XC runs into first meet with confidence and high expectations

James Goddard, Sports Reporter

Heading into the season opener, sophomore Baidy Ba described his feelings in one word: confident.

Head coach James Croft felt the same.

“I let the athletes come up with their own goals as a team and individually,” the four-year head coach said, “but my expectation is this will be the best cross country season in a decade.”

Ba led the pack last year and accomplished several feats in his first collegiate running season. He took first place at the Falcon Invitational 8k, ran the third-fastest time in program history at the NCAA Great Lakes Regionals and placed 17th at the MAC championships.

This reigning Freshman of the Year’s team finished sixth in that final competition. The women’s team placed eighth.

Ba expects great things this season.

“We’re looking strong,” Ba said. “I’m definitely hopeful. We have big things coming this season.”

Looking for a higher finish this year, the men’s and women’s cross country teams have been preparing for the season all summer. The Flashes will enter the Ohio XC Invitational meet Saturday under new director Nathan Fanger.

Fanger was promoted in July to Director of Track and Field and Cross Country taking over for 17-year director Bill Lawson.

Throughout his tenure, Fanger earned two Great Lakes Regional assistant coach of the year awards and one MAC assistant coach of the year award. In his tenure, he has helped men’s and women’s cross country and track to 17 MAC Championships.

Croft said Fanger came in with high expectations.

“He’s spoken with the athletes about the expectations of the whole program,” Fanger said, “but specifically for cross country, saying ‘Hey, we’re at Kent State, the expectation is to be at the top of the conference.’”

Under Fanger, the men’s and women’s teams welcome new additions.

Seven rookies join the roster along with transfers junior Shadrack Kipkosgei (Louisville) for the men and redshirt freshman Brooke Polon (Akron) for the women.

Senior Nina Zraik said she is excited for this year’s updated roster.

“I think it’ll be a good year,” Zraik said. “James recruited a lot of people.”

Then-senior Drew Johnson, who placed 11th in the MAC Championships, graduated last year, but sophomore Ba and junior Farley will be stepping up to lead the men’s pack.

Farley returns this season after finishing as a top runner in the first three meets last year. He placed in the top 30 in each of his races. He finished in 30th place at the MAC Championships.

The junior is “feeling really good.”

“I’ve had the best summer training of my college career,” Farley said. “I think I’ve set myself up really well. [I’ve] just been super consistent.”

On the women’s side, graduate students Stephanie Ward and Leah Lisle were KSU’s top finishers last year and are expected to continue that momentum into this season.

Last season, Lisle led her team in its first two meets, placing in the top 40. Ward sprinted up to the leaderboard in the third meet and continued that success into the year’s fourth meet, where she took fifth place at Falcon Invitational. Lisle was right behind in eighth.

This year, Lisle and her team have been working on their mentality.

“It’s pushing ourselves harder and accepting that there’s gonna be pain because I know we can go faster than what we have been doing,” Lisle said. “[There’s] a point in the race where it can get really hard, then [you] doubt yourself and then you fall back. If we can work on just being able to work through that mentally and physically, we’ll be able to stay where we need to be in the MAC.”

At the MAC Championships, Ward again represented her team at the top, placing 15th. Ward is awaiting a decision on her eligibility waiver, so she will not be running at the team’s first meet.

Croft said his remaining veterans greatly benefit the team.

“Our biggest strength on the women’s side is the continuity,” Croft said. “They’re so comfortable with each other.”

The Flashes run their first meet of the season Friday at the Ohio XC Invitational at Ohio University.

Lisle said Ohio is her team’s biggest competition.

“I’ve heard, just recently, their workouts are looking really similar to ours, and we usually place around them,” Lisle said. “I’m excited to just compete.”

Akron, Ohio, Toledo, Bowling Green and Fairmont State will also meet at the season opener. Last season, Toledo finished first overall at the MAC Championships on the women’s side, and Eastern Michigan for the men’s team.

After this first meet, KSU has three competitions left until the conference championships.

“We’ve been preparing every day like we’re gonna go out and win the MAC,” Farley said. “Our overall thing isn’t just saying we want to win the MAC but to act like it.”

James Goddard is a sports reporter. Contact him at [email protected].