September 15, 1998
TEMPE, Ariz. - The simple truth is that the sun will always come up tomorrow, no matter what has happened the previous day. However true that may be, the sun is quite a bit brighter for Arizona States cross country program as the 1998 season dawns this fall.
Since it began competing in the Pac-10, ASUs highest conference finish is fifth. The Sun Devil women have accomplished it twice (1986 and 1991) while the men have done it once (1986). The men have finished last in each of the last six years while the women have brought up the rear for three straight seasons.
Head coach Walt Drenth, in his third year at the helm of the program, is determined to change the traditions of Arizona State University. Armed with a full compliment of scholarships for the first time since he arrived in Tempe, Drenth recruited the best mens class in the country and dramatically improved the talent on the womens side as well.
Twenty-eight newcomers (18 men, 10 women) litter ASUs cross country roster. Three of the top five male seniors at last years Foot Locker High School Championships are now Sun Devils - Isaiah Festa, Fasil Bizuneh, and Ron Buchanan. Including those three, ASUs men have added 10 true freshmen, six junior college transfers and three more four-year college transfers.
ASUs women will have a lot of new faces as well. Nine true freshmen enter the program headlined by Peorias Lisa Aguilera, the Arizona state high school champion in cross country, the 800, 1600 and 3200 last year.
The unprecedented infusion of talent is a product of Drenths tireless efforts on the recruiting trail, although hes quick to deflect any credit.
"I dont think Ive been that successful, Ive just been able to demonstrate what Arizona State has to offer and positively communicate to them whats available here and their potential," said Drenth. "After I had been here six months and knew the paramaters, I told Coach Kraft that we can be anything we want. This place offers it for everyone. Thats all Ive pointed out. Look whats here!"
What Drenth has in Tempe is a talent level the Sun Devils have not known, but it is young talent competing in the toughest conference in America.
"Were improving," said Drenth. "This group of individuals, on both the mens and womens side, are going to help us make some big leaps. But, theyre freshmen. Theyre doubling the distance they have to compete. There are a lot of unknowns."
"But, their standard of expectation is high and thats the first step in getting good. What I have to do is make sure their expectations dont exceed reality. The bottom line here is that they came here to try to win and be as competitive as they can. In time, thats our expectation."
Youth might as well be Arizona States nickname because young is what the Sun Devils are. Of the 27 individuals on ASUs mens roster, 18 are freshman or sophomores and only two are seniors.
ASUs top returners are all sophomores. David Burke (San Diego, Calif.), David Grex (Burlington, Ill.), Phillip Prince (Mesa, Ariz.) and Brandon Strong (Phoenix, Ariz.) are all capable of contributing this season. Strong is considered the leader of the pack coming into the season after showing dramatic improvement on the track last year after finishing 54th in the Pac-10 meet and posting a season-best time of 26:18 at the ASU Invitational.
"While he was on the (cross country) varsity last year for every meet and earned a letter, I expect him to be considerably more competitive in the Pac-10 than he was last year," said Drenth. "I look to him to be our leader in some respects because were going to be so young."
Burke, Grex and Prince all made considerable strides since their freshmen seasons. Burkes narrowly missed making the final of the Pac-10 1500 meters while Grex and Prince each trained hard over the summer.
"With this group, development is a huge issue," said Drenth. "Were going to make a greater impact on the conference than we have in the past and they will help us do that. To say that they are ready to be a major force is an overstatement because it just takes time and theyre young guys."
Speaking of young guys, Drenth has plenty. The list of newcomers that could make an impact is long, but its headed by Bizuneh, Buchanan, Festa and Juan Chavira.
Festa (Morro Bay, Calif.) finished third at the Foot Locker High School Cross Country Championships and was the 1997 California Division IV cross country champion. He also captured the 1997 California 3200 title with a personal-best time of 9:06.06. Bizuneh (Indianapolis, Ind.) finished fifth at the Foot Locker Finals and was the Indiana state champion in cross country (1996) and the 3200 (1998). Buchanan (Santa Maria, Calif.) finished seventh at the Foot Locker Finals and finished fourth in both the California Division II cross country finals and 3200-meter finals. Chavira (Hanford, Calif.) was an all-state performer in track and cross country and finished 3rd in the 1600-meter state finals.
Other newcomers who could make an immediate impact include freshmen Joe Agostinelli (Traverse City, Mich.), Kris Alexander (Franklin, Ind.), and Jeremy Rasmussen (Glendale, Ariz.) plus JC transfer Zack Galindo (Paradise Valley). Chad Barrett, a JC All-American last year at Paradise Valley, will redshirt this season.
"Im looking at a big impact from our freshmen, but patiently," said Drenth. "Were going to be considerably improved, but were still young. Its not out of the realm of possibility that our starting lineup by the time we get to conference and districts will be all freshmen and sophomores."
It is also quite possible that many of the newcomers will be redshirted, if not this year then in the future.
"The freshmen are not at a disadvantage to come here and run right away," said Drenth. "But, realistically, there will come a point where a good number of them will end up being redshirted. The difference between a fourth-year and fifth-year senior is huge. The difference between a third-year and a fourth-year athlete is really huge."
"You look for fourth and fifth-year kids to come through. The premise of our recruiting is that we understand that its going to be two or three years before we really start to see the fruition of having a big group thats gone through the system. Thats when you start to see some results. Now, our level of expectation has increased just because of the quality of kids weve got. When you get nationally competitive kids right from the start, youve got to push your time frame up a little. You also expect to make a more immediate impact."
While as young as the men, 18 of the 21 Sun Devils are freshmen or sophomores, ASUs women will get leadership from senior Priscilla Hein.
Hein (Dewey, Ariz.) returns to the cross country course after redshirting a year ago. In 1996, she was ASUs leading runner in every meet, finishing 25th at the Pac-10s (17:58) and earned all-district honors with a 22nd-place finish at the District VIII Championships (17:47). Duerbeck (Chamois, Mo.) was ASUs top individual in every meet last year, finishing 14th at the Pac-10 meet (17:57) and winning the ASU Invitational.
"Im looking for her to give us direction in terms of once we get in competition to be in the front quarter of every meet were in," said Drenth.
Four sophomores return from last years varsity squad: Shannon Houseman (Alto, Mich.), Kelly MacDonald (Tualatin, Ore.), Amy Maciasek (Arden Hills, Minn.) and Amanda Markland (Gilbert, Ariz.).
"All four of them should be pretty competitive contributors," said Drenth.
Of the four, MacDonald had the best conference finish last year (39th, 18:54), followed by Houseman (48th, 19:23), Markland (49th, 19:24) and Maciasek (51st, 19:36).
Reshirt freshman Eileen McGeever will compete this year after having surgery over the summer to correct compartment syndrome.
"Every time she was able to run hard with us she always demonstrated she had some ability," said Drenth. "She may be the person that by the end of the fall, they say Where did she come from?"
Cross country fans in the Valley will know where Lisa Aguilera (Peoria, Ariz.) comes from. The Centennial High School star was not only captured four individual state championships last year, she anchored Centennials 4x800 relay team to a state title.
"Lisa Aguilera has one attribute that I think is essential to being good and that is she tries to win," said Drenth. "Im excited to have her come and think she can be a big help."
Other freshmen that could have an impact by the end of fall include Lauren Anders (Medford, N.J.), Kristin McFerron (St. Charles, Mo.) Casey Schwarz (Middleton, Wisc.) and Cody Sohn (Carmel, Ind.).
"Some of them have pretty good times," said Drenth, "but are really close to having a major breakthrough and being highly competitive."
Junior Mary Duerbeck (Chamois, Mo.) will redshirt this year after undergoing surgery to remove the accessory navicular bone in her right foot. Duerbeck was ASUs top individual in every meet last year, finishing 14th at the Pac-10 meet (17:57) and winning the ASU Invitationl.
While the talent level at Arizona State has taken a dramatic step forward, an immediate vault in the conference standings is not realistic, especially considering the competition.
"Im not going to be the one to set any limits," said Drenth. "I think our first step is to become consistently competitive in the Pac-10. Whether were the first team or the last team, weve got to be involved in the competitive process. My first year, not only were we not involved, I thought we had people drop out we were so far behind. Last year, we had Sun Devils in the mix. We were at the wrong end of the meet, but at least when I was yelling at our team there were other teams around them. This year, I would expect that we would continue to improve closer to the front."
As always, it will come down to the student-athletes themselves.
"Their expectations and what theyre willing to do are going to have a lot to do with that," said Drenth. "Ive told every recruiting class I ever recruited at any school that my goals are to be as good as we can be. I want to win. If you dont like that philosophy, thats O.K., Ill go find someone who does. Can we beat Stanford or Oregon and people who are traditional national powers? Why not? Are we going to right away - that would be ridiculous. Can we in time? Why not? I guess that remains to be seen."