Sept. 13, 1999
Tempe, Ariz. - One year ago, any observer of the Arizona State cross country program could clearly see the sun was about to rise on a new era. The Sun Devils, both men and women, enjoyed more success in 1998 than any previous season in Tempe. The accomplishments were many, but the sunrise has only begun.
"We're aware of our progress," says fourth-year head coach Walt Drenth, "but we're not satisfied."
The list of accomplishments last year is long. On the women's side, ASU made its first-ever NCAA Championships appearance, finishing in a tie for 23rd. Priscilla Hein, the only loss from last year's squad, became ASU's first female All-American in cross country. The Sun Devils were ranked for the first time ever, climbing as high as 14th in the FinishLynx poll. ASU improved from last in the Pac-10 to fourth, matching its highest finish ever, and from 10th to sixth at the NCAA West Regional, its best finish since 1986.
The men contributed to the parade as five freshmen and two sophomores propelled ASU from last to fourth in the Pac-10 (best finish ever) and from 11th to 8th in Regionals (best finish since 1986). Freshmen Juan Chavira, Isaiah Festa and Fasil Bizuneh each finished in the top 20 at the Pac-10 Championships. Chavira and Bizuneh also earned top-20 finishes at the regional championships, the first time since 1991 that any Sun Devil had accomplished that. Furthermore, Bizuneh and Festa went on to become the top two American finishers at the 1999 World Junior Championships.
"Having been in the back of the pack for so many consecutive years, I thought for us to finish fourth in the conference was a good stepping stone," said Drenth. "They could say, 'We can do this.' That, combined with the women's national showing, set a foundation and changed our level of expectations."
Those expectations include a top-20 NCAA finish for the women in 1999 and a trip to nationals for the men. Here's why ...
ASU returns six of its seven NCAA Championship runners from 1998. While Hein will me missed, ASU's top runner in 1997, junior Mary Duerbeck, returns to action after injury forced her to miss last year.
Drenth expects Duerbeck, junior Kelly MacDonald and sophomore Lisa Aguilera to take the lead for the Sun Devil women.
"I really believe that all three will be contenders for All-American honors," said Drenth. "Whether they make that or not, I definitely see them in the top 50 at nationals."
MacDonald was ASU's second-best finisher at five of seven meets in 1998, including a 15th-place showing at the league meet and a 20th-place regional finish. Aguilera, an eight-time state champion from Phoenix's Centennial HS, was consistently one of ASU's top three runners in 1998. She was ASU's second-best runner at the NCAA Championships, finishing 131st. She finished 29th at the Pac-10 Championships and 42nd at the NCAA regionals, both third-best on the squad. Duerbeck had five top-20 finishes in 1997, including a individual title at the ASU Invitational and a 14th-place finish at Pac-10s. She missed the 1998 season after surgery on her left foot.
As important as those three are to the success of this year's squad, so will the depth provided from the second tier of runners on this year's squad. Junior Amy Maciasek, sophomore Kristin McFerron, junior Nicole Simmons and sophomore Cody Sohn all return after running for ASU in all three championship meets last year (Pac-10, NCAA Regional, NCAA). In addition, junior college transfers Colleen Burke and Briana Torres plus freshman Cynthia Atencio will challenge the returners.
"That depth is going to be huge for us," said Drenth. "It will take the pressure off me if we need to rest someone and it will also take some pressure off of each other."
The momentum begun last fall carried through to the track season as well as this summer. MacDonald provisionally qualified for the NCAA Championships in both the 3,000 and 5,000 meters with times that rank among the best in ASU history (16:42.19 5K ranks sixth, 9:25.61 3K ranks fourth). She competed in the 3,000m prelims at the Outdoor Championships in Boise, Idaho. Duerbeck narrowly missed posting provisional marks in the 5,000 (16:53.26) and 10,000 (35:45.47).
"I think the expectations have to be higher," said Drenth. "We were pretty good last fall and granted, we lost Priscilla, but Mary will rise to the challenge. More importantly, for us to improve the people who are here had to get better. They did and that makes the foundation for the program considerably stronger than it was last fall."
The promise of the best recruiting class in the nation of 1998 turned into reality last year as five freshmen joined two sophomores to produce ASU's most successful season ever. As with the women, ASU's men have improved depth in 1999 and some experience in the form of Garrett Jensen, a senior transfer from Dartmouth.
Jensen was part of Dartmouth's 15th-place showing at last year's NCAA Championships, finishing 207th overall in a time of 33:36.4. He owns the third-fastest 1000m mark (2:24.41) and the fourth-fastest 1500m time (3:45.7) in Dartmouth history and was a second-team All-Ivy league and first team All-East selection during the 1999 track season.
"I don't expect him to run number one," said Drenth. "We'll hopefully have some interchanging at the top, but it will consistently be among three or four guys. One person won't have to shoulder the entire responsibility."
The sophomore trio of Fasil Bizuneh, Juan Chavira and Isaiah Festa were consistently ASU's best runners a year ago and will be again in 1999. Chavira was ASU's top finisher in five of the six meets he ran, including a 14th-place finish at the Pac-10 Championships and an 18th-place showing at the NCAA Regionals. He had five top-20 finishes and three top-10 showings over the course of the whole season.
Bizuneh also had five top- 20 finishes in 1998 and finished 20th at both the Pac-10 and NCAA West Regional Championships. Festa finished 15th at the Pac-10 meet and 35th in regionals. Bizuneh and Festa's most impressive work came during the winter and spring as both were still young enough to compete as juniors. Festa finished third and Bizuneh fourth at the United States Junior National Championships, earning each the right to compete at the World Championships. At that meet in Belfast, they were the top two American finishers as Bizuneh finished 25th and Festa 30th.
"We have some good national and international experience that we'll benefit from," said Drenth. "Granted, it would be nice to have a senior leader with a ton of experience, but we kind of do in Garrett."
Sophomores Kris Alexander and Ron Buchanan plus juniors David Burke and Brandon Strong were part of ASU's top seven a year ago and sophomore Joe Agostinelli and juniors David Grex and Charles Sharpe showed potential a year ago. That group along with junior college transfer Cheyne Jones and redshirt freshman Jeremy Rasmussen are expected to compete throughout the season for the right to represent ASU come championship time in late October and early November.
"It's kind of a gray area right now because I can't really sort out the top seven," said Drenth. "But, I can tell you we're better than last year. Our depth will be closer to the front."
The big picture has shown a brilliant sunrise, but there is still a lot of work to be done for ASU's cross country program to reflect the clear skies that can be seen out the window on pretty much any day in Tempe.
"We're still in a state of transition, although it's on solid ground," said Drenth. "We have a good group of athletes on both sides of the program and our expectations have to be high. There was a sense of urgency and anticipation last year that doesn't quite exist this year. I think they understand better what a full season will be like, what their roles and responsibilities are. They also understand that if our expectations aren't high, we will not get better. They have to be high individually and of each other, not of where we finish. We can't control where we finish, all we can do is run fast.
"It's very possible for us to improve nationally and not move up in the conference. There is not a team I can look at in the Pac-10 and not worry about. That doesn't mean we're going to lay low and not try, but I don't have any control over the other teams. All we can do is compete and get ourselves better."
The progress is obvious, but the Sun Devils aren't satisfied.