WALLA WALLA — The signs are all positive as the Whitman College cross country teams take dead aim at outrunning their successes from a year ago.
A strong senior class leads the nationally-ranked women’s squad while the men’s group figures to be stronger with a welcome influx of freshman talent.
"We’re really excited about who we have on our teams, where the program is headed and the progress we’ve made over the past four years," Whitman coach Malcolm Dunn said. "I’m excited to see what both teams can do. Regardless of the numbers or the finishes, I’m anticipating a very positive season."
Feeding that anticipation is what appears to be the numbers, particularly on the women’s side of the ledger.
The opening roster overflows with 25 women, including all seven athletes who ran at last fall’s NCAA Division III regional meet.
The roster numbers are healthy as well on the men’s side, where 16 runners include five of Whitman’s seven regional representatives from a year ago.
The first signs of a stronger season ahead were on display at last Saturday’s team time trial, where a greater number of runners, male and female, finished with their respective lead packs.
"We’re really thrilled with how both the men and women seem to be a step ahead of where they were last year, based on their summer training," Dunn said.
Dunn isn’t the only one in tune with Whitman’s rising cross country fortunes. Preseason polls released last week by the U.S. Collegiate Track Field and Cross County Coaches Association gave the Whitman women a No. 1 ranking in the West Region and slotted the Missionary men as the No. 10 team in the West.
The national coaches association also released its first NCAA Division III national poll last week, plugging the Missionary women into the 20th spot. That is four notches better than Whitman’s national preseason ranking last year.
While regional and national rankings are nice, Dunn hopes his runners focus on each race and on progression of the season as it plays out.
"Every meet is just as important as the next one and the previous one," he said. "If we focus on the process of racing and the training and set our goals accordingly, then we don’t need to worry about performance or results," he said.
"Many teams say ‘Well, we have to finish in the top two,’ or ‘we have to get this particular place,’ or ‘we have to have these types of times,’" Dunn notes.
"But if you focus on the time, the place and the score, then you often end up losing the feel for why you’re running in the first place — the challenge of pushing faster and going harder than you’ve ever run before."
As it does every year, Whitman’s training regimen points to the Northwest Conference Championships, slated this fall for Saturday, Oct. 31. Dunn wants his runners peaking for that race and the regional and national championship meets that follow shortly thereafter.
"We aim to be in top form toward the end of the season," Dunn said. "We set up our training up so that we’re just starting to hit peak performance at the conference meet. Then we want to stay in top form for the next two or three weeks."
For Dunn Co., the season begins Saturday, with the annual Whitman Invitational at Fort Walla Walla Park. The women run 4,000 meters, starting at 10:45 a.m. The men’s 6,000 meters follows with an 11:15 start time.
The Missionary women open the season with the same goal — qualifying as a team for the national championships — they’ve had for the past few years.
They came ever so close to that goal last season, after finishing in tie for second place at the conference championships and placing a strong fourth at regionals.
Expectations of an at-large berth at nationals failed to materialize, however, and that sour taste of disappointment fuels a renewed effort this fall.
Leading the charge is a talented foursome of junior Kristen Ballinger and seniors Sara McCune, Yasmeen Colis and Michela Corcorran.
As the 2008 season came to a close, Ballinger was the lone Missionary to qualify for nationals as an individual. She placed eighth at regionals and then finished 107th in a field of 279 runners at nationals.
McCune, a second-year captain, earned all-region honors last fall, along with Ballinger, Colis and Corcorran.
While the men’s team lacks a deep group of seniors, it has the makings of such a group with its six incoming freshman, many of whom Dunn believes could break into the top seven right away.
"We knew we were going to be strong on the women’s side, but we’ve been looking in recent years for a good core of freshmen," Dunn said. "I think we’ve finally found that group with this really strong group of incoming freshmen.
"This group is comparable to where our senior women were four years ago, and they have the potential to make the same kind of contributions to our program," he said.
The freshmen showed some of that potential at last Saturday’s time trial. Of the nine runners in the lead pack, four were rookies.
Senior Matthew Kelly, a team captain, took first in the time trial. Freshmen Alfredo Villasenor and Corey Rand finished second and fourth, respectively, with junior Dan Luecke, placing third.
Dunn expects to see Kelly, an all-region performer last fall, run at the front for Whitman for most of the season.
Look for junior Sam Hennessey to fill the second spot in the Missionary pecking order. Luecke and senior Curtis Reid, another team captain, are also prime candidates for regular spots in the team’s top seven.