Preview: Cross Country Ready to Build on Fast Start

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Muhlenberg cross country teams haven’t been in competition since opening the season at the Lehigh Invitational a full three weeks ago. Closing in on the closest thing they’ll have to a home meet all year, it’s safe to say this pack of Mules is eager to return to familiar ground.

Luke Munyan
Munyan was Muhlenberg's second finisher at last year’s NCAA Mideast Regional.
Tomorrow’s Cedar Crest/Muhlenberg Invitational offers the Mules a chance to perform in front of friends and family. Though the squads have had an extended time off, they’ve been far from idle. Running on their ’home’ course at Cedar Crest is the perfect chance to work off some of that restless energy.

“It’s a lot of fun because our friends and family are able to come,” said senior co-captain Nicki Cronin. “We should be able to stack up well against the rest of the competition.”

So far, the Mules have shown they stack up nicely. The men finished fourth in the opening meet, outdistancing three Division I programs and all but one Division III school and blowing last year’s eighth-place showing out of the water. The women, meanwhile, were also the top Division III entrant, taking sixth place among 13 teams on a brutally humid day.

“It was definitely a good start,” said Cronin, who came in fifth out of 137 runners to post the second-best finish at the event in Muhlenberg history. “For us to come out on such a hot day and still perform the way we did was great.”

Though it seems like so long ago to the runners, Muhlenberg’s strong start hasn’t been forgotten. Heading into Saturday’s meet, both squads are ranked in the first U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association poll of the season. The men, ranked ninth, are in the regional rankings for the first time since 2010, while the women are 10th and ranked for the third straight year.

Saturday’s meet, then, is a chance to continue the upward trend and keep the momentum going as the season starts to heat up, with more regularly scheduled meets soon giving way to the Centennial Conference Championships and NCAA Mideast Regional in November.

After finishing fifth at last year’s CC Championships and 15th at regionals, the men have their sights set higher this time around.

Chelsea Rivenbark
Rivenbark was the fourth Mule runner across the finish line at the Lehigh Invitational.
“We’d like to be ahead of that,” said senior co-captain Charlie Kline. “We want to be in the top four in the conference and the top 10 in the region. It’s all about staying healthy and focused the whole season.”

With six of their top seven from last year’s regionals back to go along with a promising showing at Lehigh, the Mule men are as confident as they’ve been in some time.

A big reason for that was the performance of Luke Munyan. The junior, who took turns at the head of the pack with Kline a year ago, came in 21st at the Lehigh meet and has solidified himself as the Mules’ top runner with Kline still recovering from injury.

“I’d like to think I’d beat him if I was back,” Kline said with a laugh.

The top seven showed plenty of balance behind Munyan in the opener, with freshman Jaryd Flank, junior Josh Elkan and sophomore Stephen Sroka all finishing within 10 seconds of the Mules’ pace-setter. Elkan was particularly impressive, improving his time from last year by more than 47 seconds. Junior Zach Lifman, senior Bobby McGetrick and junior Kenny Wohl are back, and Kline expects to return next month. Senior Jarrett Felix, along with Kline, is serving as co-captain for the second straight season.

“Our team is mostly upperclassmen, but there should be one or two underclassmen mixing in our top five,” Kline said. “From last year, the guys who raced had big improvements for the most part. We saw that we were the top Division III team, and we beat Moravian pretty handily, which is big for us ... It was really encouraging.”

The Mule women, meanwhile, are hoping tomorrow’s meet will be a stepping stone on the way to another successful season. Muhlenberg, which returns four of its top seven from regionals a year ago, is targeting another top-four finish at the CC meet, and hopes to hold down a top-10 position throughout the year in a difficult region.

“We would love to match that,” Cronin said of the Mules, who finished fourth at the CC Championships and eighth at regionals a year ago. “Our conference and our region are really strong. We’re just going to see as the year goes on where exactly we stand.”

Cronin has already shown she can match up with anyone. Fortunately for the Mules, her teammates are looking pretty good, too.

Sophomore Melanie Tramontina was impressive in producing a 21st-place showing, second behind only Cronin among Division III entrants and more than a minute ahead of her time from last year. Senior co-captain Ramzy Burns and junior Chelsea Rivenbark return to the top seven, while senior Lauren Zakheim and freshman Cassandra Baker have also earned spots in that group. Sophomore Claire Thornton, who had to drop out of the opener because of the heat, also figures to be one of the Mules’ top runners.

“Melanie and Claire, I think, are going to have great years,” Cronin said. “Ramzy, Lauren, and Chelsea should too, and we have some great freshmen that have been surprising me. We have a good team all around.”

And under the direction of new head coach Steve Finley, an All-American at the University of Virginia and again at the University of Oregon, the Mules feel they’re getting the best instruction around.

“He knows a lot of stuff,” Kline said. “He has a lot of experience, and he can tell us things that the top Olympians are doing. That makes us want to work even harder.”

So far, so good for both teams. After a long hiatus, it’s time to hit the ground running.