The season that ran away

Sean Ammerman

After losing its coach, the Cross country team is ready to move on

The women’s cross country team prepares to run at an Oct. 21st meet in Kent. Though they were preseason favorites to win the Mid-American Conference, the Flashes had to deal with the departure of two coaches and their top two runners, and didn’t have

Credit: Steve Schirra

A year ago, the Kent State women’s cross country team came away with its first Mid-American Conference Championship in school history.

This year they were predicted to win it again.

But the team went through two coaching changes, injuries to its top two runners and ended the season finishing seventh in the MAC.

Some may call it a lost season.

A team optimistic

Last fall, everything fell into place. Led by three juniors, the team grabbed the title that had eluded them for 24 years.

“We didn’t have the most talent,” said Molly Hammer, who finished third for Kent State at the championships. “We just had a great meet.”

But at first, it didn’t seem that way as Kent had only one runner in the top 10.

After they finished, junior Stephanie Blackstone remembered, “A lot of the girls were crying. They were so upset because they thought we had lost.”

But then the results came in, and Kent had won the championship by two points.

Coach Wendel McRaven and assistant coach Brad Hunt ran to the team, and they all jumped up and hugged each other over the muddy course, some of players recalled. It was a fitting end to a season for a team that Blackstone said was like a family.

Great expectations

With four out of their top five runners returning this season, it seemed to everybody that this squad could pull a repeat.

“We were very confident,” Hammer said. “We thought we had a solid, experienced team.”

Hunt compared the team to college football’s Southern California, which was also returning from a championship season with their star players intact.

But with the win came special success for McRaven, who had been named MAC coach of the year.

Many of the players knew in the back of their minds that he would not stay put forever, Hammer said. But that still didn’t displace the shock when he finally did leave last July.

“We had thought about it because he’s a good coach, but we never thought it would happen.” Hammer said. “He was our coach for four years, and we’re all really close to him”

McRaven resigned in June to become the head men’s cross country coach and assistant track coach at the University of Illinois.

Freshman Sarah McCort had been recruited by McRaven. When she found out he was leaving, she considered transferring, she said.

“I was really upset,” she said. “I actually considered asking for a release.”

Musical coaches

Director of Athletics Laing Kennedy named Hunt to be interim coach immediately after McRaven resigned. Hunt was a former Kent State runner himself, and most of the team was happy with the choice.

“We quickly accepted Brad as head coach,” Hammer said. “It was pretty much the same (as before).”

Kennedy said he had hoped to name the new head coach by the end of the summer. But by the time the season began Hunt was still coaching the team and no official coach was named – Kennedy said in October that because of a death in the Kent State athletic department, some candidate interviews had to be rescheduled.

Blackstone recalled that when McRaven left, she wanted Hunt to fill his shoes.

“(McRaven) sort of let us think, ‘I’m not going to be here, but you still got a great guy as coach (Hunt),'” Blackstone said.

The team has seen other assistant coaches at Kent State replace head coaches who left, and they thought Hunt would remain their permanent coach, McCort said.

Hunt said he was among three finalists for the head coaching position. He received the endorsement of McRaven and was hopeful that he would get the job, he said.

But on Sept. 17, Kennedy named former University of Oregon assistant coach Bill Lawson as head track coach. Hunt was offered a new job running the cross country program while retaining his assistant track coach status.

But Hunt opted to resign and become assistant track and field coach at Virginia, calling it a better opportunity professionally. He said he “whole-heartedly” thought the situation could have been handled better and wished people had communicated better with him.

“It would have been a dream to be the head coach at my alma mater,” he said, “but it wasn’t meant to be.”

Hunt’s last meeting with the team, he said, was highly emotionalƒ_””more than I can ever express in words.”

Lawson didn’t arrive on campus until two weeks later. He was hired to be the track and field coach and oversee cross country, but acted as the team’s coach until the MAC Championships.

“There was like two weeks where we didn’t have anybody,” Hammer said.

“You’re used to having somebody tell you warm up this or do this stretch right now, do these drills,” Jeanna Fascione said. “You go from having one coach’s set routine to trying to learn another’s.”

Hunt did name Hammer, Fascione and Blackstone captains and left them workout plans for the rest of the season.

“We kinda felt like we were being betrayed, them not telling us who the coach would be,” McCort said.

Around this time, the women’s team began to falter, finishing 17th place at Lakefront Invitational and ninth at the All-Ohio Championships.

Injuries add to difficulties

Before the season started and Hunt left, injuries had already dealt the team a major blow.

Seniors Fascione and Melinda Kiss, the team’s top two finishers in last year’s MAC Championship, both had leg injuries. Originally, the team and coaches thought they would be able to return. But as the season grew closer, it became evident the injuries were too serious.

“I was overcoming my injuries over the summer,” Fascione said. “When the season started coming up and I got hurt again, that’s when it became a problem.”

Fascione was able to run in the MAC Championships but hadn’t been able to work herself back to 100 percent. Kiss never was able to return.

Not being a bigger contributor to the team in her last season was devastating, Fascione said. Coming into the season as Kent State’s No. 1 runner, she had the potential to compete at a national level.

With both runners gone, it put more pressure on the team’s sophomores and freshmen to perform and gave McCort a chance to contribute more in just her first season running.

“Since they weren’t here, I felt the need to step up and prove myself,” she said.

The biggest difference from last year was the team’s youthfulness, Fascione said.

Looking to the future

On Oct. 7, former Olympian Mark Croghan was named cross country and assistant track and field coach for Kent State.

With the coaching situation now in order, the consensus with the team now is to move on.

“I think it’s going to be a little easier with the indoor track season coming up,” Croghan said, “because it is something we will start together and end together.”

He plans on improving conditioning to prevent reoccurring injuries, he said.

Blackstone, who still has one year left of eligibility, knows that it is not over for the team.

“Ultimately, I think (the Athletic Department) did what they thought was best for us,” Blackstone said. “The timeliness of which they did it was just them trying to exhaust all possibilities. Yeah, they took a little longer than they said, but in the end we ended up with two good coaches.”

Contact cross country reporter Sean Ammerman at [email protected].