BOONE, N.C. (Sept. 3, 2009) - After hoisting the 2008 Atlantic Sun Championship crown last fall in Macon, Ga., the ETSU men's cross country team begins its quest for a repeat when the Bucs hit the rugged terrain of the Covered Bridge Open on Friday evening in Boone, N.C. The race is set to begin at 5 p.m.
The race will be held at the Don Kennedy Trail at State Farm, and due to construction the men will run a 6400m course. The Bucs will be tested in the season-opener as ETSU faces host Appalachian State - who has won four consecutive SoCon titles, Big 10 power Ohio State, ACC perennial favorites Florida State and North Carolina, and conference foe North Florida.
"This is going to be a great opening test for us," said head coach Dave Walker. "Our guys are going to see where they stand with some of these strong programs, and it will also give a chance to see what we need to work on."
The Bucs posted their 21st conference championship a year ago and return a solid nucleus in 2009 - including 2008 Atlantic Sun Runner of the Year Kenneth Rotich (Nairobi, Kenya). Once again Rotich looks to be the number one runner for the Bucs in 2009. Rotich, a senior from Nairobi, Kenya, won three individual races last season and moved his current total of A-Sun Athlete of the Week honors to six. The spectacular distance runner is coming off an impressive track and field season, where he won gold in both the 5000m and 10000m events at the A-Sun Outdoor Championships in Jacksonville, Fla.
Rotich will have some competition at the number one slot, as his cousin Ben Ronoh (Sotik, Kenya) enters the campaign with a year of Division I experience under his belt. Ronoh, who claimed Most Outstanding Track Performer honors at both the A-Sun Indoor and Outdoor Championships, finished right behind his teammate at last season's A-Sun Cross Country Championships.
"Kenneth and Ben give us a huge lift up front," said Walker. "Kenneth has been training hard all summer, and enters his final season in shape and ready to compete. We need Ben to have as good of a year as he did last season, and hopefully he will continue to post faster times when the season progresses."
ETSU gains some valuable experience at the number three position, as red-shirt senior J Penny (Jonesborough, Tenn.) looks to close out his cross country career with another ring. The local standout has put in a lot of training during the off-season, and looks to build off his 12th-place finish at the 2008 championships.
"J (Penny) has made huge improvements since arriving on campus as a freshman," commented Walker. "He is a lot stronger now and can run with our number one and two guys. I am expecting a lot from him this season, because he is one of our leaders and has a lot of potential as a cross country runner."
A pair of Buccaneer runners will battle for the number four slot early on - but for now - its junior Manny Gonzalez's (Bryan, Ohio) job to lose. Gonzalez is coming off his first full season with ETSU in 2008 and he showcased his best race of the year at the conference championships.
Joining Gonzalez is newcomer Landon Milhorn (The Woodlands, Texas). Milhorn spent the last four years running cross country at The Woodlands High School - which has a rich history in the sport. Milhorn helped guide the Highlanders to three consecutive state championships, and posted The Woodlands to a ranking of fourth in the nation a year ago.
"Both Manny and Landon need to be very competitive, and ready to run near our number three runner at every meet," said Walker. "Manny has shown us he can compete at this level, but he needs to be more consistent by turning in strong races each weekend. Landon has a lot of talent, but needs to gain the experience of running at the Division I level. We expect Landon to be ready to go by the time the A-Sun Championships roll around in late October."
The Bucs were tabbed the league favorite when the A-Sun released its 2009 Preseason Coaches Poll, as ETSU edged Belmont - 115 to 113 in the voting.
"Overall we have a lot of strength up front with our top three runners," said Walker. "Our number four and five guys know they need to step up and contribute in order for the team to be successful in 2009."
On the women's side, the Lady Bucs will rely on junior leader Terra Haggard (Morristown, Tenn.) to guide ETSU in 2009. Haggard is the most experienced runner for the Lady Bucs, as she has raced at the D-I level for the last two seasons and looks to run her way into all-conference honors in 2009.
Joining Haggard up front is sophomore Victoria Jones (Marshall, N.C.) and junior Melissa Murrell (Knoxville, Tenn.). Jones, who competed in five races for ETSU as a freshman, led the Lady Bucs across the finish line at the Bojangles Invitational on Sept. 13. Murrell also looks to build off her rookie campaign a year ago, and contribute heavily season this fall.
"We are really excited about our returning and new student-athletes on the women's squad in 2009," said Walker. "Terra, Victoria, and Melissa have experienced running at this level, while we hope several of our newcomers show promise as we continue to build for the future."
The Lady Buccaneer cross country squad was picked to finish eighth in the Atlantic Sun Preseason Coaches Poll.
For more information on Buccaneer cross country, visit www.ETSUBucs.com.