Courtesy: Spencer Farrin (Moscow, Idaho)
(L-R) Julia Veseth, Lauren Schaffer and Hannah Kiser
Cross Country earns rankings
Courtesy: Idaho Athletic Media Relations
          Release: 08/30/2011
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MOSCOW, Idaho – The University of Idaho men’s and women’s cross country teams open their season this weekend, and the two experience groups earned some recognition before the season even started earlier this week.

The U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA) announced its preseason regional rankings on Monday and tabbed the Vandal women at 14th in the West and projected the men at 15th.

“Any time we can be ranked in our region, it says a lot, because traditionally the West is one of the strongest in the nation,” Idaho Director of Track & Field/Cross Country Wayne Phipps said. “I think we have the capability to finish much higher than our preseason ranking would suggest. It’s nice to have just about everyone returning on both sides, as well as some strong additions for both teams.”

Idaho’s men return every runner from a year ago, including three-time first-team All-Western Athletic Conference honoree Markus Geiger, a senior, and junior Barry Britt, a 2010 USTFCCCA All-Region pick and first-team All-WAC honoree. The team’s solid supporting cast includes seniors Jeremiah Dubie, James Clark and Alex Brekke, and junior Jeff Osborn.

“It’s awesome having those two guys as our team leaders and being two of the best distance runners in the WAC, but our supporting crew is pretty impressive as well,” Phipps said. “Jeremiah Dubie performed well last year in track, and I’ve really been impressed with James Clark and Jeff Osborn and the work they put in this summer, so we’ll really be relying on those guys to perform this year.”

The Vandal women return 10 runners from last year’s WAC champion team, including its top two finishers, senior Lauren Schaffer and sophomore Hannah Kiser, who were both first-team All-WAC picks last season.

The Vandals will have to replace the strong production left behind by the graduation of 2010 second-team All-WAC seniors Maggie Miller and Erica Digby, but fourth-year runners Julia Veseth and Anna Kalbrener, along with junior Laurel Draper and sophomores Alycia Butterworth, Emily Paradis and Holly Stanton are up to the task.

“Losing Maggie and Erica, who had awesome seasons last year, is going to be tough to replace,” Phipps said. “A lot of the newcomers to our team last year made huge improvements throughout the year, so I think we do have all the pieces in place to be at least as good as we were last year.

“Everyone came back in great shape, and our sophomores have really done a great job in the last year of putting themselves into position to be important contributors to the team this year.”

Phipps says he expects the teams to also get a boost from a trio of international signees. Senior transfer Stephane Colle keeps alive Idaho’s string of impressive Canadian runners, while freshmen Benard Kigen and Purity Rotich are a pair of talented Kenyan runners who should give an immediate boost to the men’s and women’s programs, respectively.

“Stephane has a lot of experience running both cross country and track in Canada,” Phipps said. “He had a strong year last year on the track and we’re hoping that continues this year. Benard doesn’t have the race experience that Stephane has, but I still feel like he as the talent and abilities to be a strong contributor for us as a freshman.

“Purity is coming in kind of in the same situation as Benard. She’s a very talented young lady who doesn’t have a ton of racing experience, but who has the ability to make an impact immediately.”

Another key element in the team’s mental development over the last season, according to Idaho’s coach, is that so many of the young athletes performed at a high level right out of the gates, and maintained that success across multiple seasons.

“We did our evaluations at the end of the year and when I talked to them, they just expect to win every year,” Phipps said. “In their minds, they don’t know any differently and they carry that with them in practice, in competition and really everywhere.”

Perhaps Idaho’s most consistent distance runner over the past three seasons is Geiger, a senior who was honored as the WAC’s Freshman of the Year in both cross country and indoor track and field in 2008-09. He’ll try this season to become the first Vandal to claim four-straight first-team All-WAC honors in cross country.

In addition to his All-WAC and All-Region honors and his international cross country competition last season, Britt set two New Brunswick provincial records on the track and became the first Idaho men’s NCAA qualifier in the 5000m and the first Vandal male double-champion in the 5000m and 10,000m races outdoors.

Senior Lauren Schaffer rewrote the Idaho and WAC record books on the track last season in the 800m and was an NCAA quarterfinalist in the event, but those accomplishments slightly overshadowed a breakout year in cross country, during which she was Idaho’s top finisher twice, including a fourth-place finish at the WAC Championships.

Sophomore Hannah Kiser returns after putting together the top all-around performance by a WAC cross country/track and field freshman last season. In addition to her first-team All-WAC cross country honor, she won two indoor WAC titles, one outdoor crown and was an NCAA semifinalist in the 5000m outdoors.

Phipps said this weekend’s Inland Northwest Cross Country Classic is a low-pressure meet that gives his runners a chance to shake off the rust and get back into the competitive groove. It also gives him a chance to see how everyone has progressed over the summer and to evaluate some of the team’s newer runners.

“This first weekend, we’re just trying to get our feet wet a little bit and get back into race mode,” Phipps said. “We won’t really read into it a whole lot from a results standpoint, but it’s just nice to get an early race in.

“We utilize these early- to mid-season meets as indicators of how the team stacks up compared to last year, and if we need to make any adjustments to make sure we are the very best we can be when it’s time to compete for a WAC championship.”

Saturday’s meet will be hosted by Gonzaga and will also features teams from Whitworth, Community Colleges of Spokane and Eastern Washington. It will start at 10 a.m. (PT) at Spokane’s Mead High School.