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Commentary for the course: Men’s and women’s cross country gear up for last home meet

<p>Payton Gleason, a three time all-conference veteran, will headline the Tigers on the men's side this year.</p>
Payton Gleason, a three time all-conference veteran, will headline the Tigers on the men's side this year.

Approaching their third competition of the season, the men’s and women’s cross country team is preparing to race their final Memphis-based meet of the season. The Tigers have toed the line twice so far this season, debuting at the Memphis Twilight Classic at the Mike Rose Soccer Complex in Collierville and the North Alabama Invitational in Florence, Alabama.

Saturday morning will see the Tigers hit the course at Shelby Farms for the Rhodes College Invitational, the site of the 2019 American Athletic Conference Championships. The event will pit the Tigers against regional rivals Arkansas State and the University of Tennessee Martin. Local universities like Christian Brothers University and Rhodes College will also line up against the Tigers.

With two races under their belts and three more meets before the conference championships in Tampa, Florida, here are a few things to keep an eye on.

The formerly young men’s team returns experienced runners

On the men’s side, the team of underclassmen has grown into an experienced core of veterans. Headlining the senior class are Payton Gleason and Zach Wyatt. The duo have three all-conference titles each and 8 kilometer bests of 24:16 and 24:21. 

Less decorated than the previous, but with nearly as fast of an 8 kilometer personal best, is Tate Wyatt. He enters the season sporting a time of 24:26 over the distance and one all-conference title. 

Although classified as juniors, the trio will bring four years of experience due to the free year of eligibility from the coronavirus pandemic.

Following the veterans are Peter Kostarellis, Max Rathburn and Jason Doland. Kostarellis enters the season with a personal best of 25:29, but is yet to race this season. Rathburn and Doland both ran personal bests in their openers, hitting 25:28 and 25:43. The two of them are sure to make up the supporting cast this season, bringing in a strong supporting cast alongside the eventual return of Kostarellis.

Second years Vincent Chenier, Anton Michna and Liam Walsh will look to build on their rookie performances. Chenier scratched from last week’s 8 kilometer opener, but enters the season with a 25:55 personal best. 

Walsh, who made a late appearance last season due to an injury, exceeded expectations in his opener. The opener pushes him into contention with Chenier to move up into the supporting cast alongside Doland and Rathburn.

After missing his entire rookie season to an injury, Michna made his collegiate 8 kilometer debut last week. He blasted through the finish line in 25:35, a personal best, to cement his place in the supporting cast. True freshman Hudson Hurst also impressed in his Tiger debut, cruising his way to a 25:22 finish, rounding out the top ten male Tigers to keep an eye on.

Although Tulsa remains the conference favorite, the Tiger men sport a roster of extreme depth after their second year of losing zero graduates. That depth, although unlikely enough to unseat the reigning champions, poses a threat to any team in the conference. Sitting at a preseason regional ranking of 13, the Tigers are yet to put out a full lineup. Saturday’s race will see the closest to that this season, with the exception of Kostarellis.

The women’s team turns a new leaf

The Tiger women lost their star senior in Paige Sandwell last year, but show an upward trend. With multiple personal bests posted recently, the team is looking to find a group leader. But that might not be the key to their success.

Returning three upperclassmen in Solstice Saliba, Erin Gilbert and Madi Ray, there is no shortage of experience on the team. The trio sport 5 kilometer times of 18:35, 19:42 and 19:52 – respectively – with Saliba and Gilbert posting personal bests in their first two races this season. 

Also returning for their third years are Hannah Anderson, Brooke Calvo, Chloe Figgins, Lydia Kurfman, Sonsoles Martin Rodriguez, Lauren Metzger, Brooke Mussche, Chablis Schreffler and Emily Treptow. Anderson posted a personal best last week, running 19:02, proving to be in the mix of the core unit. 

Figgins also posted a personal best in her season opener, leading the Tiger women to a seventh place finish, running 18:18. Martin Rodriguez posted a personal best of her own at the North Alabama Invitational, cruising to an 18:51 finish. Metzger led the charge at the North Alabama Invitational with a best of her own, running 18:50. 

After a year of injuries, Kurfman is in the hunt to push into a supporting role. She opened her season, and collegiate cross country career, with a 19:57. She exited high school with a decorated resume, but has yet to impact the Tigers due to injuries.

The women also bring in freshmen Felicity Bost and Reezon Eke, both of whom will look to push that front group.

Although inconsistently led to this point in the season, that is where the strength of this women’s team lies. The constant competition will offer a venue for the women to advance as a pack and create a strong core of women throughout the season. In a similar nature to the men’s roster last season, the young core will have much room to develop under head coach Kenneth Frenette. Their keys to success this season will rest in pack running and injury prevention.

Payton Gleason, a three time all-conference veteran, will headline the Tigers on the men's side this year.

Solstice Saliba, one of three four-year veterans on the women's team, will be in a fight for the top spot. She is one of multiple women who have already posted personal bests this season.

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