Months after its usual date, the American Athletic Conference (AAC) will finally host its cross country conference meet in Wichita, Kansas. On Feb. 6, the University of Memphis men’s and women’s cross country teams will toe the line in what could be their final race of the season.
Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the NCAA has raised the stakes of their conference championships. In lieu of a separate regional final, the only way to qualify for the national championships is to take the conference title as a team or win, outright, as an individual.
On the men’s side, Tulsa is the favorite to take the conference title, for the sixth time in a row since joining the AAC. Once a young team, the Memphis men now boast a strong top three composed of juniors Payton Gleason, Tate Wyatt and Zach Wyatt, who are looking to keep the fight for second place close.
“[Tulsa is] the team that everyone is gunning for and respects. If you’re near them, you’re running really well,” Gleason said. “Cincinnati is great, Wichita State is great and so are we. We can fight for second place.”
Although that group is competitive against the rest of the conference, they will be without three of their supporting cast due to injury. Without the normal faces on the starting line, the Tigers will look to some of their younger runners to step up. This cast will include sophomores Jason Doland, Max Rathburn, Bradley Turner and Peter Kostarellis, as well as freshmen Vincent Chenier and Liam Walsh.
“[The injuries] hurt us big time, but we are going to have to rely on our younger guys to step up,” said distance Coach Ken Frenette. “Regardless of the circumstances, we have to race with what we have and those guys are going to have to perform.”
Walsh, who is returning from a 10-day injury, will be toeing the line for the first time in a Memphis singlet.
“For my first collegiate cross country race, it’s a little daunting,” Walsh said regarding Saturday’s race. “I have just been trying to keep an open mind and know that I have nothing to lose in this race.”
Frigid temperatures, lowering to nine degrees Fahrenheit; strong winds, with gusts up to 20 miles per hour; and snow will greet the team as they exit the bus that morning. However, Gleason does not believe this will negatively affect the team.
“We have a core of guys from the north — guys from Canada, Michigan, Illinois and New York, so I think we will be right back in our element when the gun goes off,” he said.
Gleason finished with All-Conference honors last year and said that he hopes to see some of his other teammates, Zach and Tate specifically, meet him on the podium this year.
The women’s side faces a different challenge this season. After losing two seniors in Paige Sandwell and Gabrielle Byndas, along with Callie Frisk transferring, they will be lining up with a team of sophomores (Chablis Shreffler, Brooke Mussche, Chloe Figgins, Sonsoles Martin Rodriguez and Lauren Metzger) and only two juniors (Solstice Saliba and Madi Ray).
Age and experience at the collegiate level might seem like a challenge to most, but Chloe Figgins – a sophomore from St. Charles, Missouri – believes it could become an advantage on the course.
“I feel like having a young team is better because nobody has a bad experience weighing themselves down before the race,” she said. “We all have an open mind because we don’t know exactly what to expect.”
Metzger from Missouri City, Texas, another sophomore on the team, will be racing for the second time this season. She faced injuries her freshman year and was only able to compete twice that year. This season, with a healthy block of training, she has seen herself make an impact on the team.
“I finally have the chance to get out and compete, so this is exciting for me,” she said. “I ended up placing as one of our top five runners two weeks ago, so I really just want to score again and continue to contribute to our team Saturday.”
Coach Frenette drew some similarities between the men and women’s challenges this weekend. Both will enter with a strong front pack, but will need the support of their teammates to see success.
“The name of the game is going to be pack running because that is when we are at our most competitive,” he said. “The weather will be gritty in Wichita, but Memphis is a gritty place too – and we are Memphis. That’s what our team is about.”