Sept. 5, 2002
As the Arizona State men's and women's cross country programs enter their 2002 seasons, their rosters are as different as two sides of a coin. On one side, the men return two-time All-American Fasil Bizuneh to guide a veteran squad with hopes of another berth into the NCAA championships on their minds. On the flip side of that coin is the women's team, which is youthful in nature. A year removed from their fourth NCAA appearance, the Sun Devil women have lost their top-four finishers from the NCAA meet and will rely on the strength of a talented recruit class to stay in the national spotlight.
Both teams have one constant, though: seventh-year head coach Walt Drenth. The engineer behind a steadily improving top-25 program, Drenth feels both squads are capable of improving upon their conference, regional and national placements from 2001.
The start of a new season brings a new schedule and set of expectations placed upon each team. For both squads, the expectations are the same.
"Our expectations are going to be higher than they were last year," Drenth said. "At this point, and from the perspective of our personnel, we are ahead of where we were last year. We have a couple of runners slowed by injuries, but once they are healthy, we will be much better."
Drenth designed a schedule that would challenge his runners and prepare them for the season.
"We try to compete with a purpose," Drenth said. "The meets I put on the schedule are either there to give some of the runners a chance for development or to prepare our elite group for the conference, regional and national meets.
"Our primary responsibility is to compete well as a group at the championship meets," Drenth said. "We have a schedule that I feel will give us an idea early in the season to see where we are and what we need to work on to better prepare for the end of the year."
Another expectation both teams carry with them is their finishing positions in the Pac-10 Championships.
"Both the men and women have the goal of being in the top-three in the conference standings," Drenth said. "That is the goal not only for this year, but for every year to follow. If we are as competitive this year as we were last year, we should be in the hunt for a conference championship."
Women's Cross Country Outlook
The roster for the women is 20 runners deep, with nine of those student-athletes falling into the category of 'newcomers' and 14 of the 20 Sun Devils being first or second year competitors for the team.
"I think this (the number of first and second year competitors on the team) is going to be a great measure of our program," Drenth said. "The challenge of this group is to get itself back to nationals and demonstrate they can be a national competitor year-in and year-out. Despite the fact we are young, I would hope their expectations are very high."
One reason Drenth feels they should set their expectations high is centered around the talented athletes he has brought in over the past two years.
"We have had two solid recruiting classes over the past two years and I think for them to be better competitors by the time they are juniors and seniors, they have to start strong now," Drenth said. "We need to be finishing about or higher than where we were at nationals a year ago with the expectation they can be consistently in the top-10 for the next few years. I think they have the talent to reach that level."
Gone from the team that finished 23rd at the NCAA Championships last year is the first ASU female cross country runner to earn All-America honors twice in a career, Lisa Aguilera, All-American Kelly MacDonald, and Brianna Torres, a top-10 finisher at the West Regional a year ago. This leaves the leadership role on the team open for the taking.
"This is a wide-open field for a team leader," Drenth said. "On paper, we return two athletes that placed in events at the conference track meets in Jennifer Hurbis and Cody Sohn. Those two should be our leaders, but anyone else could step up as well.
"We also have several redshirt-freshmen that we will look to help in a leadership role," Drenth said. "Mandi Fitz-Gustafson, Liz Lindgren and Amanda Lyon all broke through in their track events in the spring and I think that will translate into success on the cross country course.
Among the six returnees, Davila is the only runner with NCAA experience. She ran the national meet race in 23:08 to cross the finish line in 205th place. The recruit class of 2002 is again saturated with talent and that has Drenth believing his team will succeed again.
"The newcomer class this year is large and talented," Drenth said. "We have state champions in Jenny Aldridge (from California) and Amy Hastings (from Kansas). Jessica Scalza is another very good newcomer as well. Though she attended an art institution last year and did not compete, she comes in as one of the better runners on the team.
"Along with those three runners, we also have a few all-state athletes in Jennifer Stirling and Jenna Wreiden," Drenth said. "The future with all of these runners looks good." As the team prepares for the season, there is one question the women need to answer.
"The only question now is how close to the front of the race can ASU be?" Drenth said. "If we can be competitive at the front of the pack, we will do well this year. I think we will be competitive enough and place well at all our meets."
Men's Cross Country Outlook
After making just its second NCAA appearance in school history a year ago, the ASU men return their top guns in the hopes of running their final race of the 2002 season in Terre Haute, Ind., the site of the 2002 NCAA Championships. With a veteran team, the leaders are plentiful with two Sun Devils moving toward the front of the pack.
"Fasil is a two-time All-American and a Pac-10 runner-up," Drenth said. "He is going to set the standard for everybody on the team. If he is competing well, everyone will follow his lead and that will make us stronger.
"Juan Reyes, when he is healthy, is another strong contributor to this team," Drenth said. "He may be as good as any other cross country runner in the nation. I feel he is certainly one of the top-25 runners in the NCAA today. His work ethic is incredible and his well being will certainly affect our success."
Two men alone cannot win a team title for ASU. The other three scoring members of the team also will play an intricate role in the success of the Sun Devils this year.
"We have a large cast of successful athletes right behind our top guys," Drenth said. "If they can remain consistent throughout the fall, they should be able to surprise a lot of people. Some of those guys include Jeremy Rasmussen, a champion or runner-up at the conference track meet each year he has competed; Kris Alexander, an all-region runner; and JJ Duke, the Pac-10 newcomer of the year in 2001. I also can't forget Dan Maher. He leads a group of guys that has really improved throughout the spring and summer and should be a big contributor this year."
Behind the strong group of veterans is a talented core of newcomers that may have the ability to step in and have an immediate impact for ASU.
"I see three newcomers at this point in time that could step in and do well for us," Drenth said. "Aaron Aguayo, Pat Keller and Ryan Warrenberg add to the depth and talent level of this team. We can have one bad race and I know we have the talent to have someone step in and score well for the team."
Last year, Bizuneh led the team to a 20th -place finish at the NCAA meet, just the second time in history, and the second time in three years, a Sun Devil men's cross country team had reached the national meet.
"I would say the guys this year want to improve upon their finish at nationals from a year ago," Drenth said. "If we are healthy at the end of the year, I would expect they could be better than we had ever been in the past. They are very capable of that goal. Now, it is a matter of going out and competing like we can."