BETHLEHEM, Pa. – The Lehigh women’s cross country team will rely on new faces to lead the pack in order to fill voids left by the spring graduates to compete in the upcoming season. With the return of experienced runners, including senior Samantha Andersen and junior Jessica Kendzor, Lehigh is primed for 2012.
"I think the team is really excited because we have such a new dynamic going on," said head coach Debbie Utesch. "We graduated some really impactful seniors that have been leading the pack for years and we’ve really focused on different people on the team stepping up and taking on new roles."
Andersen and Kendzor will be looked upon for stability and leadership throughout the 2012 season. Andersen finished 42nd at the Patriot League Championships last season and turned in her best performance of the year when she finished fifth at the Lafayette Dual with a time of 23:03.1.
Kendzor was the Mountain Hawks’ number three performer at the NCAA Mid-Atlantic qualifier, finishing in 69th place with a time of 23:49. She also placed 35th at the Patriot League Championships, finishing in 23:42.9 and had her best performance at the Lafayette Dual, finishing in ninth place with a time of 23:09.6.
"Jess Kendzor has always been a top three performer throughout her career on cross country, but we have a lot of wildcards in the mix and it will be interesting to see how they play into the line-up," said Utesch.
Also in the mix for Lehigh will be sophomore Shannon Nelson and junior Hannah Pierce. Nelson, who recorded her personal-best time of 22:57.4 at the Lehigh Invitational in 2011, is hoping to build on a solid freshman performance. Pierce has been a constant contributor for the Mountain Hawks, finishing as the top Lehigh performer at the Open 6K Paul Short Run in 2011 with a time of 23:28, good for 43rd overall.
"Shannon Nelson had a really good freshman year for us last year and Hannah Pierce had a break-out spring track season after scoring in the Steeplechase at the Patriot League Championships," said Utesch.
The upperclassmen are intrigued by what the freshman class may bring to the table in order to help fill some of the voids left by the graduates. The five incoming freshman may be inexperienced but provide talent.
"I think everyone’s really excited to see what the freshmen can do and how much depth we’re going to have this year," said Kendzor.
As the Mountain Hawks prepare for their season opener on Friday when they host the Lehigh Invitational, Andersen believes that as the runners are able to train together again, the team’s unity and chemistry have become stronger.
"We’re all really happy to see each other again," said Andersen. "It’s a really long summer running by yourself so to be able to run again with the close group that we have is really exciting."
Coach Utesch is expecting the 2012 squad to be able to change roles and fit the new dynamic of the program, while taking an approach that focuses on not looking too far ahead and continuing to improve the overall quality of her team.
"We’re really just taking a week-by-week approach looking at each competition and what we might want to accomplish in practice as a team when it’s a weekend without a competition," said Utesch.
Utesch took a different approach to her 2012 goals meeting, challenging the team to research and set its goals instead of coach Utesch providing them. This tactic hopes to push her team to responding and exceeding the goals set by the 2012 runners.
"One of the things I charged the team with is them doing a little bit of research and developing goals," said Utesch. "I know what my expectations and goals are for the team but I wanted them to get more involved with the process this year."
One of the goals that Utesch is hoping to meet is to extend the winning streak to eight meets against Lafayette in dual competition. The streak is something the Mountain Hawks take great pride in and seek to continue in 2012.
"We’re very proud of that accomplishment," Utesch said of the streak. "The Lehigh vs. Lafayette rivalry is an incredible opportunity for both institutions to have that head-to-head competition. We definitely want to continue that streak and continue to produce a dominant legacy with women’s cross country over Lafayette."
The Mountain Hawks will seek to defend their title at the Lehigh Invitational this Friday at 5:30 p.m. Lehigh won last year’s event after placing seven runners inside the Top 13 en route to a 31-point victory over the nine-team field.