The MC cross country program had a monumental day at the UAH Charger Invitational on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020. The women’s team finished second as they posted a school record team average time of 18:26. The men’s team finished third and posted their best team average time since 2018.
Freshman Kathy Hammond led the way for the Lady Choctaws, finishing in sixth place. Transfer Jazmin Hernandez finished right behind Hammond in seventh place. Madeline Campbell (11th), Emma Langley (12th), McKenzie Hargrove (13th), and Emily Berry (15th) all also finished inside the top 15. Those six plus Leslie Baxter, who finished in 23rd, all set their collegiate best times in the race.
On the men’s side in the 8K race, they were paced by junior Evan Del Rio, who finished in fourth place with his collegiate best time of 24:38. Gabe Poulin (24th), Cole Benoit (32nd), Brock Kelly (33rd), Jake Russell (34th), Caleb Hall (42nd), and Alec Beers (43rd) rounded out the top seven for the Choctaws. The race marked a collegiate best time for Benoit and Russell, and it was the debut race for Kelly and Hall.
MC’s cross country head coach Matthew Reneker said he is “really excited about what our programs did. Historic bests, school record in the men’s event and the women’s event, best team average on the men’s and women’s. I think that was really set up by the leadership on both sides. Evan (Del Rio) was very confident when he went out there. Jake (Russell) and Alec (Beers) did a good job of running the playset that we had prescribed for them. On the women’s side, Maddie (Campbell) and McKenzie (Hargrove) were fantastic with their poise. Then the youth of the program brought the tenacity in the middle of the race, and I’m super excited about that.”
Due to COVID-19, the teams are competing in a truncated season, which has cut the team’s schedule down to three total regular season meets and then the Gulf South Conference championships at the end of October. Reneker says he believes a mix of the shortened season, plus the talent and experience on the team, will allow them to push more aggressively towards competing for wins.
He added, “We are now transitioning from trying to make sure that we get a fourth place or a third place to trying to take a stab and see if we can knock out the goliaths of the conference. When I talk with my upperclassmen, we are definitely setting goals to see if we can go and start chipping away at the conference powers, which are also national powers. …When it comes to years past, we might’ve played it safer and tried going for a third or fourth place finish, and now the upperclassmen are definitely talking about ‘why not us, let’s take a shot at this and see what happens’. I think the leadership on the team has the confidence in themselves. I’m not going to tell them what they can’t do. We’re going to keep training and keep grinding like we have been, and then on Oct. 31 when we show up to conference, we’re going to lay it all out there and give it our best shot.”
Reneker also mentioned how important execution will be as a result of having less races: “We have to make sure that every time that we get to a Saturday event, we’re executing at the highest level to make sure that we know what our game plan is going to be when it comes to our conference championship. We want to make sure that every athlete and every pack of athletes know exactly what their approach is so that we can try to beat our opponents.”
Looking back at the first meet in Huntsville, Reneker believes the team’s preseason preparation had them in a place to do well. He added, “I shouldn’t have been so surprised that we did so well because this is the best preparation that we’ve had in the four and a half years that I’ve been here. I think the conference took notice as well. I had several coaches contact me afterwards and congratulate us on how well we did. I think MC is definitely here.”
The teams will next be in action at the Fast Cats Classic hosted by Kentucky Wesleyan in Owensboro, KY, on Oct. 9.