Courtesy: Larry Johnson (GoVandals.net)
|Men's XC looks to climb|
MOSCOW, Idaho – Four key seniors graduated, but that doesn’t mean the young University of Idaho men’s cross country team is ready to write off 2012 as a rebuilding year.
Led by seniors Barry Britt and Jeff Osborn, Idaho starts the season as a bit of an unknown commodity. Britt is the Western Athletic Conference’s top returner in 2012, but with a roster built of three true freshmen, two redshirt freshmen, one sophomore and two seniors, experience is at a premium and potential is through the roof.
Graduated seniors Markus Geiger, Jeremiah Dubie, Stephane Colle and James Clark were a big reason why Idaho has maintained its status as a regular top-three WAC men’s program and why the Vandals also have spent a fair amount of time in regional rankings.
The level of respect for the program is a reason why the Vandal men open the season at the No. 15 spot in the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association West Region rankings. Britt, a 2010 USTFCCCA All-Region pick, said it’s a tribute to the standards established by Idaho director of track and field/cross country Wayne Phipps and previous Vandal runners.
“I think it just shows how much coach Phipps has done to build this program to be gutted from graduation and still be top-15 in the West, and our region is no joke,” Britt said. “It shows how far we’ve come.”
To maintain that status, Britt said he and Osborn have taken on strong, but opposing, leadership roles in leading the young team. The Eastern Canada native Britt prefers to lead by example, while Osborn, of Gig Harbor, Wash., is the more vocal Vandal senior.
“I’m kind of quiet – I just do my work and I hope that people see that,” Britt said. “Hopefully, they can see the hard work I put into the running, but also all the little stuff that they can pick up and put into their training.”
Phipps said that Osborn has made large strides in each of his first three seasons athletically, and that he has also seen a parallel improvement in confidence and mentality.
“Along with the improvements in his running, he’s also taken on a bit more of a leadership role,” Phipps said. “He knows the ins and outs of our program, so he’s a guy I can always count on to make sure the guys are organized and ready when I’m not around.”
Britt was Idaho’s top runner four times in six races in 2011, including his runner-up finish at the WAC Championships and his 30th-place finish at the NCAA West Region Championships. His cross country experience also includes time representing the Canada Senior National Team at the North American, Central American and Caribbean (NACAC) Championships and the IAAF World Cross Country Championships.
Osborn has been a regular in Idaho’s five scoring positions over the last two seasons and he hopes to make the next jump forward in his final season. In helping Idaho to its first WAC indoor and outdoor track and field titles last season, Osborn earned his first career First-Team All-WAC honor with a third-place mile finish indoors.
Sophomore Cayle Turpen competed in cross country and track and field for Idaho as a freshman, while freshman Colton Hastings redshirted cross country and earned Second-Team All-WAC honors indoors in the mile run. Phipps said both have made major improvements over the summer and will be strong breakout candidates this fall.
“Cayle has made so much improvement over last year, and not just from cross country to now, it’s just from outdoor track to now,” Phipps said. “Colton progressed very well throughout last season and he has continued that over the summer and into this season.”
When they signed with Idaho in the spring, Phipps wasn’t shy about the talent level of freshmen Santos Vargas and Will Austin-Cray. Vargas comes in after finishing 2012 ranked among the nation’s top 1600m and 3200m runners. He helped Yakima’s Eisenhower High School snap a 22-year Spokane-area cross country stranglehold when the Cadets claimed the 2010 Washington 4A team title.
Austin-Cray was among the top middle-distance runners in Australia last season, and his times would have also ranked among the top 30 in America among high school runners. He also has the added benefit of running at several large regional meets in his home country.
They’ll be joined by redshirt freshman Kasey Hattrup and true freshman walk-on Tyler Jaszkowiak, who won four Idaho state titles at Challis High School (Challis, Idaho) between cross country and track.
“My feeling is that if we continue to work the way we’re working right now and we continue making those improvements we’ve had since last fall, we’re going to be a very good position,” Phipps said about the progression of his young runners. “We’ll do a little bit of learning along the way, so I think you’ll see some inconsistency as we make the transition up to the 8k distance and then to competing at a high level at that distance.”
Phipps also said that the team’s experience in claiming first the WAC indoor track and field title, then following it up with the outdoor team title last season, has given the team and entirely new perspective.
“On the men’s side, it had been a while since we won anything, so once we won indoors, it just became contagious,” Phipps said. “They took that into the outdoor season and really excelled, and they know what it takes to win. Now they’re super excited and motivated to go do it again.”
The Vandal men hope that consistent improvement leads to a bigger breakthrough. Idaho men’s cross country bears the standard at Idaho with a department-best 11 team conference titles in program history – but the team hasn’t struck gold since 1965 in the Big Sky, despite coming very close on several occasions in the WAC.
Britt said that already, the newcomers and young runners have viewed the openings in the roster as opportunities – not shortcomings.
“I’ve seen a lot of eagerness from the younger guys,” Britt said. “They know that void is there and everyone really wants to step up. Everybody is really eager to play their part and make this team work.”
The team opens its season this weekend at the Clash of the Inland Northwest, where Phipps said he’ll send mostly a group of younger runners to get their first competition in a more low-key setting. The meet will take place at Spokane, Wash., at Mead High School, and will feature groups from Washington State, Eastern Washington, Gonzaga and Whitworth.