person to person.

“It’s nerve-wracking, especially on the men’s side because we are so young, with a lot of the guys running their first college meet,” Croghan said. “From my experience you don’t really know what to expect. You just want to go out there and be competitive, try to put yourself in the mix.”

Although McAlpine has three full seasons of collegiate cross country under her belt, she has never experienced Akron’s course before and said she doesn’t know what to expect.

With expertise more than nerves on her side, McAlpine said she plans on going into Thursday’s race with an open mind, positive spirit and competitive nature and just wait to see what happens.

“Once that gun goes off, I’m going to just compete and be a true competitor and see what happens throughout the race,” McAlpine said. “Distance running is all about the mind and body and really digging deep, so I just kind of have to keep working at.”

Kahl, on the other hand, said he has run Akron’s course twice before, so he knows what to expect.

“It’s just a typical cross country course,” Kahl said. “It has some flats in it, but it’s not an easy course by any means.”

Croghan said the course won’t be a walk in the park, even for his veteran runners. “It’s got some roll to it, and it’s got some tight turns,” Croghan said.

Pair the course conditions with 88-degree scorching temperature and the pace Thursday’s race dramatically drops. Given the history behind typical first meets and the weather conditions, Croghan gave his veteran prediction on how he believes both races will play out.

“I don’t think it’s going to run particularly fast, and given the fact that it’s the first meet, I don’t expect guys to come out in mid-season form at this point,” Croghan said.

“With the younger kids who are a little inexperienced, as a coach, you don’t know what to expect from them, so there’s a curiosity to see how well we compete and ultimately where we’re at,” Croghan said.

No matter what the sophomores and freshmen do Thursday, both Croghan and McAlpine see a bright future on the horizon.

“I think this season’s going to be a lot better than last year,” McAlpine said. “Everyone seems motivated, and summer training went really well for everyone, so I’m really excited to see us compete well not only in the MAC meet, but also continue on to the regional meet and hopefully the NCAAs.”

Croghan said he hopes to build off of what he considered a “disappointing (2013) season on both sides” that produced zero NCAA Championship runners. Former Flash Andrew Goodwin had the best finish on the men’s side with a 44th place at NCAA Great Lakes Regional, and on the women’s squad, junior Rachel Slingluff finished 98th in the same meet.

Croghan wants to raise the bar higher this season despite the team’s youth and inexperience.

“We definitely want to take a step forward from last year,” Croghan said.

One of Croghan’s goals is to boost the men’s team back into the top three in the MAC. He also believes the women’s side is capable of breaking into the top tier in the conference

“We’re pretty solid with Kelsey and Rachel (Slingluff) up front, so if we can fill in behind them, we can be in that upper half of the conference,” Croghan said.

Croghan recognized that the first meet against Akron, Youngtown and Malone will not tell the tale for the rest of the season and there are still plenty of races left in which the freshmen and sophomores will get the chance to prove themselves.

Kahl also said it’s hard to tell who on the team will emerge as top runners at this point, but like Croghan, he believes this season’s team will be better than last season’s and will make a bigger statement in the conference this year.

The women’s 5k race will begin at 5:30 p.m., followed by the men’s four-mile race set for 6:15 p.m.

Contact Richie Mulhall at [email protected].