Wildcat cross country teams are young
In five years as Baker's head cross country coach, Rob Mallinder has never had eight newcomers in one year.
It is a stark contrast to last year, when he had five seniors on the mens team and no newcomers on the womens team; when experience was the team's adjective, not potential. Now, with only one senior on the entire team, the Cats are again working on fulfilling potential.
"This is a foundation of things to come," Mallinder said.
Both the mens and womens teams have four freshmen and will have juniors as captains. Despite the youth movement, the women could fight for a championship in the Heart of America Athletic Conference.
"We'll definitely be in the top half and we could vie for the title," Mallinder said. "They'll be better than the teams that did well last year, but we don't know what those teams brought in."
One reason for Mallinder's optimism is the return of his top runners from the past two seasons -- juniors Jessica Barrand of Topeka and Blair Spencer of Alma. Spencer broke the 20-minute mark in the 5-kilometer as a freshman in 2002 and was the most valuable runner on a team that won conference and qualified for the NAIA National Championship. She nearly broke 20 minutes again as a sophomore, but was leap-frogged by Barrand, who hit 19:51 and became Baker's No. 1 runner.
Mallinder said he believed both still had plenty of untapped potential and hoped Spencer's role of captain will give her a boost.
"Now that she's an athlete that others look up to, she may step up and have a break-through season," Mallinder said.
The Wildcats also return junior Cara Langston of Tonganoxie and senior Kerry Fitzgerald of Olathe. Fitzgerald is the only teammate who was around when Baker took the conference title in 2001.
"She knows what it takes to win," Mallinder said.
Mallinder's recruiting class has two runners that will be expected to push Barrand and Spencer. Megan Vogel of Arapahoe, Colo., was the No. 2 runner for one of the top high schools in her state last season and broke 20-minutes at high altitude. Colorado is known for its great high school cross country programs.
"It will be interesting to see how she adjusts to a lower altitude," Mallinder said.
Mallinder also signed Krystal Highfill of Gardner, Casey Lemke of Atchison and Joanna Schafer of Soldier. Lemke nearly won the Class 3A state cross country title as a junior. The newcomers and returning talent have Spencer excited about the season.
"I believe we can win the conference title again if Jessica and I can get our times down and we get a couple freshmen up there with us," Spencer said.
The mens team saw a more drastic change than the women. Five of Baker's top six finishers at the NAIA Region V championship have exhausted their eligibility. The only returning runner, junior Aaron Jewell of Wellsville, redshirted in 2003.
Joining Jewell will be five freshmen. Mallinder knows what to look for when bringing so many new runners together at once after watching six newcomers battle on the men's team in 2000.
"You have to watch that they don't race each other during practice. That's the big thing," Mallinder said. "And we need to make sure they are capable of what we prescribe."
According to Mallinder, the runners will have a good leader in Jewell.
"He sincerely cares about the well-being of his teammates," Mallinder said. "He's easy to approach, laid-back and an overall good guy."
Jewell said he believed it was important for the runners not to get too caught up in the team's pecking order, and be patient with the training.
"You have to let yourself develop for the full four years," Jewell said.
Mallinder knows the team will face some hard times.
"This is a young team, and they'll have to learn from their mistakes," he said.