MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. – One of the strategic elements during a cross country season is tempering the amount of energy athletes exert early in the season so they are ready to fire on all cylinders at the championship meets later in the year.
Central Michigan’s top cross runners have partaken in just four meets this season and have had an off week in between each race in order to keep their legs fresh for the big meets.
Well, the big meets are officially here.
The Chippewas will travel to Oxford, Ohio to take part in Saturday’s Mid-American Conference Championships, hosted by Miami (Ohio).
The men will run first at 11 a.m., and will be part of a nine-team field with Akron, Bowling Green, Buffalo, Eastern Michigan, Kent State, Ohio, Toledo and the host RedHawks.
Eastern Michigan and Miami are the perceived favorites in the men’s race, as they went 1-2, respectively, in last year’s MAC Championships. The Eagles are fourth and Miami is 10th in the NCAA Great Lakes Region. EMU has also received votes in the NCAA Top 25 Coaches Poll.
CMU men’s coach Matt Kaczor knows his team is flying under the radar, but believes his runners can make some noise if they can tighten up their pack.
The top teams “aren’t going to take us seriously yet,” said the fifth-year coach. “We need to put together a performance like we did at the (Michigan State) Spartan, where our gaps were a lot smaller. We know that Logan (Kleam) is going to spread us out a little bit, but if we can keep our No. 2 through our No. 5 (runners) together, you’re starting to talk about gaining on Eastern and Miami.”
As Kaczor alluded to, the men’s team’s lowest spread came at the Michigan State Spartan Invitational where CMU’s No. 1 and No. 5 runners finished just 20 places and 38.5 seconds apart.
Kleam, a freshman, has been the Chippewas’ No. 1 runner throughout the season and could be a surprise top finisher at the MAC meet. Kleam went from an 8K personal best of 25 minutes, 38.3 seconds at the Spartan Invitational to 24:38.4 at the Greater Louisville Classic to 24:33.5 at the adidas Pre-National Invitational. For reference, EMU’s Nick Raymond was last year’s individual MAC champion with a time of 25:10.0.
The women’s 6K race, scheduled to start at noon, will feature entries from all 12 MAC programs.
Taylor Aguillon and Megan O’Neil have led the CMU women all year and will be called upon to do so again on Saturday.
Aguillon’s season – and career – began with a MAC Runner of the Week honor for her runner-up finish at the Jeff Drenth Memorial, her first collegiate event. She followed that up with a seventh-place finish out of more than 300 runners at the Spartan Invitational.
Then, after having an off-race at the Greater Louisville Classic, Aguillon bounced back in a big way at Pre-Nationals, running 6K in 21:03.8, the third-fastest 6K time in the history of CMU women’s cross country.
The steady O’Neil, a junior from Stanwood, finished one spot behind Aguillon at the Drenth, and finished one spot ahead of her at the Spartan Invitational. She displayed her veteran poise at the Greater Louisville Classic 5K, taking 45th place with a time of 17:26.5.
“They’re just such great leaders and grinders, and they’re so tough,” women’s coach Jenny Swieton said. “They just work so hard and they lead by example so well. They come in and work and they don’t make excuses when things don’t go right, and they both just have this ‘get it done’ mentality.”
Senior Hannah Davis slots in as the Chippewas’ No. 3 runner and further influences the team’s veteran core. CMU’s No. 4 and No. 5 runners are less concrete. Swieton has kept a close eye on potential suitors.
“I think Alexis Grandys has definitely officially grabbed one of those spots,” she said.
There are a slew of contenders vying to fill the other spots, including the likes of Sam Allmacher, Natalie Beaulieu, Ana Garcia and Paula Merino who, Swieton said, very likely would have finished among the Chippewas’ top five at the Pre-National had she run with the front-liners in the seeded race.
“The MAC meet is about pride,” Kaczor said. “No, it is not the end-all, be-all, and yes, there is still the (Nov. 10) regional meet to look forward to, but first you have to do your job and represent well at the MAC meet. It is our starting point with what we are trying to accomplish. Our first goal is always going to be to try to win this conference, and then move on from there.”