Replacing five of a team’s top seven runners from a year ago sounds like a tough task, but SRU head coach John Papa believes he and his team can do it.
Papa has coached Slippery Rock’s cross-country team for thirty years, so there is not a lot that he hasn’t seen before.
“We’ve had great runners before and we’ll have great runners in the future,” Papa said. “So hopefully some of the ladies on the team will take over that role (as top runners).”
The team’s biggest loss comes from graduating both senior Jenny Picot and graduate student Leah Anne Wirfel from last year’s team. Picot and Wirfel were the team’s top two runners all year long and were both All-Conference performers.
Based on what he has seen so far this year, Papa pegs junior Melissa Rains as the squad’s top runner in 2016.
“They (Picot and Wirfel) were very good runners. I don’t know that anyone’s going to actually run at their level this year,” Papa explain. “But potentially I think Melissa Rains, who had a very good track season last year, has had a great summer of training and it looks like she’s ready to be our number one.”
Rains will be one of The Rock’s top returner, having sported top 50 finishes at both the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) Championships (38) and the Atlantic Regional Championship (50) in 2015. Despite this, she says she is not feeling any extra pressure to succeed.
“I feel the only pressure is the pressure that I put on myself,” Rains said. “I want to do my best and I want to do the beast for the team that I can, but I don’t feel any added pressure put on by the people that graduated. I definitely expect myself to be up in the front of every race and help lead the team. I want to help everyone improve together and improve the team as a whole.”
The other top returner is senior Kaylee Haberkam. Haberkam finished in 44th place at the PSAC Championships and 33rd at the Atlantic Regional Championships.
Also returning is junior Caitlyn Janeda, who was SRU’s seventh finisher at the Atlantic Regional meet last fall.
A new runner Papa is excited about is sophomore transfer Courtney Group. Group comes to Slippery Rock by way of the University of Pittsburgh, where she battled injuries last year.
“I think she (Group) definitely is going to be in our top five for sure.” Papa said. “She was hurt at Pitt so she hasn’t reached her potential yet as a college runner, so I think she might be one of the ladies that replaces some of the ones that graduated last year.”
Also transferring to Slippery Rock is sophomore Madison Przicina from Point Park University. Przicina, like Group, was hampered by injuries and Papa believes, if healthy, she can be a big help to the team.
In addition to the two transfers, Papa was also able to recruit 12 incoming freshmen to the team, giving him one of the largest and youngest teams in the region.
The Rock unofficially opens its season with the annual Alumni Race and then will travel to Edinboro, Kutztown and Lock Haven over the next four weeks to compete in meets before returning home to host the annual Mark Cooper Invitational on October eighth at the Cooper’s Lake Campground.
The green and white will also compete in the PSAC Championships, which are being held in Kutztown, at the end of October and also the NCAA Atlantic Regionals, which are being hosted by SRU, at the beginning of November.
The Rock will be looking to improve on its sixth-place team finish at the PSAC Championships and its fifth-place finish at the Atlantic Regionals from a year ago.
“It would be nice if we could finish higher,” Papa said. “But we have lost a few very good runners, and the competition is pretty dang good so it’s hard to say. We can still do great with the athletes we have even if we finish behind where we were last year.”