Nov. 11, 2011
RALEIGH, N.C. — Traditionally, November has been the month when NC State cross country makes its reputation.
With 43 national top 20 finishes combined between the Wolfpack men and women since 1977, the postseason is NC State’s time. The 2011 postseason begins Saturday, when the 14th-ranked Wolfpack men and the 20th-ranked women will run at the NCAA Southeast Regional Championship at Louisville, Ky.
Results from the regional will be posted on the University of Louisville’s athletics page, and a full recap and results will be posted following the race on www.GoPack.com.
The State men, who two weeks ago won their 14th Atlantic Coast Conference Championship in the last 21 years and their 16th overall, finished 20th nationally a year ago. The women, who tied for third at the ACC Championships in an absolutely loaded field, finished 24th in the nation in 2010. There is ample reason to believe that both could improve on those finishes in 2011, but they must qualify for nationals first.
The top two teams at each of the nine NCAA regional sites will receive automatic bids to the NCAA Championships. Thirteen other teams will receive at-large bids based on criteria points earned during the regular season. The State men and women both should have plenty of criteria points after strong regular-season performances, but both would prefer to advance to the national championship race the old-fashioned way, with an automatic bid.
“We feel good about the criteria points we’ve earned this season, but we’d really prefer not to go that route,” women’s coach Laurie Henes says. “It’s much easier on everyone to earn an automatic bid.”
Prior to the ACC Championships, men’s head coach Rollie Geiger laid out the basic strategy for a successful cross country performance — one or two athletes penetrating deep into the lead group at a race, with the remainder of the team running in a closely knit group not too far from the lead group.
That’s exactly the formula the Wolfpack men used in winning the conference championship. Senior Ryan Hill, a two-time All-American, and sophomore Andrew Colley finished first and second, and the next five Wolfpack runners finished in the top 20, giving State a narrow four-point victory over Florida State.
“We’ve had talent up front in the past, but these two (Hill and Colley) are special athletes,” Geiger says. “Those two are our lead wolves, no doubt about it. There is tremendous individual talent in this region, but those two are definitely capable of penetrating deep into that front group. After that, how we do will depend on how well that next group runs behind them.”
Hill is NC State’s first individual men’s conference champion since Chris Kollar in 2007. The 1-2 finish by Hill and Colley was the first for the Wolfpack since Andy Smith and Chad Pearson finished first and second in 2003. That team went on to win the Southeast Regional and finish 10th nationally.
Geiger would never connect the dots from 2003 to his current group. One has nothing to do with the other. Like that ‘03 team, however, this year’s NC State men’s squad is a veteran unit, deep, talented and experienced. As with any coach, Geiger, in his 30th year as head coach, believes there is no substitute for experience.
“Of our top seven guys, two are in their third year, two are in their fourth year, and three are in their fifth year,” Geiger says. “I think most coaches would think experience matters, and we’ve got 29 years of experience in our lineup, which is almost as much as the head coach.”
That last remark from Geiger came with a laugh, but this year’s Wolfpack has been no laughing matter. With Hill leading the way, the men have been the top-ranked team in the Southeast Region the entire season, which guarantees nothing. NC State must continue to run well in order to win, and even that might not guarantee a regional championship.
Teams don’t play defense in cross country and there are several teams in this regional capable of winning on Saturday.
“There are so many talented individuals from a number of schools in this region, and that’s in addition to all the very talented teams,” Geiger says. “Louisville is very good and they’re at home. Eastern Kentucky has a terrific squad. Then you have the schools from our conference, Duke, UNC, Virginia Tech and Virginia. Throw in William & Mary and you have a really deep and talented field.”
The NC State women got off to a slow start in 2011, but have run impressive races the last two times out, both against standout competition. The women finished 12th at the Wisconsin Invitational in a field that featured half of the nation’s top 30 teams, then tied for third with Virginia in the conference championship in a field that featured five ranked squads.
Despite the strong finishes the last two races, Henes’s team still is not quite firing on all cylinders, which should auger well for the remainder of the year. Senior Andie Cozzarelli and freshman Joanna Thompson have been solid all season, but the group behind those two, while talented and deep, has been inconsistent.
Laura Hoer and Erin Mercer are veteran performers who could make invaluable contributions. Hoer, who won the individual ACC and regional championships during an All-America campaign a year ago as a true freshman, is just now beginning to round into form after missing the first two races of the season. Mercer, a junior, ran very well at Wisconsin but fell off the pace a bit at the ACC Championships.
Kenyetta Iyevbele and Tiayonna Blackmon both have shown signs of breakthroughs this season while making the transition from middle-distance races in track and field. Samantha Norman, a transfer from Kentucky in her first year competing for the Pack, also is just rounding into form after missing the early races.
“There were times the last few years when we felt good one through three, but getting a fourth and a fifth runner was a problem,” Henes says. “This year, with Andie and Joanna, and now hopefully Laura, we should be very good up front. We need strong races from from that second group, and they're really capable.”
North Carolina, Virginia and Clemson are ranked 2-3-4 in the regional, which gives the field some familiarity for the Wolfpack. State has beaten UNC and Clemson twice — at Wisconsin and the ACC race — and tied with Virginia at the ACC Championships.
“I’ve told them, we don’t have to do anything differently than we’ve done the last two races,” Henes says. “We’re as good as any team in this regional. I want to get our front group used to running a little more together, but really, they’ve only had one race together, and that was ACCs. We need for them to run like they did in the conference meet and for our second group to continue to close the gap between themselves and the front group. If we do that — and I believe we can — we can be a very good team.”