BLACKSBURG, Va. – The fall foliage is just past its peak here in Southwest Virginia, with the bright reds, yellows and oranges giving way to shades of brown.
It’s something of an ironic twist that the nationally-ranked Florida State cross country teams are here to begin their gradual, season-ending crescendo, which culminates with the NCAA Championships on Nov. 17.
“It’s time to light the fuse here, get after it, find out how good we are, walk away from it and see what we have to do for the bigger goal,” Florida State men’s coach Bob Braman said. “It doesn’t matter if I play it down. They’re going to go after this thing like its Florida-Florida State [football].”
Saturday morning’s Atlantic Coast Conference Championships, at Virginia Tech’s Smithfield Plantation course, mark the beginning of what is essentially a four-week championship season. In recent seasons, it is the place where the Seminoles have come to shine.
The top-ranked Seminole women, who have not lost an ACC team title since 2006, are once the heavy favorites to repeat. Coach Karen Harvey’s team returns five All-ACC performers from last year’s team, which matched a conference record for the losing winning total (20 points).
Veterans Amanda Winslow, the ACC individual runner-up in 2011, and Violah Lagat – the senior Seminole co-captains – are among a group of four individuals that Harvey believes can challenge for the overall title. Senior Kayleigh Tyerman and sophomore Colleen Quigley have consistently been at the front of the race pack this season. Senior Jessica Parry, a two-time All-ACC honoree who was fourth last season, has the fitness level and history of success to also be in that mix.
They are a veteran group that should be ready to handle the challenges presented by 11th-ranked Duke, No. 26 Boston College, as well as perennial challengers NC State and Virginia.
Harvey would like to see her top five finishers a little more closely bunched, which would bode well for the team’s long-term NCAA Championship aspirations. She is also using the meet to help her determine which runners will be on the starting line when FSU plays host to the NCAA South Regional meet on Nov. 9.
“There’s a lot of things going on, but our No. 1 goal is to win and it’s ACC week,” Harvey said. “I’m trying not to let them think about Nationals too much right now, but at the same time, we can’t use this as a stepping stone if we don’t look to be better than we were at Pre-Nationals.”
And Harvey is quick to mention that her team cannot take the competition for granted, despite its recent run of success, because Duke looms as a legitimate threat.
“If our girls don’t have a good day and focus the way they did at Pre-Nats, at the bare minimum, oh, yeah,” Harvey said. “It’s a smaller race. The mistakes cannot be big for us to win. Duke is a very good team and they are led by a very good runner [Juliet Bottorf] and also have a great freshman [Megan Deakins].”
Braman’s men are facing a bit more uncertainty. The Seminoles enter the meet as the ACC’s highest-ranked team, checking in at No. 14 nationally, but figure to face stiff challenges from No. 18 Duke, No. 21 Virginia Tech, defending champion NC State and Virginia.
The FSU men, who won the school’s first team title in 2010 and came up four points shy of repeating last season, have only finished outside the top two three times in the last nine years.
“It is about as close as you can get,” Braman said, sizing up the field. “If you just had to go off actual performance, to this point, you’d have to say us, Virginia Tech, Virginia and Duke. …
“We have a chance to put the pieces together and win this thing. If we’re healthy and running to our potential – everybody at their best – vs. everybody else at their best, we should win. But everybody has got a little ding.”
FSU seniors David Forrester and Wes Rickman, All-ACC performers on the 2010 championship team, have been training their way back into shape throughout the season after suffering spring injuries. Fortunately, junior Jakub Zivec and senior Breandan O Neill having provided rock-solid leadership at the front of the pack all year.
The Seminoles’ depth, perhaps as good as it has been since Braman took over the program in 2000, could well be a key.
“Everybody seems to have a key guy out, except Virginia Tech,” he added. “ So everybody is kind of missing one piece. What do you have at the back end? How can you make it happen? …
“It’s not too bizarre to think [Josh] Gracia and [Will] Bridges are good enough to beat a scorer from the teams that we’re chasing.”
Zivec and O Neill figure to be in the thick of a lead pack that will likely include Virginia Tech’s Will Mulherin, Virginia’s Mark Amirault and Zach Gates, along with 2011 runner-up Andrew Colley from NC State.
On the women’s side, Harvey has issued a challenge to her lead runners: Run for the individual victory.
“The race for the individual title is going to be awesome; maybe the best it has been for a while,” Harvey said. “We haven’t won that individual title for three years and that really bugs me. I really feel like this is our year to take it back.”
Susan Kuijken strung together three consecutive individual titles for the ‘Noles (2007-2009)
“There are at least three other individuals from other schools that could win the individual title, other than our four,” said Harvey, identifying Duke’s Bottorf, Virginia’s Catherine White, North Carolina’s Lianne Farber and NC State’s Joanna Thompson.
The action begins Saturday at 10 a.m. when the gun sounds to start the women’s 6-kilometer race over the rolling Smithfield Plantation course. The men, who will race 8 kilometers, follow at 10:50 a.m. You can follow the action via Twitter @FSU_XCountry, or at the following: